March 2, 2010

Happy, Happy Birthday Barbie! (Or, In Defense of the Doll)

In case you hadn’t heard, March 2009 was the month of the 50th birthday of the longest-standing winner of the crown of Most Ambiguous Idol of Women’s Power – BARBIE! And, it’s also Women’s History Month (Irony? Or Not? You decide.)

In honor of the grande dame’s 51st, I begin my tribute with a little piece on the Plastic Priestess from Sexy Witch (LaSara FireFox, Llewellyn, self-help/nonfiction, 2005), chapter two, on self-esteem. From there, much commentary as a recognition and celebration of changing feminist values and views.

In Defense of the Doll: The Barbie Revolution
Barbie has gone from being a vapid example of how women are “supposed to be,” to being the most successful female in America. Barbie has had 95+ careers, has been created in 45 different nationalities. And, has busted through the glass ceiling on many frontiers. Launched in 2004: White House Barbie!

With any luck, we mortals will soon catch up with this versatile plasticine character.
– Sexy Witch

Flashback to the late ’80s, and My Long, Long Journey Towards Respecting Barbie:

With a spotty family history (I’ll spare you the drama), and the fervor of Take Back the Night, I stepped into adulthood at the tail-end of the 2nd Wave, and a chip on my shoulder the size of…well, the size of womanhood itself, and the ills heaped upon it (or, us), I guess.

  • At 18 I started body building, and learned self-defense techniques that made it possible for me to kill a man with my bare hands.
  • At 19, I shaved my head, wore boy-clothes, and started walking, talking, and f*cking like a man. Anything HE could do, I could do better – f8ck the “high heels and backwards” part! I wore combat boots. (Didn’t we all?)
  • At 21, I worked as the only female employee in a moving company of 130+, and became one of the guys. Worked twice as hard for half the respect, yada yada yada.
  • Yeah. A lot of men were ass3s. And yes, gender was bu77sh1t. And yes, shaving my head, the confidence of knowing how to kill “a perp,” and the strength to lift a washing machine single-handedly made it possible for me to pass as a guy with confidence, and do all sorts of stuff that girl’s (yep, even most “riot grrrls”) couldn’t, or wouldn’t do.
  • And as a redhead, shaving your hair off is a sure-fire way to find out who’s been objectifying you!
  • At least, that’s how I felt when men talked to me eye to eye instead of eye to breast. Then there were the friends who bailed – I figured to he77 with ’em, if they can’t take the “real” me.

Result: I hated men more, loved myself less…and slowly, overtime, found a long and winding path towards my own healing, from the inside out.

  • First, I made gender my own.
  • Then I started the process of making peace with my body and its female vulnerabilities.
  • Then, I began the (still-challenging) work of making peace with men, and the fact that they truly COULDN’T (and can’t) understand what it was like to be a woman.

Not their fault. Not always a comfortable truth, but a truth all the same

Just like the fact that I can’t understand what it’s like to be a woman from Chiapas. I can empathize. I can listen to her life stories. I can do what I can to put myself in her shoes. But I cannot know what it is like to BE her.

I learned, and as I learned I taught. I taught workshops. I taught classes. I had debates – formal and informal. I wrote articles.

In the midst of it all, I became a mom.

As a strong, some might even say extremist, feminist, what changed my mind about Barbie?

My daughter was a Daughter. A Daughter, with a capital “D”. Delicate, pale shell of an inviolable (please god, please – prayer whispered again and again) holy of holies. Alabaster skin, tiny ankle, long, fine fingers.

It was as if she were born with a very “traditionally feminine” tenderness. Holding her felt like holding a fragile china doll, with a pulse – one I was entirely responsible to protect from a hard world.

My little one’s fragility announced itself like a metaphorical pink bow tied around her mostly-hairless head – it was like she had an extra x chromosome, just for good measure.

And who knows? Maybe she does? Human genetic sex is a spectrum that contains 47 possible combinations of Xs and Ys.

Even before my eldest daughter’s birth, I had Rules (with a capital “R”) about how she’d be raised. No gender-based gifts, no pink clothes, no dresses. The then-hubby and I hand-dyed “baby pink” and “baby blue” cotton infant shirts black. (Back in ’97 there were no hip, punk-rock baby shops.) We gave her dolls, but made sure she had tractors, too.

But then the damnedest thing happened; my daughter started speaking for herself. Very early. And very – you guessed it – outspokenly. At about seven months.

One of her first favorite words was “pretty.” And, it referred to anything pink.

I loosened up. She LIKED dresses. She loved pink ones the most. Especially ones with tutus, frills, and bright colours. So, bit by bit, along came the wings, and the wands, and the tulle, and the ballet shoes. The girly summer sandals.

I still held on to the “no Barbies” rule. For a very long time. It was a point of reference for me. Something to hold on to.

Against all the ribbing, joking, cajoling, I held on. The Beauty Myth. Anorexia. Bulimia. High heels. Tiny waists. Huge breasts. Make up. Etc. I was afraid of the impact the plasticine queen would have on my – already SO female – daughter.

When she was two-and-a-half, my precocious one asked; “Mom, why can’t I have a Barbie?” She was (is) quite a sharp cookie, and a little pitcher with some big ears! I took a breath, and said “I’m afraid she’ll make you feel badly about yourself.” Her response?

“Mommy, she’s just a doll!” I swear to this day that her voice had a slight edge of disbelief that I could ever be quite so silly.

She won that argument, hands down.

My daughter taught me something in that moment. Sometimes a doll IS just a doll.

And over the years of welcoming Barbie into my family in her many guises, the lovely lady has taught me a few things, too. My girls and I especially loved the Witch Barbies a couple of Halloweens ago. But the greatest sight by far has been the Barbie knock-offs you find in the Middle East. These lovelies sing Middle Eastern Disco, and wear hijab – a hair covering traditional for women in Muslim culture.

The latest of Barbie’s 95+ careers? CEO. To shed some light on that, The Onion has a wise (ass), and very relevant article on the topic.

Yes, the pink-collar ghetto is still a real thing. Women still make less than men, on average, across the board. The statistical nexus where gender, sex, race, education, motherhood and the market place converge are so convoluted that only economists can do them justice.

And, even at that, there’s HUGE debate about the gender-wage-gap, it’s origins, and possible solutions.

So here I’ll site only a couple of stats I can recall off the top of my head: a white woman, on average, makes about .75 for each $1 a white man makes. That is a quarter less per dollar. $25 less for every $100. $250 less for every $1000. .75 cents on the dollar is a big deal.

The largest wage gap is between white men, and Mexican and Hispanic women. If I remember correctly, the gender-wage-gap is lowest between Mexican and Hispanic men, and Mexican and Hispanic women. (Probably because Mexican and Hispanic men make damn near nothing!)

In all this truth, thank God for Barbie. God bless her, from her misshapen little feet, to her plastic space helmet, to her smart, strong, suits, to her new measurements. Sure, she’s still got an “unrealistic” bod. So does Angelina Jolie, and I love her none-the-less!

To grossly reduce the parody The Onion offers, Barbie’s careers are seemingly “unrealistic”, too. Fer chrissake, in 1979, there was a black Barbie for President doll! That’s a big deal, too.

Some kinds on “unrealistic” are good. Women getting the vote was, at one time, unrealistic. The civil rights movement? World peace…

Unrealistic doesn’t mean impossible. Sometimes unrealistic is just a challenge that spurs us on.

In Barbie’s world, your worth isn’t based on whether you’re married by the time you’re thirty – as a matter of fact, Barbie’s never been married. In her world, a woman can have any career she wants – or even a whole bunch of them! And she’s no less beautiful, womanly or feminine as a surgeon than as a nurse. And no less strong as a nurse than as a surgeon.

With luck, some perseverance, and some “unrealistic” dreaming, perhaps someday it’ll be so in our world, too.

I trust our girls to know which elements to strive to change, and where to put their focus.

It’s our responsibility not to irresponsibly bare our wounds, hand our daughters the glass ceilings that held us down, or limit their reaching for the sky, the scalpel, or even the Malibu spa.

And, it’s our responsibility to have the conversation about body image, health, self-acceptance, self-love, and self-esteem over and over again. Even more, it’s our responsibility to model that health for them.
And surely, that conversation does not begin, nor end, with Barbie. After all, she’s just a doll.

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