Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Barbie and Other Friends


The first doll I remember loving was Raggedy BoomBoom.  Raggedy BoomBoom was not the traditional Raggedy Ann.  She was a stuffed rabbit, with a cloth body bearing arms and legs like a human and long, cloth rabbit ears that stood up and a plastic, smiling rabbit face.  Raggedy Ann was the first doll I ever asked for.  I don’t know how I knew about her…probably from cartoon-time commercials.  But I asked for one. 


My dad bought this stuffed rabbit and, handing it to me, said, “Here’s Raggedy Ann."  Mom later told me that he saw the Raggedy Ann doll in the store, but that it was so ugly, he couldn’t bring himself to buy one.  Hence, Raggedy BoomBoom became my closest companion.  She went with me everywhere, slept with me, told me stories.  She could fly, loved to dance, hated Brussel’s Sprouts, kept me company in the back seat on road trips, and knew the best way to climb trees.  Raggedy BoomBoom was so loved that my mother re-covered her in new material three times over the years to give her a fresh, sassy demeanor.


Then came Chatty Cathy, not as beloved as Raggedy BoomBoom, but interesting because she had a cord that, when pulled, caused her to say one of maybe six different phrases.  Her voice box quickly broke, consigning her to a life of muteness in the bottom of the toy box. 


Sometime in the mid ‘60s, I was given a Barbie doll.  She came wearing a zebra-striped bathing suit and had a blond bubble hair-do.  She also had breasts, an hour-glass figure and feet permanently shaped to wear high heels.  Barbie was a huge departure from the baby dolls of the past.  Now, instead of dolls urging me to pretend I was a mother, I had a doll urging me to play out grown-up roles.  The switch here was huge.  Of course, I still had Raggedy BoomBoom. I never saw myself as Raggedy BoomBoom’s mother.  She was more of a peer…someone I looked up to and admired, someone who knew all the secrets I could never utter to anyone else. 


Barbie became a conduit for acting out the way I viewed adults.  Looking back, I can see now that Barbie was cruel.  She had a malignant rage that she could point at anyone who crossed her.  She spent all of her energy trying to catch people doing something wrong.  She loved to direct this rage at children, who were always doing something wrong, something that needed shaming and correcting.  I hadn’t thought about this until now, and it says some startling things about my world view as a child.  I saw adults this way.  My mother, one of my uncles, the biddies at church inclined me into a mind-set that was always trying and failing to be good.


My mother found some Simplicity patterns for Barbie clothes and made all kinds of dresses from scraps of cloth.  I had the best dressed Barbie.  I still have these dresses, all in 1950s style, fitted at the top, skirt flaring out.  I had satin ball gowns with carefully stitched beading, a wedding dress, even a crochet night gown.  This was before Mattel started marketing clothing lines for Barbie.  I always thought that the things my mother made were way better. 


Barbie had her own house and car.  To me, Ken was always her boyfriend, never her husband.  One of the TV shows at the time was That Girl, played by Marlo Thomas.  That Girl was the first show of a woman, living in her own apartment in New York, building a career, dating a boyfriend.  More than anyone else on TV, I wanted to be That Girl.  She was an aspiring fashion model…an appropriate career for a woman at that time.  But I, along with all of my girlfriends knew what we wanted to be.  We all wanted to be airline stewardesses.  The idea of flying all over the world for work was so romantic.  At that time, you had to be extremely groomed and polished, beautiful as a fashion model.  To be an airline stewardess was to be part of a very exclusive group of women.  Your every effort needed to be geared toward being attractive to men.  Someone like Barbie.


Eventually, I had a stack of Mattel dolls…Barbie, Ken, Skipper, Midge.  Skipper was pre-adolescent.  She had waist-long blond hair with bangs, a flat chest and legs that could bend at the knee.  She wasn’t supposed to be Barbie’s child…just a sort of add on.  When I was ten, Skipper was my favorite.  I remember getting into trouble for taking her to school with me in the fifth grade.  Then Midge came along, a less attractive side-kick of Skipper’s with freckles, brown hair and eyes and pig tails.  Maybe Mattel decided to do something for the less attractive girls.  Or maybe she was supposed to be a tomboy.  We can’t all be blond princesses.  I don’t remember how she was marketed, but she joined my Barbie family.


They all lived in the Barbie dream house, made of cardboard.  It had a kitchen, living room and bedroom.  Barbie never needed the toilet.  The house came with cardboard furniture, which I could arrange in different ways and also came with a car.  I thought the dream house was so cool, and I kept it like a museum piece, not wanting it to get worn or broken.  I would bring out the dream house only when friends and company came over with their dolls.  My dad eventually gave the dream house to my cousin Gail because he never saw me playing with it.


Dad gave a lot of my toys, which I realize now were never really mine, to my cousin, Gail.  My bicycle, my desk…things would disappear and show up at my cousin’s house.  He cited lack of gratitude as the reason for doing this.  I never did figure out how to show sufficient gratitude to prevent things from vanishing.  Now, I recognize what a power trip it all was.  The dad giveth and the dad taketh away.  But I managed to hang on to my Barbie dolls (I refer to the whole bunch as Barbie dolls).  At my Aunt Janet’s urging, after my mother died, the Barbie dolls and clothes were one of the few things I stole from my mother’s house, along with a few family photos, my mother’s Bible and her cook book.


Through all the decades and all the loss, I wish I knew what happened to Raggedy BoomBoom.

No comments: