I'm finally seeing my name in lights

Lately, no matter where you look, it’s Barbie, Barbie, Barbie. The hugely popular new “Barbie” movie has scores of people writing and speaking a name that is so deeply rooted in the mid-century that you probably can’t think of a single baby named Barbara. Not now, and more than likely, not in the past several decades.

That doesn’t matter, though, because the movie has made my name (at least in a diminutive form) and the toy that also bears it wildly relevant again. And that’s not only because the name is suddenly splashed across theater signs, headlines and all manner of merchandise, far eclipsing even the notorious pink aisle in Target’s toy department. To my surprise, it’s also due to film Barbie’s resonance with adults. She’s not just your child’s Barbie anymore.

Most adults I know who’ve seen the Barbie movie have given it a thumb’s up. However, there are apparently rumblings from others, including a Texas senator, that the film promotes Chinese propaganda. And the wife of a certain U.S. Representative from Florida reportedly announced that she found the movie distasteful in its emasculation of Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken.

In my new conflict avoidance mode, I’ll avoid getting into the alleged Chinese propaganda issue. But as for Ken’s emasculation, come on! Longtime Barbie fans can attest that Ken was never meant to be anything more than an accessory for her. My sister and I always used to toss our boring, airheaded Ken doll in a corner with a degree of disgust, so we could focus on Barbie and her beautiful clothes and shoes. Nobody puts Barbie in a corner.

Yes, we ascribed negative qualities to poor Ken, while Barbie was up on a pedestal. This was back when Barbie first came out, a time when the only other dolls we’d seen were depicted as babies or young children. By comparison Barbie represented glamour, with her styled hair, sparkly clothes, heavy makeup and hoop earrings. Not to mention her strapless swimsuit and ridiculously arched feet, making her perpetually ready for high heels.

Original Barbie now strikes me as a sexist doll, but what did I know back then? Our Barbie was cool without even bothering to smile. She was something new and different. And Ken, with his simpering smile, was only “meh.”

Years later, Mattel began upgrading Barbie into a “person” of substance. By the time I reconnected with her (when my own children were Barbie fans), she’d qualified for 100 or so careers, making her more relevant and even inspirational to kids with dreams.

Given Barbie’s propensity to evolve, I’d foolishly hoped that the 60th anniversary doll, released in 2019, might have aged a bit in empathy for her earliest fans, but no such luck. Sixty year-old Barbie’s hair and makeup may be a nod to her original look, but she hasn’t aged a day. Even her feet are still arched after all those years in heels.

Did I really expect her to look like Bunion Barbie, or maybe Grandma Barbie?

Actually, that question bears a personal relevance to my own life, since my grandson calls me Grandma Barbie. I’ve even dressed the part. For Halloween last year, I wore a T-shirt with Barbie’s name across the front, above which I’d glued letters spelling Grandma. After accessorizing with a long gray wig and cat eye sunglasses, I sent a selfie to my grandson. He loved it. It’s my new favorite Barbie memory — and way better than a name in lights.

— Barb Johannesen of Hinsdale

is a guest columnist.

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