I was an awkward, rebellious teenager and my angst presented itself in many ways- none were productive or useful – but in my eyes, were entirely significant. Except they weren’t. I am pretty sure I made my parents rethink all their life choices during this phase. One of the ways that I expressed my disdain for all things expected of me was to refuse to interact or engage with Barbies. Well-meaning relatives, friends and family members would often gift these to me (for the lack of gifting options for girls, I assume), and I would resolutely stay away from the very cloying pink packages, rejecting everything Barbie and what they stood for. It turned out that a 13-year-old’s protest against Barbie gifts wasn’t causing a dent in any one’s day and so I decided to escalate matters. I would pull these dolls apart, colour their blonde hair in lurid shades of blue and neon pink and leave their heads stashed in a corner in my room. I am just surprised my mom didn’t call the authorities on me when she found Barbie heads in a heap, limbs askew and hair dyed.
As you can probably tell, I felt very strongly about Barbies. Now with the release of the Barbie movie trailer, the conversation about these dolls has picked up once again. The trailer seems interesting enough, the dolls have been given some character but also because a movie about dolls just existing in different formats with only slightly changed clothes sounds like an exhausting watch. The movie has Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken – actors who can elevate any character. I am hoping they can change my mind about the doll then. But they do have their work cut out for them, given that Barbie, for a long time, had no character arc to speak of. Also, the movie is in the very able hands of Greta Gerwig, known to be sensitive and sharp.
Barely There Barbie
One of my biggest gripes with Barbie was that she was so insipid. For a long time, Barbie stood for nothing. Actually, she barely stood. I hate to the one spouting cliches, but it’s well-known that with the proportions that the doll had, she would have to walk on all fours and wouldn’t be able to hold up her own head. It can be pretty alarming for a girl growing up watching Barbie be some sort of grotesque ideal for women. You could chew on only celery sticks for months on end and fail because her her body measurements are impossible to achieve. With that waist, she practically cannot have a liver (she was modelled on an adult doll meant for pleasure so obviously a liver was not required) The teenage me who was sprouting breasts and adding on weight and curves, being told that the bar was a Barbie body was setting me up for failure and major body image issues.
While the brand might not solely be responsible for it, stereotypes abound and girls were always “supposed” to play with dolls. Combing their hair, changing their clothes – having a Barbie required you to indulge in what were deemed “girly” interests. As a girl who was often chided to stay in her own lane, I condemned with a vehemence this need to limit my interests that suited my gender. I wanted everyone to know I was not a ‘girly girl’ (big ‘pick me’ energy, I know) and that I wanted to kick footballs instead.
Barbie’s proportions, expressions and complexion never changed, no matter what clothes she wore professionally. I remember walking in the Barbie aisle in a supermarket and seeing one in a nurse uniform that was more suited to bedroom escapades than hospital corridors. Concerning that our parents didn’t see that.
For the first few years of my introduction to the doll and the brand, everything was in the shade of cloying pink. Including the bed and the bathroom. Not going to lie, it shaped my world view of colours. And for a long time, I looked down at the colour- it was a representation of everything I was not. Barbie came out first in 1959 but the first Barbie of African American descent wasn’t introduced till 1980, 21 years later. Many countries did not spot the first Barbie of colour till many years later. If she was unrelatable because of her shape, she was even more unrelatable for her colour.
Even the most ardent fans of the doll will admit that Barbie wasn’t exactly known for her sparkling personality. There’s hardly one to speak of. When I was at the age when I was figuring out what kind of person I would be, and people were fawning over a doll whose entire claim to fame is having a body, a boyfriend and paraphernalia in the same shade of pink, that messes with you. It made you believe that you didn’t really have to be kind, generous and smart to get a footing, you just had to have props that made you look good. In that age, this also made me stay away from liking a Barbie, lest I be lumped into the same category of women who see humour, wit and intelligence as dispensable and unimportant. I wanted to be known as an interesting, knowledgable person who has a personality that shines. Things have changed since then. I certainly am not afraid of being lumped together with any kind of women. And of course, I believe I have a big personality now.
I also don’t hold Barbie in low esteem now. I think everyone should be allowed to thrive and love barbies or trucks or whatever it is that they deem fit and important. But I know this, it wasn’t always like that. Perhaps a movie about the world’s most iconic doll peppered with wit and sensitivity will change that narrative?