Guest columnist Karen List: A history with Barbie


Published: 07-25-2023 2:44 PM

Barbie, now in a theater near you, has always been big in our family.

My sister in Iowa has several glass cases in her living room filled with the fanciest collector Barbies. All of my professional life, I’ve had a Glinda Barbie holding a magic wand on a shelf in my office.

And both my daughters loved their Barbies and the worlds they created with them. I understand the feminist critique that if Barbie were real, her tiny neck could not hold up her head, that her breasts would be too large for her own good and that her curvy body could set impossible standards that little girls might want to emulate.

But my little girls never did. They just loved playing with the Barbies and creating their own Barbie Worlds.

My daughter Emily never thought of Barbie as a role model in any way. She had plenty of those in real life. We always watched the evening news together, and night after night as we saw a sea of male newsmakers, she’d call out, “Look, Mom, there’s a woman!”

So Barbie to her was just something fun to play with. Something really fun to play with.

Emily had at least five dozen Barbies and the Barbie Dreamhouse, a bright pink plastic ski chalet. Though she found it impossible to keep her own room neat and sorted, the Dreamhouse was always kept tidy and ready for any of the Barbies who lived there in rotation.

Given how extraordinarily large it was, it didn’t come with much furniture (a bed with a foam mattress and a silky sheet, a kitchen table and chairs, a TV) so it was easier to manage than a little girl’s whole room full of books and other toys. And though it took up an amazing amount of floor space, there was still room to park the Barbies’ pink convertible and other vehicles on the west side.

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But the Barbies themselves were the stars of Barbie World. Most of them were white with blonde hair, like Emily, but she also had a Black Barbie and a Latina Barbie. They all had cool clothes and had no problem sharing them. Her godfather once gave her a Ken for Christmas, but he was forced to take him straight back to the store.

Emily’s Barbie World was Sweet and Beautiful with hundreds of pieces of clothing shared among all the dolls, who would go on fabulous outings to the theater (Emily would become an actor and a dancer), museums (Emily would become an art museum student docent) and, of course, shopping (which Emily and I loved to do together).

When Emily grew up, she passed all of the Barbie paraphernalia down to her little sister, at which time we entered Madeleine’s version of Barbie World, best described as total chaos.

Madeleine played as much with the Barbies as Emily had and even acquired a few of her own, but now every day in Barbie World involved some tragic natural disaster — a tornado, an earthquake or perhaps a tsunami.

All the Barbies, the Dreamhouse (now Nightmare House), the furniture and the vehicles moved downstairs to the playroom, where they would all be upended into a giant jumble. So that an innocent visitor coming down the stairs would be shocked to see the entire floor covered in about a foot of Barbie paraphernalia with Barbie feet, legs and arms sticking out everywhere at odd angles.

The clothing, along with the hats, shoes and bags, was scattered by the tornado or hurricane or whatever, and the Barbies themselves were all naked. The famous Barbie hair had somehow been blown straight back, almost into points, perhaps helped by some thickening agent (like glue?). Some Barbie heads had actually popped off.

The convertible was upside down, wheels spinning, the house in pieces, the furniture lost.

Madeleine never got tired of inventing new disasters for the Barbies to weather (She would become a reporter, covering similar disasters in the real world.)

And through all of these years, we also had the Barbie board game, which requires players to move their pieces around a square board. Where you landed determined the high school club over which you’d preside, what dress you’d wear to the prom and who would be your date: Poindexter (No!), Ken (No!), Bob (Maybe!) or Tom with his square jaw and black hair and glasses (Yes!).

We knew we were supposed to hope for Ken, but we felt like rebels when we hoped for Tom.

And all of the Barbies? Once Madeleine had outgrown them, I gave them to the grandchildren of a friend — two girls and a boy between the ages of 6 and 2. Their mom pulled into our driveway in a station wagon (good thinking!), and I loaded our carefully cleaned and partially restored Barbie World into the back of their car.

The Mom drove home to Vermont, unloaded it all into an empty bedroom upstairs and didn’t see the kids for three whole days. She had to bring their meals on a tray.

So the Barbies continue to be loved in their new Barbie World. We still play the board game, each of us hoping for the Theater Club, the short blue prom dress and a date with Tom. Glinda is still the star of my office.

And I have complete faith in Greta Gerwig, the brilliant writer/director of the Barbie movie, to give the iconic doll her due.

Karen List is a professor emeritus of journalism at UMass.