When my family moved to the States, I was 9. That year, someone gave me a Barbie. It was a Malibu Barbie, and I remember being a little embarrassed at how scantily she was clothed. (We had come from Europe, and back then, at least, the dolls were quite overdressed. At least Barbie’s big, hard boobs were not a shock to me, as I already owned some well-endowed flamenco dolls.) Soon after that, someone else gave me the standard Barbie with a regular outfit. Eventually I had a small collection of Barbies of various hair colors and styles, and I enjoyed playing with them.
And then someone—a generous individual with the best of intentions, I’m sure—gave me a Ken doll. Ken came into our (the Barbies’ and my) lives dressed in slacks, a polo shirt, and yes, a sweater tied around his neck. (Again, not a shocker for a kid from a European country, but even I knew that this was not the manliest look.) He was as tan as Malibu Barbie, but his hair was hard plastic. I remember being bummed about that.
The hard hair and the cheesy grin, the pansy outfit… the Barbies and I were turned off. When I got old enough to want Barbie to go on dates, I put Ken aside and reached for Spider-Man, the tall one that was supposed to shoot webs but really it was this plastic string you had to yank out of his wrist. He was as stiff as a board and one arm was perpetually up, but he was still more dateable than Ken. The raised arm was used to hold her coat or to hail cabs.
Another interesting boyfriend my Barbies had was Darth Vader. The 15-inch doll with fabric cape. He was a stud. He did not look studly without the cape—kind of big-headed and pathetically vulnerable, in fact—but he was gallant enough to let Barbie wear it when they took walks on chilly nights. She looked fierce in it, very goth.
When one Barbie went out on a date with Spidey or Darth, the other Barbies would stay home. With Ken. I did not know the terms “gay” or “metrosexual” back then, but I had an inkling that Ken would prefer helping the girls pick out outfits over trying to kiss them. (Not that any of my Barbies got kissed much, since their dates wore unremovable masks and helmets.) At some point, I made him Malibu Barbie’s brother, a permanent house guest at the Barbie sorority house, and then, one day, when my mother was rounding up some toys to give away, I volunteered him. The Barbies didn’t even miss him.
I learned that mine were not the only Barbies having a hard time finding a mate. One of my friends used a statuette from her mother’s curio cabinet (some kind of metal Civil War bugler) as a stand-in for Ken. A friend from college once told me that when she was a kid, she cut the hair off a Brooke Shields doll and turned her into Barbie’s husband.
Barbie has been involved in several controversies and weathered much criticism over the decades (the Teen Talk Barbie “Math class is tough!” fiasco in the ’90s, for example, and more recently and mildly, the Totally Tattoos Barbie). But I think Barbie is a pretty cool chick and has adapted nimbly with the times. She has had every job, from babysitter to plastic surgeon to Starfleet commander, she owns several kinds of cars and dwellings, has become such an icon that she’s had couture outfits made for her by world-famous designers and, as busy as she is, she somehow manages to keep her figure and a smile on her face. It’s not a bad life to aspire to, for a little girl.
Part of the reason she has been able to maintain such an independent, fabulous lifestyle has got to be that her boyfriend is not very popular. Despite Mattel’s attempts to make Barbie and Ken the perfect couple, little girls everywhere cried, “Not good enough!” and paired Barbie up with other men, or, in the case of my resourceful college friend, with a bull dyke.
For the most part, though, Barbie has stood alone or with her sisters, helping girls everywhere transition from little girls to tweens. Some girls keep their Barbies through adulthood, letting them collect dust on a shelf out of sentimentality and loyalty; others go through a Barbie-rejection and -mutilation phase to declare their newfound teenage status. But most, like me, just kind of forget about them until one day they ask their moms, “Where are all my Barbies?” And when their moms say, “I gave them to So-and-So,” they are surprised at how OK with that they are.
So, thank you, Barbie, for serving your special purpose in our lives. But mostly, thank you, Ken, for being so lame.