Why Barbie Makes Me Want to Tell My Story!
Because the blog that follows tells more about my story, I first want to share my artist statement: "Painting, like storytelling, must express a truth. Rather than replicating an image, a painting expresses the essential elements of its subject. I often paint a lone figure on a pathway, and that has become a theme in my art. Art is a pathway to explore ourselves, our relationships with each other and our relationships to the environment. Composition and color replace the demand for literal elements. Texture depicts the effects of the elements on the subject. I strive to interact with the viewer through a more casual, intimate conversation, punctuated by spontaneous brushstrokes and color saturated or subdued by the sun and wind of the high desert." And...to have a story makes us feel we count!
I’ve been a bit obsessed this week with writing my feelings about the new Barbie film, its meaning and influence. What I really want to share is how important doll play was in my life, and I have to recognize that it all opens some very big questions.
Playing with dolls stirs the imagination, allowing one to act out and try on various roles, before the serious world of adulthood begins and dampens our dreams. And it taught me a myriad of skills. I am thinking of those popular posters, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten or __________ ”
Doll play helps you develop your story!
All I really needed to know - was introduced in my dollhouse.
Neatness, style, color, design, sewing, house décor, teaching, proportions, sharing, empathy (wait until you hear about "sick doll" - NOT WEIRD BARBIE but Marybel), courtship and marriage, (not sex - no anatomical versions were in my collection), how to create – paper dolls, doll clothes, my own clothes and much more.
And, yes, I learned that my dolls really were the heart children of my mom, and I later had my own interests….
Yes, it was my doll house, but look who is decorating, arranging and playing!
Despite its wild popularity (or perhaps because of it), I have adult friends who do not want to see the new Barbie. Friends who were not allowed to play as freely and independently with dolls as I did as an only child. They had brothers who laughed or smashed dolls. Family members who squashed playtime.
I can only share my wonderful experiences as a child and say – OK the Barbie movie was created by commercial powers (Warner Bros and Margot Robbie bought the rights to the film.) and Greta Gerwig, Barnard graduate and very talented, serious director who had won accolades for Lady Bird and Little Women, was asked to write the script. The film was conceived during Covid and the hope was to create such a phenomenon that people would return en masse to theaters.
And it certainly has fulfilled its goals.
It doesn’t answer questions, but gets ideas circulating.
And has color and laugh-out-loud moments. It’s designed to be a far out, fresh, eye-candy filled, pink, uplifting summer blockbuster!
Greta Gerwig with her mother, who was not a fan of Barbie
In 1959, Barbie was introduced to the world and she may not have been the first adult doll—but she certainly was the best marketed. She’s a blatant copy of the German Bild Lilli doll that Ruth Handler, Barbie creator and co-founder of Mattel, bought when visiting Germany with her two children - yes, Barbie and Ken! Bild Lilli had been marketed mainly to men as a suggestive gag gift.
In the US, Barbie took on a new life and the rest is history. Even if you didn’t have a Barbie – you knew those who did. The doll has been reinvented over the years - updated to make her more realistically formed and to encourage accessibility and exclusivity as in her first famous role of Twiggy and many royals. She varies in ethnicity, career and shape. And, by the way, after a lawsuit, Mattel bought the rights to Bild Lilli.
1 The copied Bild Lilli doll-look familiar? 2 Lunar New Year Barbie
3 Empress Josephine 4 many versions of Barbie
So, my relationship with Barbie is unusual. Coming from a family of creative artists and builders, I had a spectacular mid-century doll house built by my uncle and “interior decorated” by my mom. She soon moved from sewing and gluing – to using a jig saw to create the Swedish modern dining room set, sofa, chairs and more. She even made the little screens adorned with real tiny shells and plants. Friends and family brought gifts for the doll house from their travels. I’ve written a lot about it-but for now, I will let the photos do the explaining.
The dollhouse arrived one Christmas eve on top of a Volkswagen Beetle. I danced with joy at its arrival, and the magic never died.
My mother’s ideal inhabitants were Madam Alexander dolls, demure with bending knees and elbows, and the dollhouse doorways fit their dimensions. She designed capris and rickrack trimmed skirts, and, of course, a satin wedding gown with a tulle veil, turquoise tulle ruffled bridesmaid’s dress and little pink flower girl dress. Weekly, the ritual of a doll wedding occurred.
Jeff Doll was the groom. And the only male. (I would have to dig deep into the attic to find all the dolls and clothing). Scroll through the slides below.
And then Barbie arrived!
From the opening scenes of Barbie
Well, maybe a bit more like this....
Barbie entered as an unexpected guest—a gift from a more distant relative. It was at the beginning of the revolutionary 1960s that an uprising began in my doll house. Barbie strutted her black and white strapless striped bathing suit, swinging her blonde ponytail and giving that sideways evil eye to those sweet Madam Alexander ingénues. Her statuesque figure sat with straight unbendable legs and arms, looking quite ridiculous. The doorways hit her in the forehead! Barbie and her entourage arrived. Oddly, her breasts were twice the size of her feet – and her tiny, tiny hi-heeled slippers were forever getting lost. The sweet Madame Alexander dolls had much bigger feet – no Cinderella among them—and their shoes were sensible with elastic bands that stayed in place over their lovely stockings whose seams generally remained perfectly straight!
But the door was opened to the swinging sixties. At my house, she only brought bubble hairdo Barbie, Midge and Skipper and two Kens. Better than Prince Charming, who really seemed to get around!
Although I can boast that I certainly never cut the hair of a doll (Wait till you see Barbie film’s Weird Barbie played by a former roommate of Greta Gerwig¸ Kate McKinnon), I learned not to mistreat dolls. In a boast that she was indestructible, I pulled hard on Betsy McCall’s arm. It detached. My mother repaired her with a shorter arm from an older doll and told me she had survived polio! (Before the polio vaccine!) Betsy McCall was the real version of paper dolls featured in McCall’s magazine from 1951 – 1995.
1950's Betsy McCall, Weird Barbie from Barbie
I was introduced to empathy. At Christmas (after a shopping trip with my aunt) I asked for (sick doll) Marybel by Madame Alexander, “The Doll That Gets Well” who had crutches, casts and spots. She was created in 1959 as a psychotherapy tool to help children who were ill.
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie doesn’t solve problems, but raises questions. The pink female dominated world is threatened when Ryan Gosling’s Ken discovers patriarchy. Havoc ensues. Will Ferrall as CEO of Mattel (whom I can’t watch without thinking of Elf) tries to reel things in. Gosh! What if we had a woman president, female Supreme Court??? America Ferrera (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Ugly Betty) as Gloria is pivotal to both the plot and brings Barbie’s yearnings down to earth.
Gerwig told the Guardian, “It felt complicated enough, sticky enough, strange enough, that maybe there could be something interesting there to be discovered.” She didn’t know she was going to direct the film until after the script was written. “I kind of had two thoughts: I love this and I can’t bear it if anyone else makes it. And: they’ll never let us make this movie.” Gerwig says her mother was not a fan of Barbie dolls. “My mum was a child of the 60s. She was like, ‘We got this far, for this?’”
Ken discovers patriarchy.
Rhea Perlman's character as Barbie creator, Ruth Handler, may be kinder than the Mattel mogul deserves, but the message is important. She says, "Humans only have one ending. Ideas live forever."
To those who are unsure about seeing the film, I share (from Tendencias MX): "After being...confronted with the sexism, sadness, and anxiety that human women experience in the Real World, a very overwhelmed Barbie sits on a park bench...she sees an older woman with wrinkles (never seen in BarbieLand) and lets her know she thinks she’s beautiful. The woman flashes a smile and replies, “I know it!”
To the Associated Press, Gerwig revealed, “I wanted to channel something that had that ache in it (of Biblical Job), but also something so wild and unruly and something that was so just spilling out over the edges of it that you want to be in a group and see it big, because I thought we’ll never make any movies again, but if they’re going to, I’d like this.”
Do doll houses continue to teach? Mine has had several families and has brought joy to new children.
And I am reminded of the sweetness of my mom’s pursuit. She brimmed with energy for projects – on a shoestring when women were not encouraged to venture outside the home.
My mom’s love, faith and artistic endeavors endure - but she always wanted to stretch a little more: to have a voice in her job and money, to move through her arts beyond the walls of home. Yes, she could create during the day, but would grow anxious each day at about 4 o’clock, as she hurriedly planned dinner! She wanted out of the dolls’ house. Maybe as Barbie (spoiler alert) escaped the pink for reality!
I enjoyed Barbie and encourage you to maybe just sit back and enjoy the ride.
January 2024 marks 6 years of blogging about creativity, well-being and encouragement. Thank you to the many who have visited my website! I welcome comments and questions.
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