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The Barbie Negotiation

Published on 16th September 2016

There was a little blonde-haired girl who lived just a couple streets over from me when I was growing up and I don’t remember her name anymore, but I remember that she had not only Pink&Pretty Barbie, DaytoNight Barbie and that Barbie from Barbie and the Rockers, but she also had the Barbie Dream House, the Barbie convertible and multiple Ken dolls.

I was careful never to let on that I was there for the Barbies. When I was that age —around 6 or 7 years old — I went through a sort of internal negotiation when visiting friends blessed with massive Barbie collections. I told myself that I just needed to show enthusiasm for the girl, or for her other toys, before I casually suggested playing with the Barbies. It took some finesse, as most of those girls had owned so many Barbies for so many years that they were moving on to other toys and didn’t really want to play Barbies anymore. 

But I always succeeded. And once I got to the Barbies, the girl I was hanging out with faded into the background as I lost myself in fantasies of dream dates on clouds and fashion shows in palaces.

The subterfuge was a necessary survival mechanism. My mother -- who came of age protesting the Vietnam war, who sewed the corduroy jumpers I wore, and who very proudly called herself a feminist -- had refused to ever buy me a Barbie Doll. 

So of course, in the logic of childhood, all I could think about was Barbies: which ones I wanted, how to get them and how to get the best Barbie bang for the buck. There was a loophole in my mother’s prohibition: it was limited to what my parents would purchase; it was not an outright ban on Barbies in the house.

So I deployed a two-front strategy: appeals to sympathetic relatives for in-kind donations, and stockpiling of allowance funds for direct purchases. I ignored luxury items like Ken dolls and Dream Houses (which could easily be imagined) and focused on the key essential: Barbie herself.

A Barbie in those days cost about $10-$12. That was more than a month of allowance money. So I used birthdays and holidays to ask for Barbies from my aunt (my father’s sister and a woman who did not really think along the lines of feminist or not-feminist), and then I used my money to buy outfits for the Barbies, thereby turning my Peaches&Cream Barbie also into a nightclub singer or a beach-blanket-party attendee.

I owned three Barbies in all: Peaches&Cream, DreamDate and Tropical. I chose Peaches&Cream as my first because she was the Barbie to own if you were only going to own one Barbie. She looked like a princess in her pillowy gown and trailing stole. I chose Tropical Barbie because she had long hair like Crystal Gayl and because I needed a doll with a swimsuit. I chose DreamDate Barbie because her outfit had multiple parts that could be turned into different outfits. 

I also used the scraps of my mom’s sewing pile to make “clothes” that I held on with rubber bands and tape. When I had exhausted all those options, I used markers to color Kleenexes and twisted them around the Barbies to make crop tops or skirts.

While I was a girl with a bedroom covered in butterfly wallpaper that my Mom had let me pick out, and a collection of craft supplies that pulled in kids from across the neighborhood, in my mind I was like The Little Match Girl of toys — forever deprived and forced to make her way in the world without the Barbies given to regular girls. I had found a way, sure, but I also lived in dread of the question that would bring the whole elaborate operation tumbling down: “But those aren’t the only Barbies you own, are they?”

I had a few other Barbie-like dolls, but they were poor substitutes. Skipper couldn’t fit into the Barbie clothes. My Brooke Shields doll had weird hair. I used her for an experiment in using markers to apply makeup. It did not go well and I was grateful that I had had a test subject that kept me from disfiguring one of the Barbies.

The other dolls were fine, I guess, but they just weren’t the real thing. And I wanted the real thing. I wanted Barbie.