Waiting for Barbie
By Anne Anlin ChengOctober 20, 2023
I remember the moment so well: my mother opening the letter at dinner to find the ticket; her hand going instinctively to her lips to hide her smile; my grandfather reaching across the table to take the envelope from her hands, look over the contents, and then promptly tear them up, saying, “How ridiculous—and what a waste of money. A grown woman abandoning her children to go gallivanting around the world! He’s there to work, not to play.” I was too scared to say: “But, Agon, you are the one wasting the tickets!” Years later, I asked my mom why she just sat there silently. She said, well, back then, we did what we were told by our fathers.
A couple of weeks after that incident—my mother still at home with us—a box arrived for me in the mail. It was filled with the most exquisite, luxurious collection of rainbow-colored miniature clothes. I was afraid my grandfather would not let me keep the gift, but he only frowned and said something about my father’s stubborn extravagance. And extravagant it was! I had never seen, much less owned, anything like this. It was a mini trunk show of glittery evening gowns, trim day dresses, tailored jackets and fur capes, ensembles for special outings from going to the beach to attending the recital. There were accompanying tiny purses, hats, scarves, and sunglasses. But the most wondrous were the teeny shoes. I am talking pumps, sandals, mini boots, each perfectly formed, perfectly arched. Their ultra-plasticness connoted to me everything new, inventive, and foreign.
I especially liked to squeeze the tiny shoes between my fingers. I loved their squishiness, their “Q-feel,” the way I could make the heel meet the toe and how they’d spring back to form upon release. I loved their bubblegum colors, their gallant one-pieceness, their happy self-containment. I played with the entire wardrobe for hours at a time. I laid out each item on the table or the floor. I hung them on pencils. I organized them by function or hue or mood. I mixed and matched, each ensemble calling for different scenes and scenarios, each embodying a story of its own. I had a whole universe.
Months later, my father returned, saw me playing with the miniature clothes, and asked where I had put the doll. The doll? What doll? It never occurred to me or my mother that there would have been an owner for these impossibly perfect little clothes. My parents suspected that some rogue customs agent must have filched said doll. (Back then, I thought some grown-up must’ve stolen the doll for their own little girl. Now I try not to dwell too long on the other possibilities.) What I had thought was the best toy turned out to have been mere accessories, circling, unbeknownst to me, a missing center, the real toy: Barbie herself.
My father had found this doll in an upscale Ginza toy shop on a junket to Tokyo. He hesitated a long time due to the expense, but he finally decided to splurge because it was such a pretty and novel thing. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but Barbie was not a household name or sight in the 1960s and early ’70s in Taiwan. And although Japan was the original manufacturing site for Barbie beginning in 1959, in those early decades, the doll’s sales in Japan flagged. Mattel, the world’s largest toy company, was not even in the top 20 suppliers in Japan, which had then been the second-largest toy market in the world. In 1996, Atsuko Tatsumi, an executive director of the Japanese newsletter Weekly Toy News, had this curious and chilling explanation for Barbie’s lack of popularity in Japan: Barbie was simply “too beautiful for the Japanese.” One can take Tatsumi’s remark to mean that the writer thought that the traditional Japanese market might not have been ready for Barbie’s overglamorized and overeroticized appearance, but the choice of words here also seems to carry a whiff of nationalist self-rejection, as if Barbie was simply too American, too modern, too blonde for the Japanese.
Barbie was always meant to be aspirational: little girl, you too can grow up to be this beautiful. But that aspiration has always carried with it a promise, too, of disappointment and shame, because the gendered—and, I would add, racial—ideal is impossible. The history of dolls in the United States, like the idea of beauty itself, has always been a deeply dysphoric one. In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), the annual gift of a blonde, blue-eyed doll from the Black women in her family throws the child narrator Claudia into anger and despair. Morrison’s novel itself draws from the famous “doll test” conducted by social psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s and ’50s documenting Black children’s psychological abjection in Jim Crow America, an experiment that became the key evidence in desegregating the nation in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). We can see a real-life market version of the doll test when Mattel first advertised their “Black Barbie” in 1980. Mattel almost went bankrupt that decade as they discovered that most little girls, Black or white, wanted the original Barbie. Greta Gerwig’s 2023 Barbie film unwittingly restaged a version of the doll test when the filmmaker populated Barbieland with a host of alternative Barbies—fat, pregnant, “weird,” Black, Asian—but we all knew who the real Barbie was: Margot Robbie, white, blonde, blue-eyed … “Stereotypical,” indeed.
From dolls’ fundamentally patriarchal function (teaching little girls how to be good mothers or to be forever-cute dolls themselves) to their roles as symbols of racial injury (as in the Clark doll test), is it any wonder that Djuna Barnes wrote that to “give [a girl] a doll” is to give her an “effigy”?
I did not grow up with dolls, which is odd given how much the women in my family—my grandmother, my mother, my many aunts—cherished girliness. Let me be clear: they did not value girls (“you feed girls only to give them away”); they valued girliness. Everything I knew about femininity—its modesty, its delicacy, its compliance, its dollishness—came from the real women in my life. The only doll I knew from childhood stood inside a tall glass case in the music room on the second floor of my grandmother’s house in Tainan. Her still face was made of porcelain, her body encased in a tiered, European gown of black and red lace, and I knew not to touch her. I simply did not have off-the-shelf toys the way my children in the United States did. (Was it the times? Were we that poor? Were my parents just strict?) My favorite plaything before the sartorial splendor that my father sent me was a thick stack of tear-away subscription postcards that I diligently collected from my mother’s women’s magazines. They were fabulous: they could be money when I played bank, or mail when I played post office, or secret papers when I played spy.
One year my grandmother did bring me back from the US a huggable toy called a teddy bear. No one I knew had seen or owned such a thing. It was covered in the softest yellow fur with a round white furry belly. After an initial touch, the bear was put back in its plastic wrap. My grandmother and mother said the fur was not washable and Taipei was too dusty, too humid, and my hands too grubby. The toy would be ruined in less than a week unless I promised to keep it in its bag. It did seem to me even as a child that this bear was not a very good idea; it belonged to some other shiny, dust-free world where nothing sticks. For weeks I carried the bear around in its crinkly bag. Eventually, I put it in the back of the closet, not only because feeling the bear through the plastic was unsatisfying, but also because it appeared to me as though the bear were suffocating.
I look back on that scene at the dinner table and think about all the grown-up, muffled desires swirling around me, whose intensity weighed on me but whose meaning I could only parse many years later: my grandfather’s need for control in the face of his daughter’s adult life, my mother’s passivity and its surely unspoken resentment, my father’s struggles to prove himself in a system that both privileged (he got to go abroad to study) and disciplined him.
We were all on the verge of changes that we could not define. Just a year before the Osaka Expo, a man had walked on the moon! From the vantage of our small Taipei apartment, it felt as if the world outside were shifting vistas quicker than we could grasp. My father returned from his trip with a treasure trove of newfangled gadgets. There was the porcelain figurine of the couple holding hands underneath a blue “weather” umbrella that would miraculously change color when it rained outside. There was the viewfinder through which you could see everything from lions in Africa to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. There was a shoebox cassette player/recorder with which my brother and I played reporter, running around, pestering and interviewing adults. But sometimes my dad would just leave the recorder on in the background while we prepared and ate dinner. Years later, I would listen to that spectral, grainy evidence of our daily past: the scratchy ambient sounds of people and chairs moving about, my mother consulting my grandmother about the snow peas, my brother and I arguing about what we saw on TV, the static of household noises. It sounded like we had a house full of dozens of people though there were only six of us. And then there were the multiple trays of color slides of the world’s fair, transcribed (for longevity) from the film in my father’s camera. I would ask my father to project the slides again and again on our living room wall, never tiring of the exotic images or of my father’s narration, what he saw and what he thought. It felt as if all these objects, playthings really, held all the longings and wishes that were held, suspended, stretched between us and him across the waters.
Just two years after my father’s return, we left my grandparents and all of our relatives to move to the United States. The vast empty spaces and networks of layered highways in the US had seemed as fantastical to me as a toy-scape. One of the first things my father did was take me to a toy store to buy me a Barbie. My father and I were both more distressed than delighted when we saw rows after rows of Barbie with her identical wide smiles encased behind clear plastic in individual boxes. Apparently, we couldn’t buy just a Barbie. If you wanted different outfits, you had to buy individual Barbies, each with her own unique ensemble: Malibu Barbie, Western Barbie, Ballerina Barbie. More than the cost, I didn’t understand how I was supposed to develop a relationship with a doll who came in multiple duplicates of herself. It felt jarring, splintering. I knew my father was deeply chagrined that his special gift to me was ruined, that I had missed out on the heart of the present, but the truth is, I didn’t feel like I had lost out. I am glad I had encountered, first, Barbie’s ownerless wardrobe and its gloriously endless, inventive, impersonal possibilities.
Anne Anlin Cheng is a professor of English at Princeton University and 2023–24 Scholar in Residence at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Her book of personal essays, Ordinary Disasters, is forthcoming from Alfred A. Knopf in 2024.
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