Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Barbie and Ken Years

Okay, so if my earliest years and earliest images of relationships were built by the connections I had with my parents and by watching them together, the more formative years were built by the images on TV and the stories I read -- and the dolls I played with . . . how sad.
Those TV families I mentioned earlier built the impression that we would all be wonderfully happy if the moms would stay home wearing shirtwaist dresses and crisply-starched aprons, their hair permanently in place (thanks to hairspray that we didn't know damaged the ozone layer), the breasts abnormally pointy (thanks to killer bras) and their feet jammed into high heels that definitely weren't meant to be worn while making dinner for a family of five. 
The stories we read during the 1950s and 60s were just as damaging, even though they were delivered under the guise of being fairy tales. Let's face it, Cinderella was a housewife, even though she never had an electric stove. She cleaned as many kitchens, swept as many floors, and did as many chores as those women we watched on TV (probably more). The only difference was that she was doing all those chores for women (her stepmother and stepsisters), while the TV housewives did their chores for husbands and children. Why was Cinderella's fate so drastically different? We all felt bad for her, but we didn't feel any compassion whatsoever for women (like my mother) who stayed home for their families day after day.  And look at who Cinderella got -- the perfect male. Good looking, rich, in a position of prominence in the town, and, of course, devastatingly, hopelessly in love with her.   Our mothers might have gotten decent men, but Prince Charming they were not!
Here's another fairytale maiden: Snow White -- rescued from death by a man's kiss. Another devastatingly beautiful, fine specimen of a man, who was going to rescue her from the most dysfunctional family ever: an evil stepmother that wanted to cut her heart out and seven of the weirdest little dudes in the history of fiction.
Then we have Sleeping Beauty. The poor girl just wants to close her eyes and forget it all, but again, the guy (yet another prince -- how many of them were there in the olden days anyway?) finds her in that dusty, cobwebbed castle, and kisses her, waking her up and sweeping her away from that horrible lifestyle.  (Men must love taking advantage of the women who are simply out of it.) And, again, another devastatingly handsome, wealthy, privileged guy carrying her away from her troubles.
All of these fairytale princesses were both beautiful and sweet and exceedingly happy to have their Prince Charmings,  a pretty solid basis for failure for any of us 'normal' women growing up in the innocent Fifties.
Why should it surprise me that we fell into the Barbie trap so completely?
Here comes the doll that all the little girls (who won't sprout breasts for at least another five years) beg for from their parents. An impossible figure: that waist was so tiny, she couldn't have hidden an extra spoonful of anything fattening, never mind breathe properly. Boobs so large for her figure that, in real life, she would have been stooped over with the additional weight. And those first Barbies didn't even have real hair!  Their molded upswept hair defied the worst tornadoes.  And those molded, made-up cat's eyes.  Do you think Elizabeth Taylor modelled for them?
I was probably 7 years old when my parents bought my first Barbie doll -- and it wasn't even the real deal. No Mattel Barbie for me. I got  an imitation of the original, and like any other kid influenced by commercials for the real deal, I was upset with my parents that they had given me a simple fake. Gotta give it to them -- this one really looked like an original. She had the same painted on cat's-eyes, the same molded hairstyle, the same impossibly out-of-proportion figure. But the fake had knife-sharp seams in her plastic legs and along her arms, as if she just came out of the mold, and she was physically lighter in weight than the real Barbie. Barbie had a rubbery heft to her that made it obvious she wouldn't wear out early. My doll was light and a bit on the brittle side, as if when I worked her legs and arms, they would simply break off if I moved them too quickly.
And she did break. By the end of the first week, the Fake Barbie's head loosened and popped off. My grandmother was mortified when I continued to play with the doll without a head. It was almost like the doll was human and my grandmother wanted to turn me in for beheading the poor thing. She did everything she could to fix my doll, including asking Grampie for help, but there was no way the head was going to stay on the doll.   So, I played with this big-boobed, tight-waisted doll that had three changes of clothes and tiny mule shoes that attached to her feet with a tiny plug.
By that time, my Fake Barbie and I had connected. I wanted to keep her. She had clothes I could change her into, legs and arms that still worked. Besides, I had no replacement. 
But within a week, Nana saw to it that I had a replacement (I really think I freaked her out by playing with a headless doll), and along with the Official Barbie, I received a Real Ken. But I kept the Fake Barbie, and when no one was looking, the Real Ken and the Fake Barbie (with or without the head) went on dates. I wanted to prove to myself that even a woman/doll with faults could still get the devastatingly handsome guy, but even I couldn't get that past the Fake Barbie. She knew the Truth. So did the Real Ken.
And, I think that after a while, the real me also knew the truth. Some men wanted to be there for me no matter what, while others couldn't have been bothered. One thing's for sure: I knew that the Fake Barbie's head was the most important part of her body because that's where her brain was. And even though she might not have the brain everyone thought she should, she was the person I counted on. Ironically, she ended up being more real -- faults and all.

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