by Terry Barr
Inever played with dolls as a kid; I’ll get to the grownup part in a bit.
I’m not telling you this to defend or define my masculinity, for though I never played Barbie with the little girls who lived across the street from us, they did corral me into playing The Barbie Game. They said that their older brother played and once was crowned “Queen of the Prom.” I considered him a tough-enough guy, so I agreed to play. I did not get crowned “Queen of the Prom” and felt vaguely disappointed.
I like to think that I always play to win.
My younger brother clamored for GI Joe’s. Mattel Co. called them “action figures.” Of course they did. Still, we watched enough “Army movies” and TV shows like “Combat” and “The Gallant Men,” and we had enough play guns to scare a battalion, so why wouldn’t he want a GI Joe? He got it for Christmas when he was five or six, complete with several uniforms and the official GI Joe foot locker. This all sounds mildly enticing today, but back then, when I was nine or ten, playing with any plastic semblance of a human interested me far less than playing football outside, or playing one of the various electric football games that vibrated through my young life.
In fact, given the choice, I’d rather have helped my mother shell pink-eyed peas or lima beans than play GI Joe. Nothing against my brother’s desires — one could say that in this love, he was more boyish/”manly” than I was. Still, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what to do with any action figure. Why would making him move, or donning his scuba suit and plunging him under bathwater be fun?
After my wife and I produced two fine young daughters, Barbies re-entered my life. We had vowed to withstand such girly, anti-feminist touches in our daughters’ lives. However, no one told my wife’s cousin’s wife, whom we visited one Christmas when our older daughter was three or four. The cousin’s wife produced a present for our daughter, and when she opened it, Barbie almost literally strode out of her box, capturing my daughter’s adoration right from that moment.
And so unleashed the flood.
My mother, not to be outdone and rather astonished that we allowed our child to keep this sexist icon, started buying Barbies for our daughter, and later her little sister, as if she owned stock in Mattel. We had Princess Castles, Barbie convertible cars, and if I can’t remember the rest, it’s because I don’t want to, or perhaps, again, my imagination just isn’t keen enough.
Our best friend Owen, though he never bought the girls a Barbie, saved us on those afternoons when, though we might suggest an outing to the park or a ride in the Radio Flyer.
“Play Barbie with us, Uncle O,” they’d beg.
And sure enough, manly Owen would get down on the floor and help them set up a prom or a tea party with Barbie, Ken, Midge, and whoever else we had in our action figure menagerie.
He’d play for chunks of time that might have felt like hours to him, but he never complained. In fact, when I hear the echoes of it all now, his laughter blends with, if not dominates theirs. To my ears, a perfect harmony of love.
Yet, there were many afternoons after school when it was just the girls and me, and though I’d demur, refuse, or try to bribe them with trips to the zoo or mall, some days — and not even rainy ones — I’d give in to their begging and agree to play Barbie.
Most of the time, the various Barbies had been stripped naked and left to fend for themselves in toy baskets and other raw elements. I’d try to help the girls pick out new outfits, but what did I know from glittered or faux lemay fabric? How do you put those unnatural heels on a doll?
So after a few minutes, I’d suggest the only game that seemed fun to me:
You might remember that old SNL skit, “Cadaver diving with Generalissimo Francisco Franco.” But if you don’t, all you have to imagine is my daughters and I situating Barbie as high as we could, letting go, and watching her plunge, usually head first. The distance wasn’t too great, and usually Barbie survived it intact. Sure, maybe an arm got bent, or a head fell off, but it was all in fun.
The girls would laugh so hard as I narrated the falling action that we’d soon have to find fresh, dry underwear for them.
As afternoons and action figures, and the minutes of our lives together go, these are some of the scenes I remember best: ones I hold most dear.
Far more memorable and better than being Queen of a board game Prom.
Or drowning an army doll.
Originally featured in The Weekly Knob, September 28, 2019