The other morning at breakfast, Owen said something about Barbies. I forget the context. I just remember stopping, because we don’t have any Barbies here and they seem a bit mature for anyone in his daycare class to be playing with.
I said, “What’s a Barbie, Owen?”
Wait for it:
“A Barbie is a mermaid what doesn’t have a fishy tail.”
And of course when I heard that definition, I thought: how perfect. In Owen’s world, most of the women are mothers, looking very little like Barbies. Fashionistas and models just aren’t on his radar. But mermaids are, I guess, thanks to books like the pirate one we were reading.
Then later that day, at daycare, Owen picked up a stray mermaid from one of his friends’ cubbies.
“Why she no have any feet, Mummy?”
I liked that, too. Didn’t someone do a study that showed that, anatomically, Barbies wouldn’t be able to stand?
Of course, whenever I see a Barbie, I am transported back to my own childhood, when a Barbie was the first toy I ever bought with my own money, a forbidden toy for a bunch of reasons, including child labour and unnatural foot to hip ratio.
But once I had a Barbie, or several, I played with them not in the way that my mother expected, or feared, but I translated them into the heroines of my imagination. They became pioneer Barbies, an odd hybrid of Scarlett O’Hara and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Or they would be consumptive Barbies, coughing up blood on a lonely cot by the wood stove. Looking back, it is no wonder to me that I ended up spending ridiculous amounts of time studying women in the nineteenth century.
It’s reassuring to me, somehow, that for all the millions (billions?) of dollars Mattel has spent over the years advertising Barbies, their cars, their houses, and their lifestyles, for most of us, it’s just a doll.
What’s a Barbie? Like so many toys: a blank canvas on which to project our own world views. And on some level, I think Owen’s interpretation is the best one I’ve ever heard. A Barbie IS like a mermaid without a tail, on so many levels. That’s why she casts her Siren’s spell on so many children. She’s a mythical woman, desirable and unattainable. And it also explains why her feet must hurt to walk on.