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[Essay] Drunk Driving in Barbie City

by Sara Marchant

My brother, Marvin, crucified my Ken doll upside down on the Dream House balcony when I was eight. He used so much tape and blue yarn securing Ken that I was forced to ask my eldest sister for help. Exhausted after working a twelve-hour graveyard shift at the hospital, she called our mother to see what Marvin had done. Mom stopped laughing long enough to say, “Marvin, we don’t crucify people in this family.”

When I tell this story now, it serves to judge whether I can be friends with a person. If you gasp in shock over Ken’s crucifixion, we’re probably not a match. Laughter before you share a similar Barbie horror story? You are my people. A third type of interlocutor will ask when I will put this scene into a novel, and the answer is most likely never. My family doesn’t like it when I write about them. 

As a child, when I complained about my brother’s treatment of my one and only Ken, especially beloved due to his black hair instead of the usual blond, Mom reminded me that Marvin had wired one of his G.I. Joes’ wrists together before dropping him down the chimney to slowly roast over our winter fire. The entire family agreed Ken had gotten off easy. Mom did make Marvin give me his surviving Joe, with his creepy felt beard and karate-action arm, to live among my Barbies and Ken, although Joe only came up to the others’ shoulders.

“Height doesn’t matter when you’re horizontal,” Mom muttered to my two adult sisters as I put Joe away in his new bed next to Skipper. I wouldn’t understand this for many years.

Ken’s clothes fit Joe if we—and by “we,” I mean my niece Nancy, my contemporary with whom I shared a bedroom and the Barbie City we’d built after convincing our mothers to remove the bottom bed from our bunk—cuffed the arms and legs of the leisure suits, but he was never accepted by the Barbies. Even Ken, now duct-taped at the waist after Marvin put him on a homemade rack and pulled until the strong rubber band mechanism holding his two ends together snapped, held Joe in little regard. Joe understandably developed a drinking problem and took to joyriding the orange and pink Corvette. These drives always ended in tragedy. My niece and I started reenacting this storyline after my sister’s inebriated ex-boyfriend drove his convertible under a semitruck and was decapitated. 

Later on, when the Purple Pieman and his wife, Sour Grapes, who were the antagonists from the Strawberry Shortcake series, were given to me for my birthday, my Barbies had another man to choose from. Or share. They embraced the why-choose lifestyle before we had names for it. The Purple Pieman was elderly, shaped like a knobby villain, and married, but Barbie didn’t care. He was male and smelled delicious. Years later, when white irises bloomed in the garden of the house I shared with my new husband, I inhaled the fragrance and sighed “Purple Pieman” in ecstasy.

In addition to the Dream House in Barbie City under the bunk bed, the slightly too-small Sunshine Family house inherited from my sisters, and the houses my niece and I made from cardboard boxes, we owned the Dream Recreational Vehicle, a banana-colored motorhome. Naturally, Joe lived there with whichever Barbie he was married to at the time. For a while, he was married to our twin Skippers until Marvin explained why that was flat-out wrong “on many levels, Sara!” After a divorce party, Joe married the off-brand pregnant “Barbie” that I’d convinced my mother’s boyfriend to buy for me at the local book festival. Off-Brand Barbie and Joe moved into the trailer park while the Skipper twins moved back home with their grandmother Sour Grapes.

We were the type of children who found it normal for the apple pie–scented grandpa to live with his much younger mistress, so we weren’t fazed that the Purple Pieman hadn’t divorced Sour Grapes. Besides, it was too sad for grandparents to have a divorce party. I’m not sure why my niece and I were certain that adults had parties when they divorced? Maybe it was because Mom was so happy when hers was finalized that she took us out for ice cream.

Recently, when I asked my friend Kit-Bacon why she didn’t allow her daughter to have Barbies growing up, she cited the unrealistic body expectations and all the pink. She gave her daughter that flat-footed, no-waist hippy doll, but her daughter turned out normal anyway. I wanted a hippy doll because she seemed like the right size for poor, stunted Joe with his overly muscular karate-chopping arms. Plus, their philosophical differences as a Vietnam vet and a dropout flower child would have made for excellent storylines. 

But most of my Barbies were inherited from my sisters or given as birthday presents. I never saw the hippy doll until I was a teen, but I did finally have a doll that looked like me—dark eyes and hair and a rounder, more Mesoamerican face—when Pacific Islander Miko debuted in 1985. With her popularity, more dark-haired Barbies became regularly available. In kindergarten I was excited to buy Black Peaches ’n Cream Barbie for my friend Tenisha because I wanted someone to have a Barbie that looked like them. Raised fifteen miles from the Mexican border, I knew only one blonde girl in our class until we reached the more populated middle school. Sometimes we called the blonde girl Barbie. She didn’t like it.

When my middle sister’s children were playing with Barbies, enough dark-haired versions were available that my sister’s little blonds could pick and choose at the store. They also had what seemed an obscene amount of Kens compared to the man-doll desert my eldest niece and I had endured.

By this time of course, the Barbie City was long gone. My mother had remarried, we moved to San Diego, my stepfather had money—but I was too old for Barbies. The remnants of the city fit into one box “house” that I used as a traveling case when I went to babysit my sister’s children. This box contained the twin Skippers, two dark-haired Barbies (Erzebet and Anemone Crowe, the love children of Russell), Crucified Ken, Amy Isabella Coverrubias, and the Purple Pieman with his no-longer-estranged wife. Joe had disappeared. (Marvin claimed innocence, but during his punk years, he’d shaved Astronaut Barbie’s head and nailed her to his bedroom wall, so I have suspicions.)

Also in the box were a blue plastic sofa; an inflatable, hideously striped loveseat; vintage outfits galore; and the mesh shirt from the infamous gay Ken that Mattel released in 1993. He sported what appeared to be a cock-ring necklace that my sister had thrown out when her girls and I weren’t looking. Once emptied, the traveling box became Barbie’s studio apartment complete with trompe-l’oeil furniture, wallpaper, and windows. What stories this generation of nieces (and their little brother) and I enacted with these treasures! What narrative events we still talk about today!

By the time my sister’s children were “too old” for Barbies (they tactfully overlooked that I was a grown adult), my eldest brother’s daughter was the perfect age to play. Tragically, Sasha did not care for dolls of any kind. In vain, many times did I bring out the Barbie box, now residing in the home I shared with my husband. I introduced the narratives I’d developed years ago, told the backstories for each character, explained Purple Pieman’s gloriously checkered past. Sasha had to admit he smelled delicious. Half Russian, she appreciated the dark and often disturbing history of the Barbies in the box. Had Amy Isabella Coverrubias really cut the brakes on the Corvette because she wanted to marry her sister’s husband, Crucified Ken? She had.

Sasha was ten when she asked to take the box home with her to San Diego. “For a visit.” Being uninterested until now, she had no Barbies of her own. Her mother helped her carry the large box containing multitudes to the car.

Two months later, during a family gathering, I suggested we bring out the box and play. Sasha, busy kicking around her clear, plastic hamster ball, looked stricken.

“Where are my Barbies?” I asked, filled with foreboding.

Her mother answered. Sasha hadn’t played with them, and the big box was taking up much-needed closet space. My Barbie box had been given to a local Armenian daycare center.

My shock was overlooked by everyone because at that moment my husband realized Sasha’s kickball held a living creature, and he raised justified hell. It wasn’t until we left that I asked if they could get my Barbie box back. I’d only lent it to Sasha; it was a lifetime collection that spanned generations.

“You want I take toys away from refugee children?” my sister-in-law asked.

The entire family turned scandalized faces to me, and the subject was dropped, but I still don’t see why I was in the wrong to ask. They were mine. I didn’t give consent. I wanted them back.

You’d think I’d be invested in the new Barbie movie. I’ve been told by friends and family that I must be—and I’m sure I’ll see it eventually. My friend Cassandra Lane, the only other adult I know who has as deep a relationship with her Barbies as I, wrote a glowing review of the film. But I’m really not interested in the movie. It’s so pink, as Kit-Bacon would say. Margot Robbie is so blonde. Ryan Gosling looks like Ken’s dad. I don’t have a foot fetish, and Greta Gerwig’s smug, twee style irritates me.

I was never in thrall to the mythology of Barbie. I didn’t want to dress like her or wear the bright makeup or be an astronaut in a shiny, pink suit or change my outfit from Day to Night. I never felt maternal toward my Barbies or their siblings and children either. I gave the Heart family twin babies to my nephew Alex, who named the boy Ish-kibibble and loved him passionately until he was dropped in a Target parking lot and lost forever.

The Barbie box contained all the stories my nieces and I told ourselves to explain the world, and the family, we were born into. It’s no coincidence that I started seriously writing after my Barbies were given away. A few years later, I was accepted into an MFA program, and after graduation, I published a novella and then a memoir. Does this mean all is forgiven for my lost Barbies? Or that I would have never written had I never lent out the box? Absolutely not. To both questions. But I’m still bitter.

Every time I walk pass the curio cabinet where my slowly growing new collection of Barbies is staged, or when I put together the Barbie Nativity after Thanksgiving (I’m a Jew), or if that earworm “Barbie Girl” song plays in the grocery store, I wonder where my Purple Pieman is living his sweet-scented life. Is he being appreciated? Is he getting the action to which he became accustomed after decades of play? We will never know.

My second eldest niece, now thirty-five and the mother of four, recently sent me a link to a Barbie-endorsed housewares line. She was very excited; her dream has always been a house like Barbie, and she expected me to feel the same. I didn’t. Not really.

I never wanted to be Barbie. I didn’t relate to her blonde perfection, the materialism, all the pink, plastic high heels. Playing Barbies for me was testing the boundaries of what our lives could be. What we are capable of, as well as reenacting the fluidity of the boundaries of the adults who were raising us. The twin Skippers and Crucified Ken and the Purple Pieman were tools, means to an end, and losing them taught me to use new ones. I’m grateful for what I’ve been given, please don’t misunderstand. And that Barbie-themed pink-ombre area rug is pretty rad, my second eldest niece forced me to admit. We’re waiting for it to go on sale.

For Christmas I gave my husband a G.I. Joe Navajo Code Talker doll. This Joe doesn’t have a karate-action arm, but he does call for air support in Navajo when you press a button on his back. He lives with his wife, Navajo Barbie, and his girlfriend, Plains Nation Barbie, in the curio cabinet. The family has two plastic horses that belonged to my husband when he was a little boy. When Marvin comes to visit, we make sure the cabinet is locked. After all, I’ve learned my lesson. 

Life’s fantastic. 

Sara Marchant received her master of fine arts from the University of California, Riverside at Palm Desert. She is the author of The Driveway Has Two Sides, published by Fairlight Books. Her memoir, Proof of Loss, was published by Otis Books. Her latest novel, Becoming Delilah, was published in August 2023, and her essay "Haunted" was a Notable Mention in Best American Essays and Nonfiction 2021. Sara is a founding editor of the literary magazine Writers Resist


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