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December 13, 2006

Girls and Dolls

Girls and Dolls

By Elaine Viets

As I kid, I thought dolls were boring. Dressing them seemed like a waste of time. Hauling them around in a buggy was equally pointless. The dolls didn’t show appreciation, or anything else. They slumped glassy-eyed on my dresser, like a bunch of silent drunks.

Feeding them and changing their diapers was even duller. A baby doll that wet its diaper was the latest in doll technology in the 1950s. I got one for Christmas.

I changed the sopping diapers and wondered what the thrill was. I had little brothers, and nobody enjoyed changing them. Why give me a diaper-wetting doll and call it fun? The only thing I could say for the doll was that it didn’t stink nearly as much as my brothers.

At age six, I got my very own doll kitchen for Christmas, with a miniature oven and a tiny sink where I could wash my little doll dishes with real water.

This was another puzzling present. My mother, like many sensible women, hated housework. So why give me as a Christmas gift her two most hated chores – dishwashing and cooking?

My father noticed right away that I was neglecting my doll duties and kiddie kitchen. The day after Christmas, he sat me down for a serious talk. "You’ve got to play with your dolls, Sis," he said. "You’re a girl. That’s what you’re supposed to do. We spent good money on these presents."

I tried. But I liked my collection of green rubber dinosaurs much better. I admired their outlandish necks and tails and teeth. I enjoyed setting the razor-toothed predators on the peaceful grazers, although sometimes I cheated and let the brontosaurus escape in the back my brother’s Tonka truck. But I had to play that game in the basement. Girls weren’t supposed to like dinosaurs or trucks.

At age six, I knew one thing. Well, two things: I was definitely a girl. And my father was wrong about this doll business. I couldn’t change his mind, so I kept quiet about my doll-hating proclivities.

Until this year, when one of my friends confessed she hated dolls too.

And so did her friends. In fact, there were lots of us doll haters out there. Real women who were real bored with make-believe dolls. And we were perfectly normal. OK, we could pass. Most of the time.

I like Angie’s story best. "I hated dolls," she said. "I played with toy animals, especially farm animals, and used to make little farms out of Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs. I did have action figures, Johnny and Jane West. Jane was way superior to Barbie. She had boots, guns, a horse and camping stuff.

"My parents and grandparents didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t like dolls. The only one who did was my well-meaning but terribly prissy great aunt. She’d bring me these pretty little dolls."

Angie ignored them.

"She would get all upset that I never played with them."

One day, great aunt found little Angie playing "frontier family" in the yard. She had the pretty dolls lined up in the cabin.

"I pretended our family dog was a wolf at the cabin. To make the wolf go away, I threw a baby doll at him. It bothered Aunt to no end that I would throw the baby to the wolves to save my own skin."


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The West Family was the Best! Johnny and Jane, and Jamie and I forget the daughter's name. They had cool accessories like guns and holsters and rope for their totally cool horses with names like Silver. Plus there was Cheif Cherokee and he had great accessories too, like spears and a big head dress. I loved those toys. Barbie was always the helpless hostage who Jane had to rescue while Johnny shot the hell out of the bad guys, played by Ken and his ilk. There was never much of a fight because even a kid knows they were weenies.

Good times.

Maybe later I'll share what we did to my prissy sister's barbies.

:)... I always wanted a GIJoe, but my people did not buy me any kind of toys!

My best friend and I played with Barbies, I admit. Then we went downstairs for lunch, and when we returned, her brother and his friend were playing with our Barbies. We liked their game better. One of those life-changing moments, I guess.

I played with Barbies. I am secure enough in my femininity to admit that, with no shame at all. I even had one of those little sewing machines and sewed extra clothes for her. I'll also admit that, for reasons I totally can't recall, I called my Barbie doll Leslie. Furthermore, since I was a child living in south Louisiana, we didn't always call it "playing Barbies." We usually called it "playing Madame." Figure that one out.

Elaine, I think maybe we had the same parents but didn't know it. I wasn't much into dolls of any sort, except for my family of trolls (loved the hair). I did have a major thing for neglected stuffed animals, and used to line mine up in bed with me at night, carefully rotating positions so each one had a turn next to me.

What I really wanted for all those Christmases was a baseball glove, ball and bat, Matchbox cars, and Lincoln logs. (My "nutty" aunt finally defied parental wisdom and bought me a basketball and hoop for my birthday one year, which forced my Dad to put up a backboard over the garage -- hurray!). And the guys across the cul-de-sac had enough extra sports equipment to keep me playing baseball, football, and basketball.

The upshot of which, inevitably, was my mother convincing me that I really needed to enroll in the (and I'm not making this up) Wendy Ward Sugar And Spice Princess Charm School (that's Ward as in Ward's department store). For an agonizing 6 weeks prior to 7th grade I learned how to sit, stand, use the right fork, and not show too much leg getting into and out of cars (this was in the day of the mini-skirt, of course). I had to wear white gloves to the sessions. And the course was supposed to culminate in a fashion show, but I managed to convince my Mom that that was just Asking Too Much.

I think I still carry the scars . . .

Janice West. That was the sister's name.

The mental picture of our Martial Tart at Charm School is going to amuse me for the rest of the day. Thanks for sharing that, Kerry!

And "playing Madame." Wow, the south is really a different country sometimes, isn't it?

Nice try, Elaine. I played with Barbies and I'm proud OF it. Ramona, we oughta rally the Barbie lovers against all these haters here.

Seriously, though, I was a Barbie fanatic. Where do you think my shoe obsession came from? Now that I think about it, those 70s platform loafers with the chunky heels that my Barbies all wore ca. 1972 are THE shoe ideal-type for me. Whenever I see a pair of shoes with that shape, I must buy them. I styled my Barbies' hair, built dioramas for them using all sorts of household items including entire tea sets made from toothpaste caps, and let them have sex with the Ken dolls (though I'm not sure I got the positions quite right, and they always kept their clothes on).

I grew up in the 60's and hated dolls too. I was a hardcore tom boy and fortunately my parents didn't seem to have a problem with it. My brother and I played outside most of the time and I seem to remember our favorite games were Man From Uncle and cop shows. My parents actually bought us guns to play with, so that was way cool :-) I also loved playing with trucks, and military vehicles, plus animals. Created some weird combinations with those. If I ended up with a Barbie of any kind they'd usually get eaten by one of the wild animals or get to ride the horses. No girlie stuff for me. :-)

Elaine - I understand your pain yet let me just say this: if it hadn't been for Barbie, I wouldn't be a published author today. Barbie Unbound was my first book published - gasp! - almost 10 years ago and in it I put to good use all the techniques my brothers had taught me - Barbie at the stake (Barbie d'Arc) Barbie with her head in the Barbie oven (Sylvia Plath Barbie). Hey - I didn't say it was in good taste!

Barbie d'Arc! That sounds like an SNL skit.

The only doll I consciously remember having was a Betsy-Wetsy. My main passion was plush animals. Still have my childhood teddy somewhere (missing one eye and a bunch of fur)and still collect the bears (although B&N has some great plush dragons this year)to the major dismay of my husband. We have rubbermaid storage boxes in the basement stuffed (no pun intended) with bears, kitties, dogs, etc. which my poor daughter will one day inherit. She plans to open a museum :o) I could never see the fun of playing with make-believe food when the real thing was available (I learned to cook at an early age thanks to my mom). Also thanks to mom I got books as presents...which is why I love them today :o) My daughter got the whole Barbie Dreamhouse but told me the other day she will never forgive me for giving away her Weebles Treehouse!
And you know, I think we might have used any dolls we had as The Lost Boys when we played Peter Pan. And my sister was always Wendy. Hmm.

Does owning the Barbie and Ken "X Files" set and "Phantom of the Opera" set count? Mulder, Scully, Erik, Christine....works for me...:)

I'm with you Michele. I loved Barbie and friends--especially Francie and Casey. They were way cooler than Barbie. And poor Midge. What did Alan see in her, anyway?

My younger male cousin used to take our Barbies and smash their chests in. I often wonder if he's a serial killer somewhere.

Since Nancy didn't plug this, I will. Hop on over to the Working Stiffs blog http://workingstiffs.blogspot.com. Today's topic is forensic psychology and how TV and other media skew viewers perceptions of law enforcement, etc. Kind of like Barbie skews men's perception of what real females look like.

I'm loving these comments -- and laughing outloud. The Wendy Ward Sugar and Spice Princess Charm School is way too strange and wonderful.
Michele, I'm trying to figure out how you reconciled Barbies with hardboiled writing. It makes my eyes cross.


Barbie skews men's perceptions of what real women look like?

At least Bratz teach little girls the way they should act and dress if they want to get a man by the time they are 14. Hot dog!

MIchele, my 3 kids (boy included) love Barbie. But I'm with Elaine on this one. There's a reason horror movies feature dolls. You never see Lincoln Logs come to life on the TWILIGHT ZONE, do you?

There's a Phantom of the Opera Barbie set? With, like, a little mask-y thing for Ken to wear? Yikes. I am officially freaked out.

One day I walked into the living room to find my 8 year old daughter had tied all her (naked) Barbies to the legs of the coffee table. I'm still not sure what that says about me as a mom.

My mother only let me have the brunette barbie. What the heck? Nor would she buy the poor thing any extra clothes. I would go play with a girl in the 'hood I did not like just to use her Barbies~house, convertible, Ken and all. I'm beginning to think my mom wasn't feminist so much as she was cheap! I also played war with my brothers, landing on the moon with my older bro, using electric train controls for our space dashboard in a huge old overstuffed chair on which we say upside down just like the astronauts! My brother was always the captain....hmmmmmmmmmmm, can tell he was the oldest! So I got something from both worlds.

Charm school? With books on the head and all? Snicker, your poor thing.

Afraid I am dating myself but it's a fact that when the first Barbie came out I had outgrown dolls. In fact, my dad had died and I had more adult responsibilities than most. I had a dress up doll with a trunk of beautiful clothing and cutouts. They were in pristine condition because if it was outside play, I was there....bikes, ice skating on Highland Park lake until you'd sink into the melting ice and all those summer games--release, etc.
My daughter born in 1970 lusted for a Barbie but feminist mom refused. Thus was born the one woman show she performs, "Deconstructing Barbie, Growing Up and Growing Boobs."
Now as I am surviving my double mastectomy and breast cancer, I make the discovery that Barbie founder Ruth Handler had breast cancer and developed the Nearly Me prosthesis to better fit women.
There's a meaning here that's escaping me at the moment........mary alice

Wow, Mary Alice -- that's a cool story.

My daughter loved Barbies when she was little. She had a round dozen, which she kept, all naked, in a box in the closet. She did actually take them out, but I never could bring myself to inquire too closely about what she did with them. I do know that she refused to dress them.

No books on the head, by the way -- but we did learn how to walk taking small steps and to do a "runway turn". I have no idea why we needed to know that.

Maybe it skips a generation. I had recently purchased a home and for Christmas I would have happily received a door mat, fly swatter, anything domestic. My mother arranged her snow bird trip especially to include me because she was so excited about my gift and wanted to watch me open the box. You should know that I am in my mid 30's at the time. So, what's in the big box you ask... The American Girl Doll version of me. My mom noted that since she realized that I probably would not play with it, she got me the display stand. Not quite the look I was going for in the home. And I can't return the damn thing. Ugh.


Of you? Maybe she should have kept it herself. In one's own house, it sounds sort of creepy.

Cheryl, I can't imagine getting a doll made in your own image. Brrr. That would give me nightmares. Of course, mine would be Writer Doll, wearing a bathrobe at three in the afternoon and staring at a computer. Accessories would be a can of tuna for lunch and a hunky UPS man. On second thought . . .

My basement has a number of odd gifts that should have stayed at my mom's. For example, she took all of the 3"x5" school photos (kindergarten-sophomore in college.. 15 in all), matted them and put them in a 2'x3' frame. Again, not what I want in my home and I can't return it.

No Barbie's here.....Legos were my choice of addiction. That and baseball.

It turns out that if you cut all the hair off your sister's Malibu Barbie because she (Barbie) decided to join the Marines, even if you swear that it will happen, that hair does not grow back.

Elaine, there is actually a company called My Twinn, The Just-Like-Me-Doll. You send in a photo of your child and...well, I can't continue because it's just too freaky. A long time ago, someone sent me their mail order stuff. Like I needed FOUR beings who all looked alike in my house.....

I tried to cut my sister's Barbie's hair (never my own) into a Dorothy Hamel wedge. It did not work, so I hid my handy work by taking the heads and stashing them in the Barbie camper. I kept telling my sister that I did not want to play Barbie. I can still hear my sister's screams from when she found the dolls, I feel bad, now.

Eeesh, sounds kind of early serial killer.

Ramona, I can only hope that my mom does not know about the My Twinn company.

Cheryl, I'm probably being dense but I don't get it. Why is there an American Girl doll version of you? Are you really famous?

American Girl Dolls make me crazy. My daughter had one, courtesy of my mother, because there was no way on this green earth I was ever going to spend that kind of money on a doll. Much less a trunk full of accessories. Talk about brilliant marketing, though!

Turns out you can buy an American Girl Doll who looks Just Like You! http://store.americangirl.com/shop/jly.php?catid=48533

Yeah, that's definitely creepy.

ramona said: There's a Phantom of the Opera Barbie set? With, like, a little mask-y thing for Ken to wear? Yikes. I am officially freaked out.

Yes, there are. Mattel went so crazy with parings (there's even a James Bond and Bond Girl Set) that I'm honestly surprised they never did a "Clarice and Hannibal" set. THAT would have been creepy......

Oh -- and you can find out which American Girl Doll you are at http://www.selectsmart.com/FREE/select.php?client=none.ja

Wow, Elaine, you've really generated a discussion.
Doll collecting is the second largest hobby in the country (after stamps) and most of the collectors are from my era. I grew up when everyone was poor. I had one Barbie and a doll named Lucy and my neighbor bought clothes for my Barbie because my parents couldn't afford to. When my publisher asked me to write a series about doll collecting, I started my research at doll shows and found the same stories over and over. Collectors are making up for lost time. BTW, my first in the Dolls To Die For series, Dolled Up For Murder, has been on the IMBA bestsellers list for two months in a row. That says something about dolls. I see you make number one in November. Way to go.

My niece had one of those My Twin dolls. Totally creeped everyone out. It was then that my sister decided to try to have another child.

Ramona- Barbie heads in the camper - Brilliant! I might go to the dollar store and get some dolls just to put their heads in something and send it to my other sister. That ought to take her mind off that Malibu Barbie with the shade cut. hee hee.

William - they do make that set, but it's not Mattel - it's from the same people who brought you Billy. If you've never seen Billy, well let's just say that he picks up where Ken left off, if you know what I mean.

Deb - I have heard good things about that book - another for the shopping list!

Um Cheryl?
Don't let anyone in your family open gifts from your mom again! OR... take off doll's head and hide it in camper...........this sounds like a warped book beginning by Steven King, doesn't it?

::::::::::twilight zone music::::::::::::::

I played in sand piles with toy soldiers as a little kid. But one Xmas I got one of those Ur-Barbies (the blonde ponytailed one with the blue eye shadow). She was my formative fantasy in several ways: She was tall, stacked and beautiful (I was short, flat-chested and okay looking). She had a great house and expensive clothes (My single mom kept us one step ahead of the landlord and made our clothes).

My best friend Trudy had all the Barbie clothes. I couldn't afford them (my mom made me a couple outfits but of course it wasn't the same in my 12-year-old mind, just like the great dresses she made for me weren't "good" enough as store-bought).

One day, I got busted at KMart shoplifting clothes -- for Barbie, not me. I like to think my early life of crime made me what I am today.

G.I. Jooe, that was a REAL MAN's Doll during the sixities!
Kung Fu Grip was for wimps!

I had maybe 1 or 2 Barbie dolls and a few that were similar to the basic idea (only more realistic). I didn't dress them up. I made up stories with them as the characters. My Barbie doll was the "bad" person usually. The Skipper doll was the heroine. I never cared much for the baby doll type of toys. Whatever I played with - paper dolls, toy horses, etc. - tended to have a story line that I made up and changed a little each time I played with them.

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