Hey Barbie! She's So Cool, All Dolled Up

Jul 27, 2023 by Amber McClain Shaw, in Blog Posts

I loved Barbie as a little girl. I had several Barbie dolls, along with an inflatable pool and pool furniture, and a cruise ship. One year for Christmas Santa bought me a huge bag of Barbie shoes, all different kinds, that I happily spent days sorting and organizing and trying on. Where this bag of shoes came from, in the days before online ordering and Amazon, I have no idea.

I played Barbies with my best friend and neighbor, but when she wasn’t available, I had to play by myself or get creative. I had two younger sisters, who were not as enamored with the dolls as I was. So I barricaded them in my room with me and made them play along, no doubt involving some sort of Love Boat-inspired lounging by the pool with lots of clothing changes. Barbie didn’t need to be taken care of, like a baby doll, so she had many more possibilities for play. She took on whatever personality or role I assigned to her, often role-playing situations like slumber parties and petty sister and friend disagreements. One of my sisters became Barbie-averse, developing mild Barbie PTSD from being forced to play in my elaborate Barbie universe.

Ken as a pilot, Barbie as frisky flight attendant. A little disturbing considering my dad was a pilot.

I also had, and still have the Donny and Marie Osmond Barbie dolls. They did not change out of their sparkly purple costumes. They looked out of place wearing Barbie and Ken’s clothes. All they did was sing into the microphones attached to their hands.

Barbie faded from my play in middle school, replaced by more social activities like roller skating, disco dancing lessons, a speed-reading course, and an exhausting series of unrequited crushes.

My Barbies, and all their clothes, remained in a box that moved with me multiple times, from house to house, through getting married and having children. The box resurfaced during a move when my boys were 3, 5, and 6. I was curious what the boys would do with the Barbies if they were added to their Brio and K’nex and Legos and the smooth maple building blocks they favored. The boys took off all their clothes and then turned them into projectiles, throwing them back and forth to each other. Once the Barbies were naked and could fly, the boys lost interest in them. There’s nothing interesting about a naked Barbie.

A few years later, I got the box back out and decided to host a party with my friends, where we would play with Barbies. A kind of throwback to girlhood. I was clearly needing some feminine energy in my House of Surging Testosterone. My friends played along, and I didn’t have to lock them in my house. I did have to supply plenty of wine though. The play devolved into laughing hysterically as we posed the Barbies in all sorts of compromising positions. It was so much fun. My sister with the Barbie PTSD was cured.

An artist friend invited me to an art class in a garage in San Francisco where we brought our own Barbie and then used paints, glue guns, and all kinds of fabric and other artist materials to turn her into an artwork. Some of the creations got really weird really fast. Amputations were happening. It all felt dangerous and subversive like there were some people working out anger issues. I couldn’t hurt Barbie. My Barbie got fur accessories and a tattoo. One of the Barbie art pieces I created is still my parking assistant; she hangs from the ceiling of my garage, to help me park my car with precision. When her pointed toes, painted gold, touch my windshield, I’m in the right spot. 

A few years after that, it was time to get out the Christmas stuff and decorate the tree and the house. My boys, young teens and a tween, refused to show the slightest interest or participate in this ritual. I tried bribing them with brownies and hot chocolate. I tried citing the importance of tradition, of family participation. They were absolutely not interested and neither was my husband. I said we wouldn’t have any decorations that year. They just shrugged and went back to bouncing super balls and launching paper planes all over the house.

I was so sad and frustrated, and then a spark of inspiration lit up my brain. If I was going to decorate the tree just for myself, then I was going to decorate it with Barbies! I got out the Barbie box, and I dressed each one in a fancy gown. I found shoes and accessories and fixed their hair. I put lights on the tree and then nestled each Barbie on a branch. I adjusted their positions until they looked just right, and I was so pleased with myself. I created a tree I loved, and I did not care if my family noticed it or not.

The boys looked at the tree with some concern. They refused to get close to it, in case I tried to snap a photo. They might not have liked it, but word got out and I had people calling me to ask if they could come over and see my tree. I happily gave tours. One of my friends told me he thought it was an impressive work of art (his name was not Ken by the way).

I have quite a collection of Barbie clothing, from a few pieces handmade by my maternal grandmother to wedding dresses and suggestive schoolgirl uniforms. This last year I celebrated the holidays near the beach with my family, so my tree was decorated with Barbies dressed as mermaids. My family still thinks I’m crazy but they have come to expect this rather unusual holiday decoration scheme.

And now, a Barbie movie is in theaters, with some of my favorite actors! From the moment I saw the first scene in the first trailer for the movie, I was filled with anticipation. When I saw Barbie’s foot step out of her shoe, I was transfixed. I’ve been eagerly awaiting the movie, but before I got a chance to see it that first weekend, my oldest son called me. He had somehow beaten me to it. “MOM, you have got to see the Barbie movie! You will love it, it reminded me of you so much.” 

What a surprising turn of events. My son, who refused to have his picture taken with a Barbie tree, saw the movie before I did, and loved it. I feel validated. Or vindicated? Or both.

Barbie may be polarizing to some, but to me, she is a symbol of creativity. She is a doll with her own house and car and is an independent career woman with many possibilities and no responsibilities and an incredible wardrobe. I spent many happy hours of my childhood with Barbie and my imagination. Barbie is still a creative inspiration; from the treasured toy of my childhood to current artistic endeavors and quirky decorations. I’m looking forward to taking my mom and sisters, and a few friends, to the Barbie movie to celebrate and honor both our collective childhood toy, and the limitless creativity of Barbie.

*Check out my newseltter, The Bon Mot, Issue 14 for more on the Barbie movie, Barbie podcasts, and Barbie art. You can find links to my newsletters in the blog titled Newsletters!