There was Barbie last week on the cover of this year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and the Mattel Company has thrown down the gauntlet and declared itself "unapologetic".
Now, I'm not sure exactly what Mattel is unapologetic for: the fact that they've allowed one of their products to be used on a racy magazine cover or the product's existence in the first place. Speaking strictly for me, I think they actually should apologize for putting Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated in her bathing suit. But certainly not for having invented her. Because I love Barbie dolls. I always have.
My first sighting of a Barbie was in a black-and-white TV commercial 55 years ago: I remember so clearly the sweet female voice describing the doll with her outfits, sunglasses and tiny wedge sandals while the camera zoomed in on the details. It was love at first sight for me, and from that moment it became my heart's constant desire to have a Barbie doll. I remember lying in bed at night thinking about Barbie and her tiny wedge sandals. I couldn't wait until my 8th birthday to arrive, and ultimately I didn't have to; so Barbie-centric had my life become that my mother folded and took me out to buy my birthday Barbie well in advance of the day just to give us all a little peace.
Nor, apparently, was I the only little girl swooning for a Barbie; I may have been the first on my block to acquire one, but very soon we all had our dolls and our outfits and were busily at work playing Barbies.
Facial features and physical proportionality aside, the beauty of the Barbie doll as a plaything was that each one was built exactly the same and wore the same size outfits; therefore these dolls became a means of social connection and communication among little girls, a shared culture and language.
"Come over to my house and bring your Barbies," we said, offering and accepting from each other invitations that were the bonds of established friendships, as well as try-outs for potential new friendships. We shared each others' outfits and engaged in what is now labeled as cooperative play. Or sometimes, of course uncooperative play. I remember even at 8 years old developing a liking or disliking for a girl based on how she played Barbies. And then some girls were just more fun to play Barbies with than others.
As for the theory that Barbie's looks and unrealistic body build promotes poor self or body image in girls*...you know, among us little girls that statement would have made no sense, and even if it had it still would not have computed in our young brains. I'm not saying that the seeds of low body esteem can't be planted in anyone from day one; I'm just saying that they weren't being planted in us by playing with our Barbies.
Because our Barbies belonged to us, not we to them; they were our toys, our possessions, things of artistic beauty in our little hands, the prettier the better. Subsequently our Barbies became our creations: we dressed them as we pleased, we made up scenarios for them to act out, gave them thoughts, gave them dialogue, breathed life into them.
Therefore our Barbie dolls functioned as any good toy should, by engaging our minds, hands, and imaginations.
Nor can one compare the function of a Barbie doll to that of a baby doll. Baby doll play was more specialized: with our baby dolls we played the role of a mother caring for a child. With our Barbies we created grown-up (or our idea of grown-up) rolls for the dolls to play.
Of course I realize that not every little girl likes playing Barbies. One of my daughters, Theresa, had absolutely no use whatsoever for Barbies, and I imagine the women who object to their daughters playing with Barbies were, as children, of the same persuasion as my Theresa. Which is fine. Lots of other toys on the planet, right? But me, I loved my Barbies.
Tomorrow I'll continue on this subject with an exegesis on the role of Barbies in my middle-school journey.
*Interestingly, I've never heard the same concern for the psyches of boys who play with those ripped, big -muscled plastic action figures.