What would your Barbie say?
This is a real question, because Mattel recently announced that a coming version of its Barbie doll will have the power to carry on conversations.
This is a greater power than was possessed by many of the boys I dated in high school, not that that’s a high standard by which to be judged, even by molded plastic standards. And yet, unlike the boys I dated in high school, a talking Barbie captures the imagination.
I want Barbie the Scrivener. All she’ll say is, “I would prefer not to.” (If you don’t remember your Melville, Google it.)
First introduced at 1959’s New York toy fair, Barbie gained notoriety after flopping in her debut by being aggressively advertised by the Mickey Mouse Club. Like Annette Funicello, I imagine Barbie thinking, “Draw your eyes UPWARD! My beautiful features and enthralling expression are on my FACE!”
Millions of American girls paid attention, and their parents paid cash.
I was one of those little girls. I loved my Barbie doll. I was 5 years old when my first Barbie arrived, and although I knew nothing of her heritage or iconography, there was one thing I knew: I adored her. I also wanted to become just like her, even if didn’t have a clue what that implied.
More Vargas model than crying infant, she looked like she wanted a bottle of Scotch more than she wanted a bottle of milk. When she wore lace, it wasn’t in a cutesy collar around her neck, but in a bridal gown billowing out from her tiny waist. She was a baby-sitter, earning money and talking on the phone with her boyfriend Ken; she wasn’t the baby being sat.
She wasn’t part of a child’s past; she was part of a girl’s future. To put it another way, Barbie was the embodiment (the buxom, bubble-headed, bathing-suited version) of the most intriguing part of our lives as women rather than an iteration of our awkwardly diapered past.
Always an icon but never an iconoclast, Barbie followed fashion, obeyed orders and did as she was told. The shyest, oddest and mangiest little girl still had total power over her Barbie; she could cut Barbie’s hair, chew on Barbie’s hands and feet, or whisper in Barbie’s ear swear words never heard inside the house. But now that Mattel is giving Barbie voice — and not one that says, as the earlier version of a failed model giggled, “Math is hard!” but one that has up to 8,000 utterances and derives its possible responses from a Wi-Fi connection to the Cloud — little girls are once more placed in the position of engaging in someone (something?) else’s script.
But maybe, just maybe, Barbie could say some inspiring words that would help shape the lives of the next generation. I asked some of the smartest folks I know what their Barbies would say.
Marisa, taking the fiscal angle: “Let’s have fun learning about interest rates while discussing the possibility of globally responsible investments!”
Patti, taking the physical angle: “May I please have some genitalia?”
Heidi, taking the practical angle: “Will you please stop throwing my clothes all over the floor and please pick up your stuff, too?”
Gianetta, taking an angle open to interpretation: “Are you gonna pass that thing, or what?” (I thought she was talking about either French fries or kidney stones, only to learn this was “Colorado Barbie.” That’s all I’ll say.)
Robin, taking a gender-on-a-continuum angle: “I’m Ken.”
Rick, taking the literary angle and the angle Barbie might take if she doesn’t follow Marisa’s trajectory: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
Hope, taking the it’s-not-that-I’m-bitter angle: “Why do you love that little pony more than me?”
Maria, taking the adult angle: “I’m 56 years old. Please call me Barbara.”
Wendy, taking the equity angle: “Equal pay for equal work.”
Hugo Ben, taking the political angle: “It’s possible that I was made by an impoverished child worker in an unsafe factory in a third-world country.”
Marti, however, takes a more generous angle. Her Barbie says, “Thank you for being my voice all those years ago. I knew you’d turn out to be just fine.”
I might even trade in my Barbie The Scrivener to hear that every day.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and a feminist scholar who has written eight books. She can be reached through her website at www.ginabarreca.com.