I was. Still am, to some degree. What with the horrendous price tag, that pincer waist, those plastic-perfect legs, the general airhead demeanour (not to mention the toxic paint and glitter), the doll seems more like some rich paedophile’s fantasy than a toy. Barbies are structured so that they can't stand - their feet are arched exaggeratedly to convey high-heeled shoes. Way to go, doll-designers at Mattel. Let every kid aspire to grow to be a woman with a pretty face, big hair, long legs and no way to stand on her own!
Amit and I are official members of the Hate Barbie Club. We’ve always been. We were cussed enough to refuse my American niece a ‘Baahwbee’ and got her a tea set instead. When Amit’s niece wheedled for a Barbie kitchen set (“But it’s for my doll!"), we bought her a book instead. When I think of those moments of adult bull-headedness now, I cringe.
As with everything, it took a child to change us. When n was a little under two, we caught her staring up at a wall of bubblegum pink Barbie boxes in a toy store, an unusual gleam in her eyes. She said she wanted them. We took down one box and – cleverly, so cleverly – told her that she could play with the box here, but couldn’t take it home. She’d have to give it back to the Uncle in the store. It was his.
She fell for it twice. The third time she went ballistic. “No,” she screamed, “I want to take it home!” Slyly, we distracted her and brought her back Barbie-less. It slowly grew into a rant, this Barbie craving of hers. The craving grew into an obsession, and we almost gave in, till our friend Geeta stepped in and got it for her.
N grabbed the blonde vision and went straight for the chest. She looked up at me in wonder and said, “It has babu, amma”. Babu was the word that she’d invented for breasts. She played with the doll all evening, making us wince a bit. Our kid? The Barbie fan? Ah well. Soon her aunt Vanya got her a second Barbie, an Indian version – nicely brown-skinned, dark-haired and all – a tad more human than the blonde vision. But still unable to stand, of course.
After about a week or so of receiving both the dolls, n had nothing to do or say with them. She couldn’t cuddle them, play with them, nothing. Too young to care about their clothes still, I think she liked the pink packaging more. When we went out for dinner or to the park, she’d insist on taking one of her ‘babies’ along – a motley crew of seven or eight cuddly dolls, bears and a My Little Pony (gifted by Hemant) – to show them a good time. But never the poor Barbies. They seemed the lowest in the doll heap.
And they stayed there. She’d smile at them occasionally, and gawk at the glossy Barbie ads on TV. But nothing more. Till I noticed the other day that both the golden and the brown-haired ones were out of the toy drawer. When my mom came to play with n that day, I realized the secret of its sudden appearance.
Granny and baby had invented a new game. There was a child-gobbling yakshi (Malayalam for witch) on the prowl, and all the fat teddy bears and dolls were at risk. Mom lunged at them, brandishing each Barbie in turn, and screaming, “I am the yakshi! I want to eat the baby!” N grabbed her nearest doll and scooted, laughing and screaming for her life and the doll’s. She rushed to me, flushed and excited, and said, “I saved my doll from the yakshi!”
I was surprised to see that Barbie – uber beauty queen – was named the witch. Why, I asked mom. She said that when they were planning the game it was found that n was ‘too attached’ to the other dolls. They had been named by her, and she didn’t want any of them to be made into witches. So the only thing they could find was good ol’ Barbie! Also, said mom nodding gravely, a yakshi has to be conventionally beautiful in order to draw unsuspecting people to her.
I think perhaps we – Amit and me in particular – fear wily marketers (and their choice of gorgeous bubblegum pink for packaging) too much. I don’t think we trust the average child’s robustness enough (or granny’s for that matter). Give them their Barbies, I say, and they’ll realize how useless the dolls are soon enough. Not cuddly, not believable, and simply not worth much love apparently.
(Maybe Mattel should come up with a Barbie in Macbeth? All done up in basic black with a broom and all. Might make the poor things a little more interesting.)