Ruth Handler, creator of the immensely popular Barbie doll and all its variations, trappings, trimmings, and paraphernalia, shuffled off her mortal coil recently, leaving behind a body of work surprisingly controversial for a toy maker. The apparently quite harmless and likable Handler and her toy business had taken a good deal of heat from feminists for a quarter century, as is well known, for the seriously unrealistic proportions of her great creation. As far as I can discern, however, the feminists’ complaint was and remains a really silly argument. After all, the popular G.I. Joe “action figure” — not a doll, of course! — has a pretty darn unrealistic physique himself, but you never hear the ladies complaining about that, which is awfully curious considering that a large proportion of feminists — and an even greater proportion of large feminists — look like they probably play with G.I. Joes rather regularly.
In this instance, I’m rather like the Pope doing marriage counseling, as my direct experience with both Barbie and G.I. Joe is minimal. When I was a child, Barbie was, of course, strictly for girls, as were all dolls, without exception. My buddies and I were so firm on this principle that we even refrained from playing with G.I. Joe toys, just to stay on the safe side. We had plenty of fun without them, of course, endlessly playing baseball, football, hockey, and other sports; racing our bicycles recklessly through the streets and nearby forest preserves; obliterating a steady supply of toy cars; and continually inventing new ways to injure ourselves. By the time we became particularly interested in girls, the ones by which we were enthralled were no longer very interested in dolls, and we were spared the effort and, yes, indignity, of ever having to think about Barbie and her ilk.
I presume that Barbie remains, despite the determined efforts of obsessed feminists, largely a matter for girls and only girls. Boys just don’t care much for dress-up games, except in the wearing of uniforms that enhance a little chap’s fantasies of unchecked power and the wreaking of mass destruction (such as army uniforms, Ghostbuster outfits, police uniforms, and business suits). Girls, by contrast, from my observations, do indeed seem to like dressing up, both themselves and others. My two-year-old daughter frequently astonishes me by bursting into view clad in five different and wildly clashing items in a charmingly silly, unintentional parody of the “layered look,” often changing clothes a half-dozen or more times a day, driven by whims that I am entirely at a loss to imagine. In short, the kid likes clothes.
I am convinced, moreover, that these inclinations are not socially conditioned. My daughter loved having her hair brushed when she was only a few months old; whereas in similar situations, each of my sons was absolutely sure to swat the hairbrush away or try to wrench it from his hapless parent’s grasp in an effort to sustain what he evidently saw as the beginning of a fun game of Hitting People with Hard Objects. In fact, to this day I am not sure that either of my sons has ever brushed his hair. Likewise, my boys would go about clad in loincloths or old flour sacks if we would let them, whereas my daughter has always been very picky about what she would let us dress her in — and she’s only two years old, mind you. Despite the feminists’ assertions, it is decidedly not in our interests to “condition” my daughter to develop such inclinations — quite the contrary! — but there they are, bubbling up out of some never-sleeping part of her charming little psyche.
Hence, my blissful ignorance of all things Barbie changed a few months ago, around the time when my daughter reached two years of age. Apparently having seen some reference to these sinister homunculi while watching our evil television, the little one began to babble about something called “Bowbie” and recurrently indicated her desire that we instantly equip her with a large supply of these miniature fake bimbos and some great percentage of the near-infinite variety of accessories and accouterments offered by whatever rapacious multinational corporation supplies this particular form of child-centered heroin. And now, while comfortably ensconced in my battered stratolounger and watching an incredibly unimportant NBA or MLB game or TV mystery show, I often find myself absently helping my daughter — whose fingers are actually, at her young age, even less nimble than my own graceless digits — denude a tiny, buxom, long-haired, plastic female clad in five different outfits, all of which are inside-out, backward, or both, and a surprisingly small percentage of which are actually on the correct parts of the body.
But she likes it, and that makes it all just fine with me. I’m perfectly happy to pitch in and help her out as necessary. Feminists might actually call that progress, even while they continue to complain about Barbie, but I’d rather just call it being a dad. I may not be very good at following political fashions, but I’m sure learning a lot about clothes.
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