Shopping in the pink aisle

Elizabeth Donald
Nov 27, 2019 · 6 min read

The Christmas tree in the church hall has an unusual array of ornaments: paper angels with words written on them.

This church I have attended for nearly twenty years adopts a number of families in need every Christmas. They take the lists of wants and needs for each family and write them on paper angels, which are hung in lieu of ornaments. Anyone with the capability to do so takes an Angel (or two) and buys the items listed, which are then collected, wrapped and delivered to the families for the holiday. Sometimes they are practical items like gas and food gift cards, blankets, clothing, shoes. For the children, they are often toys, games, the things we buy in ridiculous quantities for our own children.

I am the worst of the Angel Tree participants. I am famous for pulling an Angel and then forgetting, procrastinating, showing up with my item late… just dreadful. I swear there’s a betting pool on how Elizabeth is going to screw up this time… but they’d never say so.

Still, I resolutely pull an Angel every year, because there have been times in my family’s past when we needed angels to help us through: when I was a single mother raising my son alone on a reporter’s salary, or when my then-fiance had just proposed and was immediately laid off from the factory where he worked.

So I always pull an Angel, and this time I got a really neat one. “Girl, age 6. Barbie.”

Finally, I get to shop in the pink aisle.

Look, I raised a boy. And while I tried to avoid all those sexist stereotypes and raise him free of the expectations people place on gender roles, he gravitated heavily toward superhero action figures, Matchbox cars and Nerf weaponry anyway. He’s a sweet, softhearted fellow — now in his early twenties — and he’s a sucker for animals and small children. I very well may buy him a toy Baby Yoda for Christmas this year, just for my own amusement.

But he wasn’t interested in Barbie.

Barbie has a long and often problematic history. Even when I was a girl, people were criticizing Barbie as promoting outdated stereotypes and seriously unlikely body images. Everyone knows the traditional Barbie hourglass shape isn’t possible in life without the removal of several ribs, augmentation surgery and probably extracting several internal organs.

I didn’t care. I never looked at Barbie’s shape and thought, “That’s what I should look like.” I was too busy plotting Barbie’s adventures: she was a private detective, she was a ghost hunter, she was mayor of her small town, she was awesome and fun and I never cared who she dated, just what nifty things she was doing in my imagination.

But I was also quite pleased when Barbie started showing up in the toy aisle with other things to do. I mean, the “peaches and cream” Barbie dress was pretty and all, but wow for that Barbie “day to night” business suit complete with little briefcase and calculator.

Barbie and the Rockers were the pinnacle of ’80s fashion, with spandex and glitter and oh-my-god-the-hair.

The Barbie astronaut was gloriously shiny pink with serious shoulderpads, because it was the 80s and certain standards must be upheld, even in space. I had Barbie’s horse Dallas (but not Midnight!) and the parrot in his cage and the kitty cat and her Corvette and even the silly kitchen playset.

Confession: I have a Pinterest board of all of these toys and more. I don’t care for how many of those pins are labeled “vintage,” or the even more insulting “antiques.”

I didn’t have a Barbie Dream House because even then they were stupid expensive, but I had a lovely wooden dollhouse that my grandmother had built for me and of course it was haunted and Barbie had to investigate the ghosts. I mean, have you met me? By the time I was ten, I was sneaking Stephen King novels off my mother’s bookshelf and leaving the dust jackets in their places so she wouldn’t know I was reading them. Ghosts and vampires infested Barbie’s town on a regular basis.

Barbie was just one of those things I never got to share with my son, and my firstborn niece was not much of a Barbie fan, either. Each year at Christmas, I’d go walking past the Barbie aisle at Toys ‘R Us (RIP) and glance at the relentless PINK, sigh, and move on to the latest Doctor Octopus with removable tentacles and more Matchbox cars I would step on with my bare feet. Those things give Legos a run for their money.

But this year I snagged a Barbie from the Angel Tree! Time to find out what Barbie has been up to all these years. I mean, I’m aware that she’s undergone some serious changes — it’s been in all the news. After 60 years, Barbie’s bust size is smaller and her waist is bigger. Barbies of every ethnicity, body shape, hair color, even disabilities line the shelves. There are so many varieties of Barbie that I will even forgive them for Man-Bun Ken, because if Barbie’s rock-n-roll hair can be immortalized in 1986, surely future generations will forgive us Ken’s current look.

I knew I wanted to pick a “career” Barbie, to encourage the unnamed little girl. So I figured I might get to choose between “pet doctor” and “cook” or something.

Instead, a simple Amazon search showed me so many professions I could hardly count them, and that didn’t include the ones honoring real people like Frida Kahlo or Amelia Earhart. Astronaut Barbie was back, along with the usual pediatrician and pet doctor, sure. But also:

  • Scientist (with science lab playset!) Not to be confused with astrophysicist (with telescope!)
  • News anchor or reporter with accompanying camerawoman
  • Firefighter in quasi-realistic gear (sans gas mask)
  • Athlete: choose from soccer, tennis, gymnastics, basketball, etc.
  • Doctor, optometrist or nurse in actual appropriate-ish clothing
  • Photojournalist — wait, can I buy that one for myself?
  • Wildlife conservationist, not to be confused with marine biologist or animal rescuer or zoo doctor
  • Game developer or computer engineer
  • Robotics engineer
  • Chef
  • Farmer with tractor or chicken farmer with coop
  • Pilot or flight attendant — Barbie can be either!
  • Teacher — elementary school or music teacher or art teacher or…
  • Dentist
  • Musician of several varieties
  • Beekeeper
  • Ice skater
  • Judge — complete with lacy RBG collar!
  • Paleontologist
  • Detective or police officer
  • Construction worker

And that’s pretty much the point where I stopped scrolling, though I was still waiting for “freelance writer Barbie” to come up. Then again, a Barbie in sweatpants and Mickey Mouse T-shirt stained with coffee wearing fuzzy socks and desperately searching for her lost pen which is stuck behind her right ear might not be a bestseller.

By the way, Ken is present and accounted for among the professions. He’s a barista, soccer player, lifeguard, dentist, firefighter or surfer… and while Barbie and Skipper still do babysitting, so does Ken.

I tossed it to my friends, the Bridesmaids. We started a group chat when planning my wedding, and we never shut it down. Mary’s daughter is a beekeeper, so I could have predicted her vote: Bees! But any STEM Barbie will be influential.

The others were torn between one of the science dolls or “Presidential Candidate Barbie.” (Yes, Barbie has run for president in every campaign since 1992, with the exception of 1996.)

Sara’s daughter Beatrice was consulted, and she said wanted to encourage the girl in STEM fields or maker careers, but seeing herself as president is also important, she said.

Not everything about this timeline sucks. Representation matters, and having such a diverse array of dolls representing the wide array of potential can only be a good thing.

To be fair, it didn’t matter to me at age ten that Barbie was blond and skinny and gorgeous and wore fancy dresses, even though I was none of those things. I was a weird shy little bookworm with crazy-curly dark-brown hair, and still I loved Barbie. Not because of what they made of her, but of what my imagination made of her. She fought vampires and hunted ghosts and was mayor of her little town while saving the world.

So maybe it doesn’t matter which Barbie I pick for my unnamed little Angel. Whatever career Barbie represents won’t matter as much as what she chooses for herself.

But it can’t hurt to see her step up the mic in her presidential suit and raise her little plastic hand for the oath of office.

Elizabeth Donald

Written by

Journalist for more than 20 years, president of St. Louis SPJ, masters candidate/teaching assistant, freelance writer, editor, photographer, and fiction author.

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