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The Dharma of Barbie

KAREN MAEZEN MILLER was torn when her daughter entered the Barbie stage. But what was worse—the doll’s commercialism and hyper-sexuality, or Mom’s grownup judgments and concepts?

My daughter has 35 Barbies. This is a known fact, because I just pulled them out from under the bed and counted. Counting them is something I have been reluctant to do over these last five years, while Barbies have multiplied far beyond the furtive certainty that my seven-year-old has too many. I like to keep them out of my sight, a swarm of tangled limbs and hair in an underbed bin. The bin is my way of keeping a lid on it all: the mess, the excess, and the incorrectness.

"She’s one of those mothers," I imagine you thinking. One of those witless ones who buy toys without giving intelligent thought to the underlying message, the implication, or the outcome. A Barbie mom.

I can’t remember exactly how it all began, but I’m sure it began with me.

It is captivating to see a tiny child fall into pure and uncomplicated love. My daughter Georgia’s first major heartthrob was Snow White, who was just one in a color-coded sequence of princesses to be cherished, outgrown, and discarded, but we didn’t know that then. We didn’t know and we didn’t delay. When we took our daughter on her first trip to Disneyland, we strode right up to the real-life Snow White and watched our two-year-old flirt. Then, we bee-lined to the souvenir racks and forked over the bucks for a Snow White doll.

I knew better: when we ripped through the packaging in the car on the way home, I knew it wasn’t a Snow White doll. Under the camouflage of the costume and written in the fine print of product licensing, this was Barbie, the modern Pandora, her box now torn asunder in the backseat.

Little girls of her age were going through the same initiation. At my daughter’s nursery school the devotion seemed to spread like an early spring virus. For her third birthday, her classmate Kelsey had one of those mythical oversized parties with a gargantuan fantasy cake—a rococo confection with Barbie rising like Venus from its crested center. It was magnificent. My daughter didn’t have to ask for the same cake at her party, although she did. When her birthday rolled around a few months later, I got the baker’s name. The price quoted was outrageous, but it wasn’t the money that dissuaded me. It was the mileage. The bakery was twenty miles away, and they didn’t deliver, not even for $175 cake.

I resorted to a neighborhood shop that promised they made real Barbie cakes. When I picked up my order on the morning of the party, I discerned otherwise. There, stuck into the middle of this knock-off concoction was a cheesy, phony, fake Barbie, a dime-store hottie with limp hair and kewpie cheeks. I was furious and shouted at the counter clerk.

“She won’t notice,” said my childless, still-sane sister, predicting my daughter’s reaction as a way to subdue mine. I shook my fists and took the cake.

Once home, I yanked the offending head off the centerpiece doll and replaced it with the head of a real Barbie culled from my daughter’s nascent collection. The skin tone clashed. The proportions were wrong. It was a crime of passion.

My daughter never noticed. To a three-year-old, “same” doesn’t mean “same.” And to her, Barbie clearly didn’t mean all the things it meant to me.

We think we know what things mean, and on the rare occasions we admit we don’t, we aim to find out. We study; we gnaw. We gauge the impact and the consequence. We make deductive leaps and draw foregone conclusions. Among all the puzzles and predicaments, the best guesses and good intentions of child-rearing, there are a few universally accepted truths. One of them is this: Barbie is bad.

How troubling when our daughters reach so readily for those eleven inches of molded plastic; the slender body that fits so easily in their still-dimpled hands; the far-from-lifelike doll that survives every kind of fashion torture, burial in sandboxes, drowning in bathtubs, and disastrous haircuts administered in secret with forbidden scissors. How mortifying when, among all the more sensible offerings, all the appropriate and sanctioned playthings, our daughters more or less universally agree: Barbie is good.

It’s in that rub, the eternal struggle of bad versus good, right versus wrong, that I see the hidden dimension of the icon under the bed. It goes beyond the unassailable ideals of gender neutrality and healthy body image. It’s far subtler than choosing sides with demons or innocents. It’s not us versus them; it’s neither black nor white. It’s dharma, the dharma of Barbie, available for as little as $5.99 at the discount superstore.

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