Sunday, August 2, 2009

Barbie Wasn't Gettin' Any and Ken Got No Head

Last week while cleaning out the basement, I stumbled upon the relics of my childhood. Actually, I didn't stumble at all. I purposely dug through the collection of boxes until I found those containing my childhood memories. While hormones, alcohol and aging have wiped out much, if not most, of my actual memories, I knew these few precious boxes had been carefully packed away to ensure instant memory archive retrieval. I have moved them countless times from place to place, refusing to even consider letting them go. I have a card catalog in my head containing the items residing in those clear plastic bins.

There's china - real china - from my tea set collections, an old basketball uniform with Harlem Globe Trotter-esque red, white and blue striped shorts. There are tattered pom pons, yearbooks, jewelry boxes complete with my chokers, bracelets and rings circa 1976. I have a shoe box full of poetry written throughout my childhood. The poems are numbered and the index is scribbled in pencil on the lid of the shoe box (yes, I was organized even back then). There are photos and scrapbooks - not like the scrapbooks of today - mine are all glue, hodge podged and magic marker-ee.

I saved a few special dolls hoping to pass them down to my girls but upon further inspection I realized they are not up to today's standards. They don't do anything, natta, absolutely nothing at all. My girls looked at them with curiosity, gave them a token bit of affection then promptly tossed them aside. Undaunted, I kept searching. Then I found the most unlikely of treasures, the cream of the crop, the piece de resistance - there it was - the white and blue case with the vintage floral design on the cover - it was the World of Barbie double doll case for Barbie and her friends.

I could hear the angels sing.

I opened the case to find Barbie and her friends a little worse for the wear. Barbie had developed hip problems and lost both her legs, Ken's head pops off and on (mostly off) and poor Skipper had suffered at the hands of a seven year old armed with scissors - that would be me. But the fashions, oh the fashions....they were all there.

Ken had his business suit/tuxedo, his scuba gear, his pajama ensemble complete with slippers and his psychedelic shirt and faux leather fringe vest. I remember thinking Barbie was so lucky to have a hot boyfriend like Ken. He was willing to marry her nearly every single day. For me and my friends, that's what Barbie and Ken did. They got married and they "played house". At the end of a long day filled with horseback riding and getting married or scuba diving and getting married, they would change into their PJ's and slip off to bed together, which usually meant we were ready to play with something else. Barbie and Ken kissed but that was it. Come to think of it, given his love of shopping with Barbie, keeping the house neat and always looking so perfectly groomed - never a hair out of place, I wonder if Ken wasn't gay.

Barbie had her wedding dress and veil, her complete snow skiing ensemble, her fur trimmed business suit with high gold lame' boots; multiple jumpsuits and ball gowns; go-go boots and fish nets in every color; a June Cleaver looking yellow dress (pearls included); and of course, her nighty. My, oh my, that was one sexy piece of lingerie Barbie was sporting. It was a peach colored satin nightgown with a lace bodice that left nothing to the imagination. Ward Cleaver never had it this good and unfortunately, it was most likely wasted on Ken. Wonder what my mom and dad thought of Barbie's super short, tush-baring, Frederick's of Hollywood creation?

Skipper was first introduced in 1964 as a preteen little sister for Barbie. As wholesome as milk and cookies, Skipper had an innocent appeal. Her fashions were spunky and hip; yet, they managed to provide plenty of coverage, if you know what I mean. Like her big sister, Skipper had a thing for gay guys. Both she and her best friend, Skooter, loved hanging out with the boy next door. His name was Ricky. You can judge for yourself but tell me Ricky isn't ten shades of gay.

All of my Barbies are from the "Mod Years" of the Barbie historical collection. The mod years represent one of the most tumultuous times in our country with sexual revolution, the Vietnam war, protests against the government, mainstream drug use and women's liberation. Barbie and Ken's daily wear would hint they were a part of these movements. Barbie wasn't wearing any bras. They both had outfits suggesting they participated in anti-war rallies - seriously, where else was Ken going to wear that psychedelic shirt and fringe vest? Yet, the Barbie and Ken I knew were only interested in adventure sports, travel and of course, getting married.

This is vastly different than the way my beautiful seven-year old twin daughters engage in doll play today. I have bought them Barbie dolls but honestly, I don't think they know what to do with them. Barbie's seem to all come with a theme these days. There is Island Princess Barbie and Fairytopia Barbie, Skating Sensation Barbie and on and on. The dolls are based on a lucrative franchise of Barbie movies. Essentially, girls don't need to create stories anymore - they come to them with their stories all packaged up neatly in a DVD case.

To me, this is an interesting evolution, considering the creator of Barbie, Ruth Handler, observed her daughter playing with paper dolls while imagining them as adults. She sensed a need for girls to have options other than baby dolls. Thus, Barbie was born in 1959. I don't know why my pretend play centered around marriage; afterall, it was 1969 - Barbie should have been happy to remain single. Whatever the reason, it is safe to say Ruth Handler was on to something.

The other options my girls have today is the proliferation of Hannah Montana dolls, High School Musical dolls and of course the you-will-never-own-one-as-long-as-I-am-alive-Bratz dolls. Mattel must be losing market share to those slutty Bratz dolls. Their latest Barbie's are sporting darker makeup, lower back tatoos and even leather chaps for their Harley. Am I the only one who finds the image of this Barbie a little scary? She would have bitch slapped Ken the minute he suggested she wear her pink sleeveless dress to the mall.

They don't really have a normal Ken doll either. Today there is Ken as James Bond, Captain Kirk, Legolas (from the Lord of the Rings), Superman, Prince Charming and even Ken as Shaggy. Barbie is not going to want to marry any of these characters. In 2006, they came up with a "new look" Ken doll. New look, my ass. They took one of those little high school musical teeny-bopper dolls and slapped a Ken head on it. Suddenly, Ken is a teenager. My Ken was muscular - he could fly planes and he owned a tuxedo. In fact, Ken disappeared from the market in 1967 and did not reappear until 1969 with a beefier, more muscular body. Some speculated he went off to war. My Ken was a man and Barbie loved him (gay or not).

I have watched my girls role-play with their doll collection for several years now. One of my favorite things to do is get within earshot of them and listen in without them knowing I'm there. I do this because once I am seen, they want me to join in; thereby spoiling my opportunity to hear them freely, spontaneously and delightfully pretend. It is a marvelous wonder of nature to witness identical twins engaging in pretend play. They are so in tune with each other, they can assume a role and let it flow for hours. They never stop to discuss story lines, assign new roles or argue about who gets to be Sharpay. They just pick up the dolls and let it flow.

So you can imagine how excited I was at the thought of watching these two dialog with my tattered conglomeration from the blue and white box. I sat down with them at the kitchen table, spread everything out and began to sort through the outfits. I had to explain fishnets, go-go boots and bell bottom pants. They actually loved the colorful fashions. I gave them a mini-tutorial on the characters. Barbie, Ken- the boyfriend and Skipper -the little sister. Then I let them have a go at it.

Over the next few days, they played with them on and off. It seemed to take them a little while to warm up to the idea of these ordinary dolls who came to them with no preordained storyline. Then one evening as I was busying myself with various chores, I was stopped dead in my tracks when I overheard them putting on the wedding dress and tuxedo. They were preparing for nuptials. I never once heard them planning a wedding for Troy and Gabriella, certainly Hannah Montana never thought of walking down the isle; yet, here they were snapping Barbie's legs back into place and popping Ken's head back on while dressing them in their wedding ensembles!

I dropped my laundry basket, tripped over the coffee table and literally leaped to the end of the couch where I could be positioned to hear them. The wedding was short and sweet, very little fanfare or ceremony - just a couple of "I do's" and then it was off to change into their nightwear. They were obviously tired. By this time, I am hanging over the arm of the couch, stretching my body outward and twisting it around the corner to the dining room as far as I can without injuring myself. I'm thinking I have just been given a unique opportunity to delve into what, if anything, my precious little girls know about a husband and wife going to bed together, and on their honeymoon no less:

Here's how the dialog ensued:

Barbie - That was a nice wedding.
Ken - Yes it was but I'm tired - are you ready for bed yet?
Barbie - I like your pajamas Ken.
Ken - I like yours too (remember Frederick's). Where's the bed?
Barbie - (Loudly) You were supposed to buy the bed!
Ken - Sorry Barbie, I didn't have any money to buy the bed.
Barbie - Why not, what have you done with all your money?
Ken - I spent it all on beef jerky.

At that moment, I was outed. My laughter caused me to darn near fall off the couch. I ran into the dining room and hugged them both. They had been married for less than ten minutes and they were already arguing. They were arguing over money - perhaps a little too close to home. And what's with the beef jerky? Nobody in our house eats beef jerky - where did that come from? Oh well, at least Barbie seemed to have her act together. It was Ken who was the deadbeat.

What is the lesson we learn from all of this? Is it good for kids today to only have their innocent teenage dolls with ready-made dialog or was it better when I was a little girl pretending to be a grown up with an exaggerated propensity to get married? History now reflects I did, in fact, get married a few times too many. I am glad I kept those old Barbie dolls. Perhaps what we learn is that to keep - means to keep tradition - to throw away would be to forget the experiences that have molded us. I don't know which kind of pretend play is better. I would like to think it's better to nurture imagination that to package the stories for our children. But who knows? After all, imagination sure got Ken into trouble by exposing his beef jerky habit.

Listen to the imaginings of children - you will learn and be inspired either way.


  1. I have loved you since the late 70s. But now I love you in that flesh colored plastic, acrylic hair, fringed vest, barbie legs on Ricky way.

  2. hi there!!!

    i loved reading your story about finding your old barbies & which ones you had. i have always loved barbie. and i especially think the "mod" era dolls are the prettiest by far!!! but sadly, i had the "superstar" era dolls. i would have much preferred the "mod" era with their rooted eyelashes. they just looked so much prettier to me. but i do love my "superstar" era dolls too.

    i actually had 2 different "barbie" stashes when i was little (probably the result of havinng parents who were divorced). one stash i had at my grandma c's (dad's mom's house) and one i had at my house (with my mom, lil' brother, 2 aunts & 3 cousins my age). and now that i think about it, my barbie stash that i had at my grandma c's house, i don't know what ever happened to them??? cuz i don't have them now that i am an adult. i think maybe one of my younger cousins must have ended up claiming them during the 2 years that my mom moved us out of state? yeah, that must have been what happened cuz i was turning 12 years old when we moved out of state and we were gone for 2 years. so, when i came around, i was 14 years old. and i wasn't thinking about my barbies then.

    but luckily somehow, i managed to move my barbie stash from my house, to my other grandma lily's & grandpa pilo's house (where i had started a new barbie stash, when i would go to their house for the summers). and to this day, i have most of them dolls, but there are a few that i remember having that are not in my collection. i don't know what happened to those ones though??? but my grandma would buy me & my cousin the same dolls and we would have to pay attention to their details to be able to tell our dolls apart. and we were older too. i would say like from the age of 9 to 11 (or so).

    you know, now that i am remembering my barbies (cuz i guess; age, hormones, and alcohol are playing their roles on my memory too) i had forgotten about my barbie stash i had at my grandma c's house {back in california}).

    anyway, sorry to have rambled on but i just had to tell you how much i enjoyed reading your barbie story & seeing your old barbie picture.

    take care & it was a real pleasure reading your story.

    christina ;o)


Thanks for stopping by. I would love to hear from you.