I never was such a Barbie fan as a little kid. I mean, I was all about the Disney princess dolls (and a prince or two), which were basically Barbies, but those interested me because they were characters whose stories I already knew and were intrigued by. I remember getting a Skipper doll as a wee one for participating in some kind of market research study and being like, “who the hell is this girl?” I remember being disappointed that I wasn’t given little action figures like the boys were, because I was completely about the Ninja Turtles back then. All I ever cared about back then with my Barbie-esque dolls was miming out sordid bi(or pan?)sexual love affairs that basically amounted to my mashing the two (or more) plastic figures together repeatedly. Oh, the innocence of youth. I never even bothered to think about how they all had approximately the same skin tone and body shape and so forth. Having read Ann duCille’s article, I realize when I look back on my childhood what a huge place of privilege I came from to never pick up on those things--and never had to, really.
Maybe it’s just the fuzziness of my memory talking, but the interesting thing about my Princess Jasmine and Belle dolls was that I think they actually had passably unique features. Of course, the bodies were the same old Mattel distorted-hourglass shape, but I think I can recall things like Jasmine’s nose and Belle’s eyes having, well, character. Assuming I’m not totally making that up, I suppose I would reason that it’s a lot easier to fashion a doll that looks uniquely anything when a template already exists--like in the movies. And, of course, whether they looked identical to every other Barbie to come out or not, it’s definitely true that they still all manage to conform to a very narrow standard of what a woman looks like. (Not that the Disney prince/Ken doll fared much better, but I didn’t know of many girls who gave two about the boy dolls for the most part, myself included. It was the ones that I thought I could look like that I cared about most.)
In her article, duCille makes the observation that costume is very largely the sole means by which culture is delineated with Barbie dolls, and reading that really resonated with me as truthful. I definitely remember buying into the exoticism element; that’s probably why I preferred Disney princesses in the first place, for the fantasy aspect. Maybe not enough to, well, actually literally buy every doll that crossed my path, but I swear all a toy store had to do to blow my tiny mind with Mattel’s own special brand of “diversity” was show me a row of dolls of moderately different skin tones and brightly colored, elaborately patterned outfits. I wasn’t interested in blonde, pink Barbie, but her cousin in the kimono I would go crazy for. I do think it speaks to my privilege as a White person that even as a little girl, I thought absolutely nothing of happily appropriating what appeared to me to be authentic representations of cultures that I found “pretty.” Pretty, of course, because the clothes were pretty, and so were the dolls in the clothes. And the dolls were pretty because in spite of their advertised racial and cultural difference, they still conformed to an ideal of beauty that I was already accepting as my ideal of beauty.
I hope that makes at least some semblance of sense. All in all, the article ended up giving me a lot to think about, though it’s probably pretty clear that it’s all a big, rambly jumble for the most part right now.