Writing About Barbies
I had a professor once who wrote academic papers (and, eventually, a book) about Barbie dolls. She loved to talk about Barbies.
In the foyer to her home was the biggest Barbie collection you’ve ever seen. Right there in the entrance, where you were forced to confront it, and immediately faced with the challenge of not making fun of it, and so become complicit in the charade that it wasn’t strange for a fifty-something year old woman to have a Barbie collection so prominently placed in her otherwise tastefully decorated circa mid-nineties Southern California track home.
She was a literature professor with a specialization in contemporary African-American thought and literature, and I was in my first year of graduate school. I was having a hard time wrapping my mind around both her and her Barbies, that this was something worthy of academic scrutiny, and something upon which one could base and obtain a tenure application at a top-tier research institution.
In class, this professor would talk about going to Mattel and seeing all of the Barbie parts in big containers, huge vats full of Barbie heads, or Barbie arms, or Barbie torsos, or Barbie legs. And the big outrage — the climax of this and other like anecdotes — was that they would have a “multicultural Barbie” section, complete with its own giant containers full of Barbie parts, and they would be identical to the other, pinkish salmon-colored Barbie parts, except in a darker brown color. The outrage being, of course, that the body image of the black children who played with the Barbies would be permanently damaged by exposure to a doll that suggested that they should have the same bodies as white people, only with a darker skin color.
This was the basis of her academic vision, more or less. A laundry bin full of brown colored plastic pieces, and a budgetary decision made by a circa 1960s toy company trying to appeal to a larger market than it was historically likely upon its initial offering. Never mind the fact that white children presented with a Barbie would be presented with a similarly impossible task of obtaining a Barbie shaped body. Because even if that was true, for this professor, race was the master narrative, and it was always the thing that came up first, mattered the most, in whatever issue she was discussing.
I thought she was a reactionary fool, and she thought I was a racist idiot. We were both probably more right than either of us would ever have wanted to admit. We all have our own master narratives, the things that we look for in life that seem to be the most important, or the most significant. We bring them to everything we read, watch, or see. We walk away from the text convinced that this is what the text was about, when really we should be saying that this is what we’re about.
One day the professor said something that stuck with me, enough so that I actually wrote it down in my notebook, and underlined it twice, so that I would realize it was something I needed to remember.
What she said was, “You write about the Barbies because that is how you get people to listen to you. You write about popular culture because, even if it makes them mad, or make them think you are dumb, or shallow — it will make them listen, and that is when the real work gets done.”
And damn if she wasn’t right. Because I walked into that seminar with the chip on my shoulder that Affirmative Action had carved still intact, irritated by the fact that one of only six courses in graduate Literature courses would be devoted to African-American Thought, rather than a course in Literary Theory Across The Board, and deeply, deeply skeptical of a professor, tenured or otherwise, who wrote about Barbie dolls. But there I was, taking the damn course, and now, years later, it’s the one course that I remember like it was yesterday, and probably the one that changed the way I looked at life the most, if I had a way of gauging those kinds of things. It was the course that changed me, even against my will.
You write about the Barbies to get them to pay attention. They will probably make fun of you, and they might even get mad at you. That’s OK.