Thursday, February 5, 2009

Toys for Tots and Photo Ops

After reading Ann's post, Race, Barbie, and the Obama Girls over at Feministing today, I tried to dig out some memories of my doll years. After struggling with my parents for a very long time about getting Barbies, they finally allowed me to own them after I turned eight, not because they approved, as much as they didn't want to take them away after I received three at my birthday party that year (Malibu Skipper, Bath Time Fun Barbie, and All American Barbie - more on ludicrous Barbie names later). I loved them intensely, but mostly because all my friends had them. Now with my new Barbies in hand, we could trade them, talk about them, dress them in each others clothes, and cut and destroy their hair together. It was Barbie networking, and it was essential for getting ahead in the second grade. My parents, though now allowing Barbie gifts, were still not purchasing them for me so I only ever ended up with about a dozen, but they were all just different styles of blonde haired Barbies. No guys, no other tweens for Skipper to hang out in Malibu with, and none of Barbies friends who were Latina, African American, and a few other white gals with other hair types.

While not a good argument for having a diverse look at other images of beautiful women, it did help me have a more diverse look on sexuality. Not having any Kens in my Barbies' lives opened the door for them to explore other options. Many of my Barbies hooked up with each other, some married, and others had babies together. One or two of them opted for single motherhood, happily raising children on their own (while working!). All of this cooked up in my imagination before being made aware of any relationships, sexualities, or family structures different from the heteronormitive images on television or in my own family.

Barbies aside, I did have these other dolls when I was even younger than Barbie age that I can barely remember the name of...maybe you can help? I think they were like "Pop 'Ems" or "Poppy Dolls" or something. The main attraction was that they were easy to dress. They were about hand size, and had the long hair you could brush and style, but they were made out of that soft plastic and molded in a kneeling position with no moveable arms or legs- that way you could "pop" their different Velcro attaching outfits on with ease, no silly appendages to deal with. The interchangeable outfits were already equipped with stuffed scarecrow like arms and legs so once dressed they were set to go. There were four different girls. Three white girls (a red head, a blonde, a brunette) and one black girl. I loved them all so very much, I played with them - popping their many outfits on and off - incessantly. The major drawback to this clever toy, was that they made a gazillion little outfits with white hands, but we could never find more outfits (than the ones she came with) for the black doll. I was constantly irritated and confused by this. Not wanting her to have to wear the same clothes while the white girls got to have new outfits all the time, I often just put the white-handed outfits on the black doll even though it was bizarre and sat poorly with me even at 5 years old. I didn't get the deeper cultural implications then, and not having thought about those dolls very often since, this outfit problem really struck me again, twenty years later, after reading Danielle Belton's On Little Black Girls, Beauty and Barbie Dolls on her blog The Black Snob.

Her experience, detailed in that post, really highlights the gap in American culture and what it means to have privilege. Also, when she speaks about modeling agencies making excuses for why the Obama girls are attractive - “It’s a very specific age and a very specific ethnicity, so there aren’t that many girls that would necessarily fit the bill" - it reminds you that no matter how many cable news shows claim it, the new first family does not prove that racism is over. Mostly though, I love her"Cute Black Girls Are Everywhere, You Idiots" photo campaign, and want anyone who can to enter it! There's only two days left though, so don't delay! Also, what kind of dolls or toys did you play with that had similar racial or gendered implications?


Eva said...

Now that I think about it, I had very few blonde Barbies. I know I had them, just by playing the odds and I remember the rollerblade one specifically (her tits were too big to fit into the other clothes), but I never really liked them very much. The first 11.5" doll I loved and had to have was a Spectra doll, she had metallic blue skin. Then came Rappin' Rockin' Teresa. She was usually my first choice for who I was going to "be", at least until Glitter Beach Kira came along. She was and is my prettiest Barbie. I had the wedding set Midge too. I had two Kens, and the blonde one was usually the victim in one way or another. Raven-haired, olive-complected, Perfume Giving Ken was my only real love.

My friend Lia and her sister were forbidden to have Barbies and she said they were terrified one Christmas when a family member got them each one: she thought she was going to get in trouble for possessing contraband.

Looking around for the real names of my Barbies, I found this:
Remember that thing in Female Chauvinist Pigs about how all the Barbies look pretty much the same anyway?

BooksterOne said...

They were called "Sweetie Pops, " Kiddo! You saw them advertised on TV and were enchanted with them because - as you so excitedly explained to me - "You just 'pop' them into their clothes, Mom, so I can dress them myself!" That darling comment sent your father and me immediately to the local "Toys'R Us" because anything that caused our five year old to say something that darn cute was something she was going to have! As I recall, we thought we hit the "Sweetie Pops" mother lode while in the store until we realized we had dolls of one race but outfits sporting attached hands and feet of another. For some reason, Toys'R Us did not keep the dolls and outfits in the same aisle. Perhaps, however, such was an evil ploy to keep inexperienced parents such as we in the store that much longer. With only one child and a decidedly anti-Madison Ave. attitude, we searched diligently for toys that would stimulate and support your wonderful imagination. We thought we did fairly well with our choices until those damn Cabbage Patch kids came along, and your Christmas wasn't going to be worth beans unless you got one...Another story for another time...Anyhow, in case you're interested, I have all your "Sweetie Pops," both dolls and clothing (complete with hands AND feet)stored in a box in the basement. Please, feel free to come and get them anytime. (Oh, I think we still have your plastic dinosaur collection, too.)