Saturday, March 9, 2013

Susan Jane Gilman

Klaus Barbie, and Other Dolls I’d Like to See

Of course, at that age, my friends and I couldn’t even spell subversive, let alone wrap our minds around the concept. But we sensed intuitively that Dawns were more democratic than Barbies. With their different colors and equal sizes, they were closer to what we looked like. We did not find this consoling – for we hadn’t yet learned that our looks were something that required consolation. Rather, our love of Dawns was an offshoot of our own healthy egocentrism. We were still at that stage in our childhood when little girls want to be everything special, glamorous and wonderful – and believe they can be.

As a six-year-old, I remember gushing, “I want to be a ballerina, and a bride, and a movie star, and a model, and a queen…” To be sure, I was a disgustingly girly girl. I twirled. I skipped. I actually wore a tutu to school. (I am not kidding.) For a year I refused to wear blue. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, I dressed up in my grandmother’s pink chiffon nightgowns and rhinestone necklaces and paraded around the apartment like the princess of the universe. I dressed like my Dawn dolls – and dressed my Dawn dolls like me. It was a silly, fabulous narcissism – but one that sprang from a crucial self-love. These dolls were part of my fantasy life and an extension of my ambitions. Tellingly, my favorite doll was Angie, who had dark brown hair, like mine.

But at some point, most of us prima ballerinas experienced a terrible turning point. I know I did. I have an achingly clear memory of myself, standing before a mirror in all my finery and jewels, feeling suddenly ridiculous and miserable. Look at yourself, I remember thinking acidly. Nobody will ever like you. I could not have been older than eight. And then later, another memory: my friend Allison confiding in me, “The kids at school, they all hate my red hair.” Somewhere, somehow, a message seeped into our consciousness telling us that we weren’t good enough to be a bride or a model or a queen or anything because we weren’t pretty enough. And this translated into not smart enough or likeable enough, either.

Looks, girls learn early, collapse into a metaphor for everything else. They quickly become the defining criteria for our status and our worth. And somewhere along the line, we stop believing in our own beauty and its dominion. Subsequently, we also stop believing in the power of our minds and our bodies.

Barbie takes over.
Now, I am not, as a rule, anti-doll. Remember, I once wore a tutu and collected the entire Dawn family myself. I know better than to claim that dolls are nothing but sexist gender propaganda. Dolls can be a lightning rod for the imagination, for companionship, for learning. And they’re fun – something that must never be undervalued.

But dolls often give children their first lessons in what a society considers valuable – and beautiful. And so I’d like to see dolls that teach little girls something more than fashion-consciousness. I’d like to see dolls that expand girls’ ideas about what is beautiful instead of constricting them. And how about a few role models instead of runway models as playmates? If you can made a Talking Barbie, surely you can make a Working Barbie. If you can have a Barbie Townhouse, surely you can have a Barbie business. And if you can construct and entire Barbie world out of pink and purple plastic, surely you can construct some “regular” Barbies that are more than white and blond. And remember, Barbie’s only a doll! So give it a little more inspired goofiness, some real pizzazz!

Along with Barbies of all shapes and colors, here are some Barbies I’d personally like to see:

Dinner Roll Barbie. A Barbie with multiple love handles, double chin, a real, curvy belly, generous tits and ass and voluminous thighs to show girls that voluptuousness is also beautiful. Comes with miniature basket of dinner rolls, bucket o’ fried chicken, tiny Entenmann’s walnut ring, a brick of Sealtest ice cream, three packs of potato chips, a T-shirt reading “Only the Weak Don’t Eat!” and, of course, and appetite.

Birkenstock Barbie. Finally, a doll made with horizontal feet and comfortable sandals. Made from recycled materials.

Bisexual Barbie. Comes in a package with Skipper and Ken.

Butch Barbie. Comes with short hair, leather jacket, “Silence = Death” T-shirt, pink triangle buttons, Doc Martens, pool cue and dental dam. Packaged in cardboard closet with doors that fling wide open. Barbie Carpentry Business sold separately.

Our Barbies, Ourselves. Anatomically correct Barbie, both inside and out, comes with spreadable legs, her own speculum, magnifying glass and detailed diagrams of female anatomy so that little girls can learn about their bodies in a friendly, nonthreatening way. Also include: tiny Kotex, booklets on sexual responsibility. Accessories such as contraceptives, sex toys, expanding uterus with fetus at various stages of development and breast pump are all optional, underscoring that each young woman has the right to choose what she does with her own Barbie.

Harley Barbie. Equipped with motorcycle, helmet, shades. Tattoos are non-toxic and can be removed with baby oil.

Body Piercings Barbie. Why should Earring Ken have all the fun? Body Piercings Barbie comes with changeable multiple earrings, nose ring, nipple rings, lip ring, navel ring and tiny piercing gun. Enables girls to rebel, express alienation and gross out elders without actually having to puncture themselves.

Blue Collar Barbie. Comes with overalls, protective goggles, lunch pail, UAW membership, pamphlet on union organizing and pay scales for women as compared to men. Waitressing outfits and cashier’s register may be purchased separately for Barbies who are holding down second jobs to make ends meet.

Rebbe Barbie. So why not? Women rabbis are on the cutting edge in Judaism. Rebbe Barbie comes with tiny satin yarmulke, prayer shawl, tefillin, silver kaddish cup, Torah scrolls. Optional: tiny mezuzah for doorway of Barbie Dreamhouse.

B-Girl Barbie. Truly fly Barbie in midriff-baring shirt and baggy jeans. Comes with skateboard, hip hop accessories and plenty of attitude. Pull her cord, and she says things like, “I don’t think so,” “Dang, get outta my face” and “You go, girl.” Teaches girls not to take shit from men and condescending white people.

The Barbie Dream Team. Featuring Quadratic Equation Barbie (a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician with her own tiny books and calculator), Microbiologist Barbie (comes with petri dishes, computer and Barbie Laboratory) and Bite-the-Bullet Barbie, an anthropologist with helmet, camera, detachable limbs, fake blood and kit for performing surgery on herself in the outback.

Transgender Barbie. Formerly known as G.I. Joe.

Writer, journalist, inadvertent humorist.

Areas of specialty: politics, women’s issues, cultural criticism, arts, satire, travel.

Background: Made, born, raised in New York City. Since I keep getting queries from high school students using my work in speech contests: Yes, I was born after 1960. No, I don't put my exact birthday on the Internet. I've been advised against this.

Career: Author of three nonfiction books, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and Kiss My Tiara (see bookshelf). Have contributed to numerous anthologies, worked as journalist, and written for New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Ms., Real Simple, Washington City Paper, Us magazine among others. Won New York Press Association Award for features written on assignment in Poland.

Television: Appeared twice on “The Today Show” for promotion of books as well as ABC World News; WGN-America; WCAU-TV "The 10!" in Philadelphia; "AM Northwest" on ABC in Portland, OR; NBC affiliates in New Haven & Seattle; “Connie Martinson Talks Books";“The Iyanla Show"; “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.”

Radio: Commentator for National Public Radio. Until 2010, co-hosted "Bookmark," a monthly book show on World Radio Switzerland.  Have contributed to World News Radio in Washington, D.C. Guest on dozens of radio shows across U.S. and Australia, including WNYC's “Leonard Lopate Show,” WGN in Chicago, Pacifica Radio in Berkeley,  the Buzz in Portland, the Kim Wilde Show, ABC Radio Australia "Breakfast Club," ABC Radio National "Life Matters," ABC Canberra "Sunday Brunch."
Fiction writing: Short stories published in Ploughshares, Story, Beloit Fiction Journal, Greensboro Review, Virginia Quarterly Review; awarded VQR's 1999 Literary Award for short fiction. 

Sordid past: Worked as Washington D.C. speech writer and as staff writer for Member of U.S. Congress.

Not-so-sordid past: Columnist for now-defunct HUES magazine and NYPerspectives newspaper. Taught writing and literature at University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University. Also: cocktail waitress, legal aid, food service worker, inept receptionist.

Education: University of Michigan (MFA in Creative Writing), Brown University (BA in Literature), Stuyvesant High School.

Writing teachers: Nicholas Delbanco, Charles Baxter, Al Young, Rosellen Brown, and last, but most pivotally, beloved Frank McCourt (RIP). I learned volumes from all of these great writers and bow before them. I bow before all teachers, in fact.  (Don't get me started on how under-appreciated and underpaid they are...)

Fun facts: As said child, I was forced to learn Transcendental Meditation (see “Love and the Maharishi” in Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress.) Afraid of clowns and puppets. Kicked out of Betty Owen Secretarial School.

First literary influences: The three Johns: Steinbeck, Updike, and Cheever. Also Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, J.D. Salinger -- the usual 20th century local suspects.

Funny, but... I never set out to write books that made people laugh. My main love has always been literary fiction, and the first book I completed (which has yet to be published) was a collection of serious short stories. However, even with my darkest work, people would always tell me that parts of it were funny. This annoyed me because I aspired to be an American Dostoevsky with Breasts.   
But in 1999, I took a writers' workshop at the Bethesda Writers' Center. The first story I submitted was a heartbreaking tale of a man's addiction, which impressed the class. The second was an absurd story about mistaken identity full of Jews, Rastafarians, and dental hygienists. To my great irritation, the class liked this one infinitely more. After class, a man pulled me aside. "I have to tell you," he said. "My wife has been battling breast cancer. I read her your story last night, and it was the first time in two years she really laughed. You've got a gift. Please don't ignore it. Not everyone can make a sick woman laugh in her hospital bed."  That's when I finally saw the merit in my own, lurking smart-ass and stopped fighting it.

Advice for aspiring writers: Don't do it. If you're good at anything else besides writing -- and you have a modicum of passion for it-- spare yourself. The majority of any writer's life is spent in complete isolation, staring catatonically at a blinking cursor, then rewriting each sentence fifteen thousand times in what is essentially a codified form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Perversely, if you do this often enough and are successful at it, people will tell you that your writing "is so simple -- it sounds just like you talking" and that they, too, now are thinking off "taking a few months off" to write a book. Better to become a process-server, a bartender, or a taxidermist if you're that masochistic.

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