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I cannot remember how old I was when I got my first Barbie but it’s safe to say I was under ten, growing up in a household where wild curiosity and creativity was encouraged, before the trappings of the real world meant we had to expect otherwise. I had pregnant Barbie. I didn’t know her as Midge then, she was simply Barbie with a bump and a baby complete with snap back. At the time, at least in my household, nobody thought this weird or raised any eyebrows; I would imagine because it mimicked the way of the world that awaited us outside of the childlike bubble of protection around us; boys were being taught to be brave whilst girls were being prepared for a future of running a household, complete with children and for a time the pesky question of where do babies come from seemed to be answered by Pregnant Barbie, so she did her job. This might’ve also been a nudge by Mattel to reinforce our perceived places in wider society when we eventually entered it.
Whatever the case may be, I had pregnant Barbie and I feel vindicated because for years no one really believed me when I said I had a pregnant Barbie because who in their right mind would give a child a pregnant plastic toy? Well in the 80s and the 90s many did. And I distinctly remember playing with her more than my other Barbies because I was fascinated by her, especially how the baby was “born” she was in a protruding stomach and was removed by simply taking the baby from it, and the pregnant belly was replaced by a flat one… (I think this was the case, pretty sure it was but I may be remembering it wrong) if only labour were that seamless. We would play house and baby sitting with all the Barbies, Ken of course, and cabbage patch kids as extras. I, my cousins and my sisters.
So watching the Barbie movie stood out for me, not only for the obvious reasons of feminism and the struggle to survive in the patriarchy, there is that as an overarching theme but on a viscerally personal level, for the simple fact that it took me back to where I was, in a narrow corridor in my cousin’s home, all of us surrounded by Barbies in various state of undress, perfection, unhinged, mismatched, whilst our mothers, and it was ALWAYS our mothers, caught up with one another. We would play for hours, letting our minds run wild with different scenarios and we would put pregnant Barbie in labour, put the baby in the stroller, go for tea parties with other Barbies and Dee-Dee, Barbie’s Black friend.
Our mothers, by leaving us to our devices, allowed our imaginations run wild whilst theirs stood still; we were able to shine (to paraphrase Rhea Pearlman in the movie) they put their dreams on hold and gave us this avenue to dare to dream aided by a plastic fantastic dreamworld, populated by dolls who for the most part looked nothing like us, except Dee-Dee of course.
For a time, our lives revolved and remained transformed by Barbie and Ken who always needed that appendage to be involved, otherwise, as the movie alludes, he simply was one of the many Kens and even if Barbie was one of many, she was still THE doll whose image and whole self, whomever she chose to be, revolved around no one. (No sorry I don’t remember Allan, but I vaguely recall Skipper?). This was one of the pivotal and material ways our mothers cared for us; by arming us with stereotypical Barbie, Nurse Barbie, Rock star Barbie, Policewoman Barbie, Doctor Barbie… subliminally, in my opinion many decades later, as I look back, informed us that our lives could be ours and we could be anything we wanted to be, that we had choices unlike them, in a world systematically rigged against us. In a world that would seek to make us believe that we needed the “Mrs” prefix and a man’s name to be somebody. Barbie came along as showed us, that we had other options. It was their way of getting us unstuck from a cycle that repeatedly informed assertions that we needed the power of a mate for our lives to matter. That we needed a mate by which we would then be defined in our whole selves, and they did not want that for us hence through playing Barbie, we found things we were good at or not so good that, that could challenged our imaginations.
Don’t get me wrong, I have my fair share of problems with Barbs, I am not fully enamoured of her resurgence. Barbie was highly problematic, and I have talked about those problems with the advent of a new line of Barbies, when Mattel wanted to beat those charges… you know the ones, they are never going to beat them by the way. Her dialogue stilted from the box, her image was bad for our health and beauty standards… all of these things the movie seeks to address and to a great extend does so with much aplomb, and something that feels like an introspection of who they are and how far they have come. Rhea Pearlman’s character puts a lot of this into context for us and tries to bring back the conversation to the root of the creator of Barbie who simply wanted to create something for her daughter at the time. I wanted to be a teacher and for a long time the Barbies were my students and boy was I an awful teacher, but I remember those days.
Of course, the sider and more obvious social construct was at play; boys in blue, girls in pink, boys play with trucks and police cars and girls played with dolls and played house but there was a whisper of wild imagination and creativity that went a long way, maybe even farther to reshape our narrative and guide that well trodden path to womanhood and whole selves in society.
When people wonder what the hype about the movie is or they don’t get it, its simply not for them because the girls that get it, get it. Explaining it to them will defeat the purpose of the movie and it is simply too complicated a task to deconstruct because to everyone Barbie’s story is personal in how she affected their lives, our lives. Despite the shared camaraderie. And for the critiques who would seek to denigrate the movie with their think pieces and opinions; we don’t care because this movie is not for you.
This movie is for a specific audience and possibly a way to reintroduce her to a new set of cohorts, but this was for those of us who were involved in Barbie’s renaissance, that saw her much more than the stereotypical Barbie, that saw her evolve beyond the simple narrative- in every pink box, complete with outfit- of who she was not; an idea created, and who she was; the creator of her life, on her terms, and by extension ours. And in this particular way, gave us a chance to thank our mothers, to let them know that we see them, we always saw them back then, their presence shaping our lives, even if we didn’t want it to, there was a comfort knowing your mother would always have your back and always want you to shine. It was a way for us to thank our mothers for the thankless job of raising us to be girls who dreamed of being the women we are today, and on our terms making sure we could walk in heels as high as the Barbie’s perfectly arched feet but allowing us to believe we can simply throw on our Birkenstocks for balance should we so wish. Our mothers gave us that.
And justice for pregnant Barbie!