As the iconic doll turns 50 this month, Susan Shapiro reveals why after all these years Mattel’s star is still her role model.
In all my years as a Barbie freak, I’d never seen these two dolls before. But while looking for cheap typing paper at the Astor Place Kmart, I spied two unusual gorgeously costumed Batgirl and Poison Ivy Barbies, modeled after the DC Comics characters. Considering Barbie turns 50 today—and I will soon be 50 myself—you’d think I’d be over my obsession with her by now. Not so. Twenty dollars each, I had to have them.
I’ve been mesmerized by the popular fashion icon for decades. Growing up the only girl in a conservative Midwest clan of boys, I was Mattel’s dream customer. A friendless loner overshadowed by three brilliant younger brothers I resented, I’d escape into the pretend female-dominated world spread across my pink carpet: Barbie, Skipper, Skooter, Francie, Midge, Casey, Ken, GI-Joe (stolen from the boys), 5 Little Kiddles, and 12 Dawn Dolls so tiny instead of changing their clothes, I’d just switch their heads.
A sex therapist friend once surmised I was healthy because I’d taken all my aggression out on the poor dolls.
Unable to throw out or give away any of my bedraggled Barbies, I made my mother ship them to the downtown Manhattan apartment I shared with my husband, Aaron. He hated my Barbies, insisting they made our living space look “wussy” (while he called his framed baseball and Batman artifacts “art”). So I agreed to cram my childhood collectibles on one shelf in the bedroom. Adding my spiffy superheroes to the old gang, I kept the new dynamic duo in their boxes, rationalizing that they’d be more valuable if I didn’t remove packaging, or cut off their hair and noses, as I had as a kid. (A sex therapist friend once surmised I was healthy because I’d taken all my aggression out on my poor dolls.)
This past winter, while I was giving a reading at Barnes & Noble, my friend Julie walked in the bookstore with her nine-year-old daughter, Lucy. Julie was a generous editor who’d given me freelance work when I was broke and struggling and championed my books. Like many feminist working moms, she wasn’t a fan of the voluptuous plaything. Who could blame her? The German sex toy that Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler Americanized in 1959, using the nickname of her daughter Barbara, had the equivalent of a female 38-18-33 measurements. A recent film documentary pointed out the irony that Barbie, the ultimate pop culture Aryan-looking insider, was popularized by a Jew, the quintessential outsider. Was that the secret to my early joy—that I was the angry Semitic nerd controlling the whole blonde cheerleading squad?
Feeling no need to expose her child to this bimbo in a bathing suit, Julie had banned them from her household. Then I showed up with a regal President Barbie for Lucy’s third birthday, pointing out that being Barbied-out in my youth had not stopped me from embracing work or feminism, and Julie relented. By the arrival of her second daughter Diana, their house was packed with Barbies and her glittery pink accessories. Though I’m childless, I felt a special bond to Lucy, who saw me as Barbie’s savior.
At the reading, I lured little Lucy to the after party at my place by promising to show her my Barbie collection. I noticed her mom giving me “No way! We have to leave” signals. Too late—Lucy couldn’t resist. She wound up fascinated by my doll array, especially smitten with Batgirl. As she clutched the box holding my black and yellow caped crusader close, I heard the echo of my psychoanalyst—whose apartment had been destroyed on 9/11—admonishing me that people I cared about counted, not possessions. I suddenly realized that Lucy was the little girl now, not me. I was no longer the angry loner hiding out with my fake family in Barbie’s Dream House, plastic miniatures my only pals. I was a grownup, happily married author who played with words, not dolls, hosting a crowded soiree filled with real friends. I’d learned Batgirl and Poison Ivy had been discontinued. Yet in the middle of my party, awash in ambivalence, I had the painful revelation of what my next move had to be.
“Here, I want you to have Batgirl,” I told Lucy, consoling myself that I’d still have the green-clad, redheaded Poison Ivy.
“Cool, thanks,” Lucy said, adding, “Diana will be so jealous.”
With my unresolved sibling issues, I certainly couldn’t exacerbate someone else’s sisterly rivalry. So I did what any adult who had spent a fortune on psychotherapy would do. I gave up Poison Ivy too, for Diana. I soon received a painstakingly drawn beautiful thank you picture of me, Lucy, Diana, Batgirl and Poison Ivy that almost made my sacrifice worth it. I showed it to Aaron, who nodded obliviously and said, “Cute.” Every time I passed by the shelf, I mourned my colorful missing duet. But it was time to be mature and move on.
Or maybe not.
A month later, a package arrived: two boxes filled with Poison Ivy and Batgirl! There was no card though, so I was confused how they’d come back to me. Had Julie deemed the scantily clad creatures bad role models? When I emailed, Julie said my former Batgirl and Poison Ivy were long ago unpacked and mangled amid her girls’ toys. So who could have possibly understood my weird loss and tracked down their clones? I shared the mystery with Aaron.
“Why didn’t you think of me?” he asked, looking hurt.
“You? Really? How did you know?” I asked in awe. “Where did you find another Batgirl and Poison Ivy?”
“You can get anything on eBay,” he answered, proving that the Internet was miraculous, and that it really was never too late to have a happy childhood.
Every day, replacement Batgirl and Poison Ivy remind me how cool it is that I grew up to live in a Greenwich Village Dream House with my real-life Ken. I now keep extra Princess and President Barbies in the closet for visiting little girls, who are no longer allowed to take home mine.
Susan Shapiro, a Manhattan-based writing teacher, is the author of 5 books. Her first novel Speed Shrinking comes out in August. She still has every one of her Barbie's.