I came to Barbie late. I didn’t have my first before the age of 10, maybe even 11—a fact that came to me the other day when dragging my suitcase of surviving dolls out from under the attic eaves.
My partner Sara didn’t realize I’d saved them all these years, and after our discussion about the dolls, I knew it was time to explore the impact these icons of American culture had on my childhood—using them to analyze relationships with both my mafia father and my highly religious, soon-to-be-sainted mother, the same one who dressed in tight leather pants and was known to sport a feather boa.
Perhaps, I could even use the dolls to discuss how Barbie stereotypes about femininity influenced my later lesbian identity—or my complete inability to so identify as an adolescent.
Perhaps, is some ways, my life had been manufactured by Mattel.
For example, despite his mafia affiliation, Daddy was always tons of fun. A practical joker, he had a sense of humor that rivaled that of Dick van Dyke and a more handsome head on his shoulders than my surviving but decapitated Ken doll from 1976. (Daddy even looked like Dick van Dyke.)
Let’s just say, at least, Daddy had his head attached.
With him, it was we kids who laughed our own heads off. The hilarity was endless.
I’ve shared before the fun my father had with an automatic car starter as early as 1977, back when such devises were virtually unheard of by most Americans—how he loved to startle unsuspecting, south Florida strangers, one of whom kicked the right, rear tire when the car spontaneously roared to life beside him.
But Daddy’s illegal efforts to make a living often interfered with my own freedom to play in ordinary ways. Since he worked from home, and since that, more often than not, involved locked doors, my sisters and I couldn’t come and go as we wished. On the weekends especially, when the FBI was most likely to raid, our house was barred and bolted, locked up tight as Lindsay Lohan in an LA county jail.
Daddy’s door security was built by his “customer” Cheech, who you might remember, created the tin lined cubby hole hollowed from the top of our third floor door, where Daddy could hide his fed-offending documents. However, Cheech also installed steel brackets that allowed a metal bar to fit across our rear entrance. With that barricade in place, it was nearly impossible to break down the kitchen door.
So, it was the front FBI agents always kicked in when they arrived. In fact, Daddy posted us kids regularly at windows on our third floor during times when raids seemed most likely, especially on weekends during football season, always on Super Bowl Sunday. Braided and skinned knee-ed, sometimes newly bathed and dressed in Holly Hobbie nightgowns, we were expected to spot government cars approaching and notify my father.
This advanced warning would have afforded him time to destroy incriminating evidence before agents accessed the house itself. Daddy’s bets were recorded in neat rows on flush-friendly rice paper that dissolved easily in toilet bowls. This “safety” system could have worked well had the FBI ever chosen to come when we were actually watching. Ironically, we were always caught off guard.
All of this impacted play, as you might imagine. We could play inside, or we could play outside. We couldn’t come and go between the two.
But since there was a door from our basement to the outside that could safely remain unlocked, one solution involved taking our play underground. From there we could go in and out without impacting Daddy’s security in the main part of the house. There was a toilet and a refrigerator, as well as an area where my mom had spread a piece of blue indoor-outdoor carpet over the cement floor.
Down there my sisters and I played school. Down there we roller skated, played with Barbie dolls and Lincoln Logs.
In that basement Daddy hid his metal money-box—the one filled with US dollars, the bills rubber-banded, in dime-sized ($1,000) stacks. It was there our laundry chutes led—opening into side-by-side wooden hampers large enough to crawl into and hide until we were the size of five or six-year-olds. There our washer and dryer were kept. There lived large laundry sinks and the mangle my grandmother Kimmy used to iron sheets. There were clothes lines, a furnace, the clown-covered toy box I had when I was little.
When it came time to play with Barbie dolls, however, I mostly played alone. My sisters preferred pushing Matchbox cars across the floor. My brother didn’t keep his toys with ours. He hung out upstairs with Daddy more than we did. He dressed up in super hero Underoos, tied bath towels around his neck as makeshift capes, and tumbled around the living room while Daddy worked.
But what were the implications of playing with Barbie well into early adolescence and only in the basement? What does it suggest that my surviving dolls were from the then-famous and sun-tanned Malibu line— so seemingly skin-cancered now, some 4 decades later, they’ve literally lost entire limbs?
My answers don’t come easily. I can merely guess.
I’m only sure I didn’t play with dolls the way other girls in the neighborhood did. They seemed more concerned with dressing Barbie up, combing her hair, and sending her on dates. It’s not that the outfits didn’t interest me. They did.
But my dolls didn’t date, and if they had, they wouldn’t have been paired with Ken but more likely with one another. They didn’t make a lesbian Barbie back then. Hell, they don’t make a dyke doll even now.
My Barbies didn’t live in the closet but literally underground, and I used my dolls to tell stories to myself—to act them out on our basement floor—concrete, solid, firm beneath my feet—not how I experienced myself. Instead, I felt doll-like, plastic, unreal. I inherited from my religious mother a femininity (if not habit-ed or feather-boa-ed), one that was manufactured, molded, and mass-produced.
Did I use the dolls to act out my own unlived, woman-identified femininity? Perhaps, I’ll never know.
What is certain, however, is that I later lost, not my head, but my mind. I lived in a basement of mood disorder, mania, psychosis. My dolls may have time-traveled 40 years, literally losing limbs during the intervening decades. But, in telling my story, I rewrite myself, crazy Kathy re-membered in the process.
So, this week I’ll dust off my dolls. I’ll launder their wardrobes, rescue them from architectural exile in either attic or cellar, and save them from closeting in my mother’s Sampsonite from the 1950s—their own version of dark and dated.
I can have a father from the mafia but not live myself, dismembered in some bipolar underworld. I can be a sane, whole, and liberated lesbian.
I’ve proven that already.
Did you play with Barbies or GI Joes when you were little? Is there a connection between your favorite toys back then and who you are today?
Note: I posted this a couple of hours before I read this week’s Daily Post Writing Challenge, but I think it counts. Check out the challenge and try it yourself.