By Denise Duhamel
“There was a time when Barbie couldn’t even
bend her knees,” I told my nieces Kerri and Katie
who sit before me on a living room floor
in blue and pink collar America.
They are strapping their Rock-n-Roll Barbies
into tiny leatherette pants
and big black guitars
with jagged lightning hips. Katie hands me
her doll because she needs help
with the tiny buttons that snake the back
of Barbie’s off-the-shoulder blouse. “My first Barbie
couldn´t even twist her waist”. I am talking
like a person who has lived long enough
to see significant change. My nieces
have their backs to the TV which seems always on,
wherever I am. And behind their blond
innocent heads, Jessica Hahn
makes a cameo appearance on an MTV video.
She rolls like a sexy pinball,
then tries to claw herself out of a concave cage.
“It’s my body”, I recently heard her say
on a morning talk show. She started
by defending her nude poses in Playboy.
“It’s my body”, she repeated
like a Chatty Cathy doll
with a skipping record stuck in her back.
“It’s my body,” she began to answer
her interviewer’s every inquiry –
where she grew up, if she still went to church.
“It’s my body?”
The words stayed the same,
but as more accusations came, her inflections
changed. Jessica looked beyond the studio set
where somebody seemed to be cueing her
that message. My lover was laughing.
“How about a little conviction there, Jessica?”,
he said to the TV. Then, trying to coax
more conversation, he addressed me, “Look,
honey, she doesn’t even seem to know if it’s her body
or not.” He was right,
but he knew as he brought it up,
it was the wrong thing to say.
I’d had too much coffee.
I found myself energetically defending Jessica,
blaming her disorientation
as a response to our misogynous society-
the dislocation all women feel
from their physical selves.
And then came the theories I’d been reading.
He left for work kind of agreeing
but also complaining that I’d made him exhausted.
And now my sister is blaming me for the same thing
because I am pointing out to Katie that she is mistaken
to think only boys should get dirty
and only girls should wear earrings.
“People should be able to do whatever they want.”
I lecture her about my friend who wears a hard hat
when she goes to her job and works
with electricity, just like her daddy.
Katie fiddles with her shoelaces
and asks for juice. My sister says,
“Give the kid a break. She’s only in kindergarten.”
Older Kerri is concentrating, trying
to get a big comb for humans
through her doll’s Moussed synthetic hair.
Because untangling the snarls needs so much force,
suddenly, accidentally, Barbie’s head pops off,
and a smaller one, a faceless socket,
emerges from her neck. For an instant
we all –two sets of sisters, our ages
twenty years apart – share a small epiphany
about Mattel: this brainwashed piece of plastic cerebrum
is underneath who Barbie is. But soon
Kerri’s face is all panic, like she will be punished.
The tears begin in the corner of her eyes.
I make a fast rescue attempt,
spearing Barbie’s molded head
back on her body, her malleable features distorting
under my thumb. Although a grown doll,
the soft spot at the top of her skull
still hasn’t closed. Under the pressure
of my touch, her face is squashed, someone
posing in a fun house mirror.
But the instant I let go, she snaps back
into a polite smile, her perfect nose
erect and ready to make everything
right: Barbie is America’s –
half victim, half little pink soldier.