After seeing the most excellent Barbie movie this weekend with my wife, I’ve been thinking about my childhood relationship with the titular character. As people are in a frenzy to buy Barbie everything and debate the ‘vintage’ factor of their own childhood memories, I have one that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world – giving away my entire Barbie collection to a little girl in my neighborhood.
My Barbie Backstory
My dad did a lot of hauling/cleaning work, especially when he was laid off or on strike from the steel mill. He occasionally acquired some pretty cool (to kids) things like an industrial swing set that he sawed into pieces, transported to our backyard, and had a cousin weld back together. Another year, he acquired over 100 Nancy Drew books that became a Christmas gift for me.
One year, he hit a motherlode of Barbie stuff and it found its way to me. My Dad brought me a townhouse with elevator, a second Barbie, and a case for clothing. I also received the Donny and Marie Osmond dolls. This was probably 1978. I was 8.
I was in heaven.
Playing pretend was a great favorite of mine. I would create masterful storylines using my stuffed animals, the Barbie crew, my brother’s toys when he wasn’t looking. Imagining and recreating tales from Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, and other books and tv shows was fun. Barbie and GI Joe had a lot of adventures. Sometimes I would pack up my case and take it down the street to Sherri’s house or Amy’s house. Sherri had two somewhat older sisters so she had some cool vintage dolls from the 1960’s and was eager to play with my more modern dolls. Amy had a lot of toy horses.
By my recollection, my brother and I engaged in warfare between his 2 foot high fort and my Dreamhouse. He had more soldiers, but I had more shoes to throw. And much taller soldiers.
Greta Gerwig is not the first Barbie aficionado to recreate 2001: A Space Odyssey in some form.
In my world, Barbie dated Donny Osmond and Marie dated GI Joe. Barbie and Marie lived in the townhouse together because they both fit in the elevator. Interesting foreshadowing?
At some point, I received one of those makeup/hairstyle Barbie heads with the hair dye and shampoo. There was only so many times I could put blue eyeshadow and purple hairstreaks on her before I was bored. My brother threw the Barbie head into the pool and her hair was permanently green from the chlorine. One time my mother saw the head floating in the pool and almost broke a limb trying to get out there to ‘save’ the child. She disappeared soon afterwards.
Barbie was important to me because of her potential to do anything, whether I had the occupation specific doll or not – imagination was the ingredient I brought to the mix. I tried swapping clothing, accessories, shoes between all of the dolls, leading me to really think through the high heel shaped foot. Experiments took place in the townhouse, including seeing how much weight the elevator could manage. Some outfits I made from newspaper or other craft supplies. And, as with many kids, I was curious about sexuality. There’s a great story about helping the Barbie clan ‘hook up’ in my friend’s bedroom only to be tattled on by a little sister who was angry at being told she was too young for this game. Her mum was maaaddddd …..
Eventually, Barbie fell to the wayside. But she was still there, floating around the edges of my approach to adolescence with my stuffed animals, kids books, and my beloved two wheel bicycle.
One day, a new family moved into the house next door after decades in the hands of the previous owners. The new family whose name I cannot remember included a Mom, her adult sister/homemaker, Dad, and two kids – a boy and a girl. They never needed a babysitter, but they often needed playmates. I was about 13 or 14 so I was charmed to be considered the cool big kid.
It didn’t take long to realize the family did not have a lot of material anything as was the case for most of our neighbors. The kids had a sad wisdom about them that I recognized subconsciously. It was also the cast for most of our neighbor kids.
Here’s Where I Gave Away My Barbie
One day, the girl brought her doll out to play. Her only doll. So I dashed into the house to grab the dusty white and pink Barbie case that we spread out across my front porch. When it was time for her to home, it dawned on me what I could do. Her longing looks at my erstwhile collection also resonated in my own experiences. People didn’t do nice things for me very often, especially without expecting payback.
Without being clear on the sequence of events, after she left I told my mother I wanted to give my Barbies to this girl. I do remember my mother asking me if I was sure, that I might want to save them for my own daughter. This was a critical moment – did I want to help this little girl then or did I want to preserve my collection for a nostalgic bonding moment with some future little girl of my own?
I wanted her to have a grand gesture from a ‘big kid’ that wouldn’t change her life, but might bring her some happiness and fun. So I gave her the dolls, the case, and the townhouse. She had no idea who the Osmonds were, but liked their outfits. She was so happy and I felt good, even with some pangs of regret as I thought about my mother’s comments.
To be honest, I wanted to make the grand gesture. It wasn’t just about her needs. It was a rare opportunity for me to be in a position to do something for someone else. It felt good. It was a seed toward my social work career.
Sadly, her family had to leave the house abruptly and quickly. I have no idea if she took the Barbie gear with her or not, I suspect not.
In one of her more unkind moments, my mother pointed out that I had sort of wasted my Barbies. But I never thought about it that way. Those Barbie dolls came to me because someone passed them along. The same was true of the swing set, the Nancy Drew books, and so much more.
My parents home was destroyed in their later years so many of the childish things were lost forever. That would have included my Barbies. I do appreciate when other people keep things for the simple reason that I cannot do that. But there’s a difference between sentimental attachment and greed.
The Value of Childhood Toys Is Not Defined by Ebay
Not everything ‘old’ is retro or vintage or valuable. Not everything valuable translates into cash. And not every memory needs a dollar value. Teaching your children to share their toys, books, and dolls with the kids in their lives now is a valuable lesson. Learning how to give our stuff to people who need it more than we do is a good thing.
This is one reason I really like projects like ‘Play It Forward’ that reassigns gently used toys to other children.
We see this in the movie through ‘Weird Barbie’ and her housemates, a series of discontinued Barbie dolls. They have value, they contribute to Barbieland. They are key to saving the Barbies from the patriarchy. I take this to mean that Barbie is meant to be played with, not kept in a closet for 20 years. Also, asking us to pay $50 for an official Weird Barbie is absurd. We can make our own – that’s the point.
As the holidays draw near, take a cue from Barbie and consider what items you might share with a toy project like Play It Forward so the best day ever will be part of a child’s life soon. And the day after that. And the day after that.
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