I spent untold impressionable childhood hours playing with a Barbie doll, the protagonist of Greta Gerwig’s new blockbuster film.
Neither I nor my two neighborhood friends, Teresa and Valerie, owned the gorgeous Barbie accoutrements featured in the movie—not the dream house, not the sports car, not even any of the signature stylish outfits.
What Teresa, Valerie and I did have was exactly one Barbie each, her firm plastic flesh allowing us to play roughly with her for a very long time. I remember wrapping her in a nubby dish towel, affixed with rubber bands around her waist. I improved her makeup with markers and cut her hair with nail clippers. Elegant. I suppose the three of us may have been partly responsible for creating the movie’s Blade Runner-reminiscent Weird Barbie.
We made our own Barbie neighborhoods out of shoe boxes (which housed backyard frogs in other play sessions) set up in a big sand box under the laundry line.
I don’t remember our Barbies being doctors or presidents or flight attendants or mommies or movie stars. I remember them acting out our playground problems, from what we assumed was an adult point of view. Teresa’s Barbie was bossy, always telling my and Valerie’s Barbies how to properly play tether ball or foursquare. She even explained leg-shaving years before I would try it on myself. Valerie’s Barbie was a pleaser, acquiescing to Teresa’s Barbie’s lessons with a patient smile. My Barbie was sly, pretending to listen but really planning how to malinger against Teresa’s Barbie’s rules, a role I did later enact on the playground. Passive Aggressive Barbie.
That play time was helpful. It was fun. It was memorable.
I do know adult women who still desperately work to achieve Original Barbie’s appearance through hair coloring, implant surgery, botox, extreme exercise and other costly interventions. For a period of my life, seeing such Barbie aspiration made me hate Barbie and disrespect those women.
I’ve grown out of that. Everybody gets to play their lives however they choose. With toys, particularly those that take human shape, we can act out the dramas of our internal lives. We can use those figures to deal with our struggles and dreams through story telling.
In January 2016, I bought a collection of differently-sized Barbies and set them on my bookshelf at work like muses for my appointments. One day a student was finishing up her grading appointment at my desk and sighed. I asked her why. She pointed at the collection of Barbies on the shelf and said, I could have used a Barbie like one of those. Her voice sounded wistful. I asked her if she wanted my Barbies. Tears filled her eyes. She left that day with my curvy Barbie and friends in her backpack.
Did I like the Barbie movie? Two thumbs up. It’s smart, funny, silly, touching, authentic and fanciful. It reminds me of the play that I needed as a girl. And it’s at least as relevant as the entire universe of Star Wars, Marvel and DC figurines taking up so much space on every entertainment shelf forever and ever.