Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Guns and Poses

By Margaret Renkl

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  Barbie, that pliable precursor of anorexia in adolescent girls, is undergoing plastic surgery. By the end of next year, according to Mattel's director of marketing communications, Barbie's waist (at least in some versions of the doll) will be thicker, her hips slimmer, and her lips closed rather than breathlessly parted (as if to demur? to coo? to perform fellatio?). She'll have a grown-up woman's nose instead of the infantile pug she's had since her introduction in 1959, and her bosom will be trimmed down from its triple-D heft. The plasticine breasts will retain, however, their current perkiness and lack of nipples.

Although only six of the 24 versions of Barbie available in 1998 will have undergone a makeover, this is still good news for parents of little girls. Not all parents worry overmuch about Barbie's insidious influence on their daughters' future self-esteem, but surely it has occurred to most of them that little Susie is not exactly likely to grow up to be the human equivalent of Mattel's perennial cash cow: nine feet tall with a waistline of 22 inches and a set of breasts no human spine is prepared to support at this stage of evolution. It just stands to reason that, if a child's understanding of adult physiognomy is even partly informed by this icon of female beauty, the gawky 12-year-old glaring in the mirror is going to find that reality falls a little short of the so-called ideal.

I know a lot of mothers who swore, for all these reasons, that no Barbie doll would ever be invited into their homes. Such mothers--some of them doctors, lawyers, and teachers--rightly understood the real world to offer more contemporary examples of adult womanhood to serve as standards for their growing children. Why let Barbie serve as a daughter's role model when real-life women look different and concern themselves with more interesting work than fashion modeling?

But logic of this sort doesn't work with children. Even the daughters of Doctor Mommy deeply covet a Barbie doll. Unconcerned with their own future self-esteem, they're just itching to get their chubby little fingers on Barbie and pull off all those tiny clothes.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I made two vows: No daughter of mine would ever own a Barbie doll, and no son of mine would ever own a toy gun. In my mind, these two corrupting toys were roughly equivalent in the danger they posed to tender young minds. It seemed to me they both catered to the innate tendencies in each gender that are least attractive and most uncivilized: the female's penchant for the superficial (fashion, for instance) and the male's proclivity for destruction, preferably by way of explosion. There would be no kowtowing to gender stupidity in our house. The girls would learn that clever accessorizing is not a skill likely to result in self-actualization; the boys would master the alien arts of negotiation, compassion, and nurturing.

As the mother of sons, I sympathize with my friends who have daughters, for if their fight to deport Barbie has been as bloody as mine to exile guns, they long ago admitted defeat. For four years I fought the anti-gun fight, but by the time our first son was 2, the gun-information blackout I'd orchestrated was over. We lived next door to a family with three little boys, all of them armed to the braces and daily engaged in bloody trench warfare with one another in the backyard. Our child would stand in the honeysuckle bushes between the two houses, his fingers clutching the chicken-wire fence, and stare at the amazing sight of his neighbors pointing daggers and rifles and sabers and bazookas at each other, all the while shouting "BLAM! KA-POW! You're dead!" while one of them clutched his belly and fell joyfully to the ground.

The next two years were a study in arms and the boy. From then on, every stick in our yard was a pistol, every wrapping-paper roll a rifle. At lunch, our child--who could speak less than 50 words in his own native tongue--would bite the corner off a saltine cracker, grasp a remaining corner, and point the rest of the cracker right at me across the table: "Pow, Mama. Pow, pow." He did stop short of shouting, "Mama, you're dead."

In time he became discontent with his imaginary guns and began an unrelenting campaign to own a "real" toy gun. Every day he reported reproachfully that some child in preschool, or in the neighborhood, owned a toy gun. The final straw came the Halloween he was 4. He wanted to be a cowboy, and he already owned the essential cowboy gear: flannel shirt, jeans, hat, boots. All he lacked, as he patiently explained to me again and again in the weeks preceding the holiday, was a six-shooter. No self-respecting cowboy would go out in public without his gun.

"But you have a real silver bolo tie, with a real turquoise in it, that Uncle Billy and Aunt Susan brought you from New Mexico," I pointed out. "Just pretend you're a cowboy going to a dance. Cowboys get dressed up for dances; then they wear bolo ties instead of guns."

He looked profoundly skeptical but wore the tie, along with the rest of his outfit, on Halloween. When I picked him up, he was standing on the curb in tears: "Cowboys do not wear ties," he announced, sniffling, as he climbed into the car. "Jaimie was a cowboy too," he said, "and Jaimie's belt had two guns on it, one for each hand." By the time we got home, the lovely silver bolo was shoved between the seats.

He repeated this accusatory tale to his father later in the afternoon, and my husband looked immensely sympathetic, as though he too could not imagine anything more humiliating than a cowboy wearing a tie. The guys at work, when I told them the story at lunch the next day, were also clearly on my son's side: I was being stupid and prissy; everyone knows that cowboys do not wear ties.

I gave in. I drove to the toy store and bought my sweet, loving little boy a toy designed to look like a lethal weapon. He's been armed ever since--at last count the toy box contained two dart guns, a pistol, two rifles, three water guns, a six-shooter, two tiny cap guns attached to key chains, and something called the Big Kahuna. A gun for all seasons.

In truth, I've become pretty sanguine about this arsenal in my home. I don't really believe my little cowboy is going to grow up to brandish real weapons at innocent people, any more than I believe my friends' daughters are going to grow up to be nine feet tall with watermelon breasts. In the end children can tell the difference between toys and reality. Most people, when they grow up, understand it's time to put away childish things.

I do wish, though, that when children play at being grown-ups--whether cowboys or fashion models--they had a few more real-life options. Modifying Barbie is a nice idea, but wouldn't it be even nicer if she had a new male counterpart, as well--maybe a Daddy-Knows-How-Too doll, one who can wipe a snotty nose with one hand while tossing salad with the other, one who can pilot a minivan full of screaming kids to soccer practice and stay to pace the sidelines, hollering encouragement at the top of his lungs: "Atta girl! You can do it! Give 'em hell, honey!"

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