Confessions of a Barbie Smuggler
I don’t remember when I first played with a Barbie doll, but quality time with the golden-haired goddess became a daily ritual as soon as I entered kindergarten. Malibu Barbie had been introduced the year before and she held the top spot on the birthday gift wish list of every girl I knew. My BGFs (best girl friends) would bring their shiny new dolls to class each day and during recess we’d cast these plastic, fantastic lovelies as the stars in make-believe adventures of the domestic, matrimonial and fairytale variety. Boys grunting on jungle gyms and wrestling in sawdust nearby remained as oblivious to us as we were to them.
At that time, the adults in my suburban Southern California neighborhood didn’t bat an eyelid at a 5-year-old boy preferring blonde dolls to baseballs. They even found it charmingly precocious when I pushed the gender envelope further by matter-of-factly declaring, “I was born a girl and a witch turned me into a boy.” I felt free to explore every shade of femininity that Barbie afforded—as long as the doll belonged to an actual girl.
While my patient parents had restrained themselves from a Barbie intervention, they couldn’t bring themselves to buy me one—no matter how much I begged and pleaded. Eventually they compromised with Christmas gifts of G.I. Joe and Malibu Ken. My interest in Joe lasted only a few days (too butch), but Ken…he was fabulous: ice blue eyes, golden suntan and a smile that put the Osmonds to shame. Ken and I would cross the street each day to the house of my best friend Susie, who not only had two Barbies, but a Dream House and a convertible! Susie and I spent many hours over the next several years sitting on the bubblegum-pink carpet of her 12-foot square bedroom fashioning evening gowns out of Kleenex, hosting holiday parties in the Dream House and going for romantic coastal drives with Ken in Barbie’s convertible. Heaven was indeed a place on earth.
Then third grade happened.
As my peers and I approached the age of 10, Barbie suddenly became a liability and my precocious femininity was re-branded as despicable. On the playground, kids taught me new words like sissy and f*ggot. Many of the previously charmed adults now seethed with contempt at my mere presence. They did, however, maintain their composure in front of my parents, who were well respected in the community. But the boys…well, things got ugly. And violent. The metastasizing disapproval of my girly ways confused me profoundly: I was still the same kid I had always been. I hadn’t harmed or stolen from anyone—things my parents taught me were bad. I loved my Grandma and animals—things my parents taught me were good. But my love for Barbie had become the love that dare not speak its name. Everything finally came to a head when Mom and Dad informed me I was too old to play with dolls and was not allowed to do so any longer. Now even my parents were trying to break Barbie and me up. This was really serious. I felt there was no other choice but to go underground.
I began smuggling Barbies into my bedroom.
The smuggling process was easy at first. My BGFs generously sent their Barbies home with me for an overnight stay or a week’s vacation. Many of them had recently gone giddy for the guys gracing the pages of Tiger Beat and were more interested in Leif Garret and Shaun Cassidy than Ken or Skipper. Before departing their bedrooms, I stuffed a Barbie inside my jacket or down the back of my corduroy jeans, which allowed me to breeze into my home and past my parents, contraband undetected. Once I made it to my room, I locked the door and hid Barbie in the bottom drawer of my dresser beneath the bathing suits and short pants. After dinner, I would excuse myself to my room under the guise of doing homework, but was actually embarking on another secret rendezvous with the dolls. My covert operations ran so smoothly, I eventually became careless.
The first Easter morning after the No Doll decree was instituted, I woke up before the rest of the family to check out the baskets of goodies left for my brother and me by the Easter Bunny. Barbie came along to see the pretty Peeps and chocolate bunnies before they were mercilessly devoured. As soon as I plopped down next to a basket placed on the room’s blue and green shag carpeting, my mom appeared from around the hallway corner sing-saying “Happy Easter, Michael!” She had a smile on her face and a camera in her hand. I quickly swiveled towards her on my yellow pajama-clad bottom while simultaneously tossing Barbie behind me. I flashed her the toothiest grin possible, hoping she would be quickly satisfied and depart after the first flash bulb popped. Luckily she was. I watched her with the intensity of a top predator as she pivoted to the kitchen and began preparing breakfast. Then I immediately raced back into my bedroom and buried Barbie in the bottom dresser drawer. And though my parents have never commented on this, you can see Barbie’s waist-length hair peeking out from behind me in the photo my mother snapped that morning.
When puberty kicked in a few years later, the testosterone swirling through my system caused some unexpected male traits to appear. I was by no means macho, but did successfully cultivate the coolly fey air made fashionable by British punk and new wave bands of the era. And like most American teenagers in the early '80s, my interest in music, movies and school dances grew exponentially. I still loved the dolls hidden in my dresser drawer (which many of my BGFs had ultimately donated to me), but was now too busy experimenting with my own hairstyles and outfits to play dress up with Barbies. By the time I began driver’s education in the 10th grade, my dolls were relegated to a life lived solely in a dresser drawer—which was no life at all. So shortly after getting my license, I smuggled Barbies for the very last time: only they were smuggled out of the house rather than inside. The lot of us then piled into my olive green 1970 Datsun B210 and drove off together to the local Goodwill store where we said a bittersweet goodbye. Though my Barbies were loyal friends through the years, I knew they would soon be placed in a foster home where they could be loved and adored openly.
But this is not where the story ends.
Since parting ways with my Barbies, I had become a huge fan of Kate Winslet. I even sat through Titanic in a theater on five separate occasions. So imagine my delight a few years back when the Barbie Titanic Rose doll was released. I seriously coveted it, but for some reason couldn’t bring myself to buy one, which was odd. I was now an out and proud full-grown man with his own apartment and income. There was nothing to stop me from purchasing this doll. But for whatever reason, I didn’t. Later that year, when my parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas, the Titanic Barbie was the first thing that came to mind, so I asked for one. I didn’t really expect them to buy it for me though.
On Christmas morning, I showed up at Mom and Dad’s house well before the rest of our family and friends were expected to arrive, so we decided to indulge in some preliminary gift exchanging. I went with my parents into the den where the Christmas tree was displayed and sat down on their gigantic sectional sofa. My mother reached under the tree and pivoted quickly in my direction with a smile on her face and a rectangular package in her hand. Upon receiving the gift, I began to tear the beautiful gold foil wrapping paper until I saw the word Titanic emerge from underneath. As I continued unwrapping the gift, the words Barbie and collector appeared as well. Remarkable.
More than two decades had passed since Barbie first began living her secret life of shame in the bottom of my dresser drawer. But on this very special Christmas, she was welcomed home by the loving embrace of my parents.