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Sometimes, a Doll is Just a Doll

5 years ago
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Once a year, usually around my birthday, my mother laments my childhood Barbie trauma. "I should have bought it for you," she says glumly. "You wanted it, and I should have bought it."

The CNN story of Stacy McBride-Irby, who created a new line of black Barbies so that her daughter could have a doll that looked like her, did remind me of how jealous I'd been of my friend Tootie's Barbie, and how, when my mother refused to buy me the doll, I went straight to the store and spent the $4.95 myself. (Where had I gotten $4.95? I was 6. I have no idea.) But it also reminded me of something our hyper-vigilant, uber-attuned, highly trained parenting culture prefers to ignore. Parents do have an influence over their children -- but it's rarely the influence they're trying to have.

There's a persistent belief that Barbie's particular mode of beauty -- freezer-pop slim, hair a bright shade of margarine -- represents a challenge to growing girls' self-esteem, especially girls who aren't white. The article quotes (unbelievably gorgeous) actress Nia Long, discussing the issue on CNN: "Historically, the Afrocentric features have not been celebrated. This makes us question the integrity of our beauty standard for ourselves."

Experts have even suggested that girls mutilate their Barbies (there's a stunning video desecration gallery on YouTube) as a mode of rejection. True, in the mutilation department, Tootie and I were no slouches. After immediately ripping off Barbie's gold evening mini, we engaged in a battery of abuse: popping limbs from her sockets, poking pin-holes in her torso, stabbing her mouth in a futile attempt to get it to open. (I was particularly bent on bending flat her perma-arched feet.)

But I think this abuse stemmed less from a preoccupation with Barbie's beauty than with the fact that she seemed to come so pre-mutilated. From the soles of her crucified feet (all the better to pin heels to, my dear) to her swiss-cheese scalp to her side-hinged, completely smooth pelvis, she was all holes and gashes where they didn't belong and none where they did. Unlike Candyland or Battleship, here we could intuit the directions. Wasn't the next move to take a knife and see if you could hack off a hand?

Which leads me to my point: how absurdly impenetrable are the motivations of children at play. Sure, we mutilated Barbie. We made her repeatedly pummel Ken. (Skipper, a tool for their twisted desires, always had to watch.) A neighbor and I gave her over to the inappropriate attentions of Snoopy, then took turns pretending we were tight-rope walking them on a two-foot wall. One day, we took every stuffed animal in the house, placed them under a blue blanket as if we were putting them to bed, and splashed water over every last one.

What were we thinking? (This may have been what Tootie's mother in fact screamed: "What were you thinking??????") I don't remember. But I'm sure it made sense to me at the time.

Some of you may remember the "Bewitched" episode in which Darren's white clients visit on Christmas and give Tabitha a white doll, her black friend a black doll, and a baby whose parentage they can't quite discern a stuffed panda. Darren and Samantha gently rebuke the couple for their racial absolutism, and as the show closes, the baby clutches the black doll, Tabitha plays with the panda and the black girl with the white doll. (Or does the black girl get the panda? This is why I would have failed the LSATs: "If three children have a panda, a white doll and a black doll to share, and each can't play with their cultural signifier...")

The episode's point was that children are too innocent to see color. (And, implicitly, that there is not way to express biracial identity without crossing species, but that's another issue.) But as a biracial panda-person, I lived in terror of someone giving me a biracial doll, or a doll that had any utility beyond dollness, for that matter. What was the adult asking me to do? Drag it out every Christmas, like an ugly grandma sweater? Confirm in my crayon thank-you it had validated my identity?

But what the episode unintentionally got right was that you can't control what children will do and feel about what you give them. Today especially, parents seem to strive for a kind of predictable exchange: Tofu-pop in, invincible child out. But giving a child a black Barbie and expecting it to make her feel beautiful is as absurd as handing a child a stuffed Orca (I had one) and expecting her to grow up to be a marine biologist. (I am not.) That kid in the corner, licking the wooden spoon? He loves it. And you will never know why.

As it happens, my mother didn't refuse to buy me the Barbie because she didn't want me to have a white doll, or she thought Barbie's physique would damage my self-esteem. She was, by her own admission, in a bad mood, and she did it to be mean. It was a bad-mother daughter moment, one that dogs us both. In the case of Stacy McBride-Irby's daugther, will it be playing with a black doll that will matter? Or will it be the fact that her mother's creation of a line of dolls was a profound act of love for her, and, by extension, a generation of girls?

I don't know. I'm still stuck on that panda.
Filed Under: Woman Up
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