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Barbie World

February 15, 2008

Even an unfeeling rock would have paused, if just for a second, to reflect on the meaning of the moment. I was standing there in the midst of an undeniably rich assort of humanity, most of whom were intent on their holiday shopping needs. Me, I had pulled away from the stream to stand, transfixed, at the door of the toy store.

The store wanted me inside, and in the past I would have complied, because for the last 13 years that was the store where I often found presents for the little ones. Pacifiers and crib toys in the earliest days, then on to stuffed animals, puzzles, and dolls for a time, transforming eventually to games, balls, slinkies, and squirt guns. But not this year, for I wasn’t shopping for toys this year–but Ipod nannos, DVD players, clothes, and books. We had moved on.

As I paused to consider this point of transition my regret gathered to a point centered on one ritual that was even now fading into a time gone by: The Barbie Buy. I’ll admit that before Rachel’s arrival into my world I had little but distain for the Barbie Doll. This doll, with its exaggerated proportions, vast wardrobe, and grotesque assortment of shallow, consumer-oriented props and possessions, had no place in our contemporary, woman-as-the-equal-to man household. But Rachel was not to be denied. Between seemingly endless hours reading her ever-replenishing stack of books, consorting with her neighborhood friends, watching cartoons and Disney videos, and fighting with her brother, Rachel always made time for Barbie.

Or, should I say Barbies. For she had an army of them, although when they were all laid out in the huge pink suitcase the scene seemed more morgue-like than militaristic. And I was her supplier of the dolls, for each birthday, each Christmas, each random we-all-need-presents excuse to indulge the babies would find me in the Barbie aisle, studying the options, deliberating over choices.

Over time I had become a kind of Barbie connoisseur. Like a wine expert who studies the vintage, inspects the cork, considers the bouquet, and explores the first taste, I considered each Barbie closely: the clothes, the shoes, the hair, the bend in the knees, the upturn of the nose, and, most important, the eyes. Rachel could get over a Barbie with the wrong hair, a bad outfit, or shoes that did not reach her standards, but the wrong eyes? A Barbie with bad eyes would never be able to move up the status hierarchy that organized all those Barbies. Should would forever be one of the supporting characters, never one of the stars.

And stars there were. Rachel never let her guard down enough to play out her stories when I was in the room, but through the closed door I could hear the dramas unfold as the characters she created talked, debated, schemed, planned, partied, and argued. She and her Barbies were a world apart from the real one, and the story’s resolution could be discerned from the players’ final positions around her room when the session ended: the outcasts, the incrowd, the couples, and the wannabies.

And so, for so many years, I knew what I could do to make her happy: I could enter the toy store, find my way to the Barbie cache, and buy another doll who would make her way into the cast. But today, as I turned away from the store and rejoined the other shoppers, I realized that making Rachel happy wasn’t so simple anymore.

Categories: Personal
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