I was thirty-three years old when I bought my first Barbie doll. My niece had been born a few years earlier, and I decided that I wanted to have some toys on hand in case she–or any of my other friends with small children–visited. When I told my friend Trixie that I bought a Barbie, she became quite upset.
“Why the @#%* did you buy a Barbie?” she said.
To say that Trixie’s reaction was unexpected, is putting it mildly. “Um … because that’s what little girls play with, isn’t it?”
“Let me tell you a sad story,” Trixie began. “Once there was a little brunette girl who always received blond dolls for birthdays, Christmas, and when her father didn’t show up for his visitations and tried to buy her love once he sobered up. And do you know what message that blond doll said to her little, dark-haired self?”
“Play with me?”
“No!” She jabbed a finger into my chest. “That blond bitch said, ‘You are a second class female and you always will be!’”
“Really?” I asked. “Barbie said that to you?”
“Take her back!”
“Take Barbie back and get a brunette friend of Barbie,” Trixie said.
“But my niece is blond, Trixie,” I said. “If I exchange Barbie for a dark-haired doll, am I not sending her message that says, ‘You’re a second class citizen?’”
Trixie folded her arms across her chest. “Well, obviously you’re a lost cause,” she huffed and stormed off.
I didn’t think anything more of the conversation until Trixie gave me a package for my birthday. I tore off the wrapping paper to find a black Ken doll starting back at me.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Since you refused to return your blond Barbie, I decided to give you a dark-haired Ken to balance things out.”
“This isn’t a Ken doll,” I said. “He’s black.”
“Oh, so in addition to being an Aryan-supremacist, now you’re a racist! Why don’t we just call him Mandingo!”
“I’m not a racist,” I hissed. “I simply stated that this is not a Ken doll. I also noted that he’s African-American.”
“So he’s a black Ken,” Trixie argued.
“According to Mattel’s packaging, his name is Steven. He’s the main squeeze for Barbie’s friend Christy, who is also African-American.”
“Well, if you want to nitpick–”
“Wait a minute! Don’t even go there,” I said. It was beginning to dawn on me that there was something bigger going on here than the fact Trixie had bought Barbie a companion other than the one she is typically partnered with. It was like reading about Wilma Flintstone and Homer Simpson having an affair in the National Enquirer. “You know, I don’t think this is about me; this is about you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Trixie suddenly became very interested in her fingernails. “You said that you wanted Barbie to have a companion.”
“No, I said that I wanted Barbie to have a Ken. When people think of Barbie, they think of Barbie and Ken–not Barbie and Steven,” I said. “I didn’t even know that Steven existed.”
“If you just take some time to get to know Steven, I’m sure that you’ll grow fond of him,” Trixie said. “I’m simply trying to cultivate some diversity in your niece’s world, but it seems to me that you’re bothered to have Barbie shacking up with a black man. You’re a racist!”
“For the love of God, I’m not racist! I don’t care if Barbie dates a black man or whether she becomes a lesbian.” I sighed. “Do you know what it seems like to me? It seems like you bought Steven because you wanted to make me feel like you always felt when you received a blond Barbie as a little girl.”
Trixie grew quiet. “When I told you what it felt like to always receive a blond Barbie as a little brunette girl, it seemed like you were making light of my feelings.”
In that moment, my heart went out to Trixie. Granted, as an adult she had totally disregarded my feelings about what I had wanted, but her action was motivated by the hurt of little girl who felt that she wasn’t good enough as is.
“I’m sorry, Trixie, I wasn’t making fun of you,” I said. I rubbed my temples. It seemed that something so simple had become so needlessly complicated. “If you felt brunettes weren’t equally represented in y niece’s life, then why didn’t you just buy one of Barbie’s dark-haired friends?”
“Well … I recently realized that I’m really attracted to black men,” she said.
A long silence followed. We both looked at Steven, then our eyes met. There was a hungry look in Trixie’s eyes and I suddenly felt very protective of Steven, so I sent Trixie home to take a cold shower. What really mattered is that Trixie and I had both been heard.
In the meantime, I introduced Barbie to Ken. I wasn’t sure how things would work out, at first, because Steven thought that Barbie was too aggressive at first and Barbie felt that Steven was too reserved for her taste. But I sent them off to one of those places where you have a few glasses of wine and tapas while you fire a ceramic ash tray, and one thing led to another …
For the past nine years, Barbie and Steven have been living together in a suitcase. Sometimes parents will get a bewildered expression on their face. “Where’s Ken?” they ask.
“There’s not one,” I reply.
“But Barbie is always with Ken,” they say, automatically, without thinking.
“Well, Barbie used to think that way, too, but then she met Steven and fell in love with his sense of humor,” I say. “They’re really happy together.”
They laugh. Then they notice the dark-haired Kayla. “So who’s Barbie’s friend?”
“You remember my friend Trixie? Well, she recently became intrigued by polyamorous love.”
Of course, that’s another story …