If you Google “Barbie” — at least today, the day I am writing this — your screen will erupt in mid-century-modern pink starbursts. This is our Barbie Summer.
Those who know me well might guess I have little to no interest. They might guess, at worst, I am sneering; that I am too insufferably serious to be seduced by all the Barbie movie marketing.
Surely, I’d rather be at some protest or another, adding my substantial decibels to the righteous ruckus as we collectively shout, “No justice, no peace!” or “This is what democracy looks like!” or a dozen other cheery chestnuts.
My go-to for news and pop-culture takes, The Guardian, offered a critique that might echo my own. Natasha Walter, author of Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, therein wrote, “Mattel’s dedication to using feminist language to sell more and more plastic flotsam to women seems to me to be a poor return on our former dreams of thoroughgoing social change.”
Certainly, I have not seen Barbie. But I might. After all, I have a beloved doll of my own. I’m looking at his adorable visage this very moment. His name is Hugo.
There were Barbies in the home when I was a child. They belonged to my sister, Megan, nine years my senior. She didn’t play with the dolls so much as manage them. She had some iteration of a Barbie dream car. It was more for admiring than rolling across the carpet. Megan seemed particularly fond of the teensy Coke bottle with complementary plastic hot dog. She seemed drawn to the miniature preciousness of Barbie’s world.
In winter of 1976, Megan was a high school junior, whose interests had turned to Getrude Stein and Redbook and sketching. I didn’t see anything of Barbie anymore. Still, Megan liked Barbie once, and her tastes had a huge influence over my own. Perhaps that’s why Hugo caught my eye.
We were living in Paris that year thanks to my dad’s Army job. As Americans abroad with access to domestic-priced mail, much of the Christmas haul came from a Sears catalog. We weren’t very sentimental about it. Megan’s job sometime in November was to sit me down with the catalog to choose my Christmas gift.
Hugo, Man of a Thousand Faces, was it. Hugo has a body, in a sense. It’s really just a base for his handsome head. Two floppy arms are attached to it. The arms themselves are merely some stuffed cloth. His little plastic hands, however, are perfect, with their formed knuckles and nails. Then Kenner went the extra mile by draping him in a blue tunic.
Hugo’s gimmick — because you gotta have a gimmick — was the “thousand faces” part.
The point of Hugo, according to the marketing, was to disguise him. Was he an assassin? Super spy? Undercover whoozywhatzit? Let your imaginations run wild, boys! Just boys. This is a boy’s toy. Just for boys. No girls. With wigs. And all sorts of facial hair. And gruesome scars to glue onto his dear face. Little glasses. The options seemed endless!
Really, Hugo was the Barbie makeup head in testosterone trappings. While the Barbie makeup head offered girls cosmetics orientation, Hugo allowed boys to play dolly dress-up in a way that wouldn’t prompt the adults to raise judgy eyebrows. “It’s not a doll! He’s making that thing look mean, like it’s about to torture a political dissident. You know, boy stuff!”
As I was not as well organized as Megan, not much in the way of Hugo’s impressive array of accoutrements made it back to the States. Just Hugo. Fine by me.
Seems that all I really wanted was Hugo, anyway. Back home, it wasn’t long till my parents divorced, Megan went off to college, Mom and I moved into Springfield’s newly built divorcée apartments, her new suitor came into our lives. It seemed everything was happening at a dizzying speed. Except Hugo. Without his collection of disguises, he actually changed not at all, which was exactly what I needed. My little bald doll with hands you want to hold.
Even went I left for college, Hugo came with me, given a prestigious spot on the dormitory shelving to watch over me. When, in sophomore year, I left for a months-long work-exchange gig in London, Hugo tagged along. I am grateful U.K. border control didn’t inspect my suitcase.
Wherever I went, Hugo went. Not that he was always welcome. His unblinking blue eyes, the kind that follow you, leave some unnerved — particularly when I stick my hand up into that cozy head and slowly rotate it in some detractor’s direction. Hugo has never elicited cuddly cooing so much as observations along the lines of, “God, that doll is so creepy! Can’t you put it away somewhere??”
But I can’t. While just a plastic shell, Hugo is part of me. He’s a comfort. So, while I’m not a Barbie fanboy, this plastic pull leaves me with zero standing to criticize the Barbieverse.
Hugo, within arm’s reach, his only current accessory a green strand of Pride parade beads, has been a gay boy’s stalwart friend. Eating disorders and antifeminist baggage aside, I’m sure Barbie has offered similar solace to an unknowable number of kids, and possibly adults.
I’ll probably see the movie.
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