On April 29, 2002, the woman who created Barbie died. I guess I missed the news that day. A New York Times op-ed written about Ruth Handler said that “perhaps Barbie’s most significant attribute is her capacity to make people wonder what she would be like if she were really human. But to imagine Barbie as a real woman is to imagine her subject to time itself. It is to imagine her with real politics, real worries, a constant struggle with the memory of her own once ideal figure. Above all, it is to imagine her with a voice.”
I went to a play this past Friday night called “I Am Barbie,” and we no longer have to imagine Barbie with a voice. She spoke, via actress Ivy Castle-Rush in the titular role, and she had lots to say about her life & times.
Notes from the playwright, Walton Beacham, say:
“Barbie celebrates her 50th birthday by reminiscing about her careers, her relationship with Ken and other characters from her life, who express their own opinions about Barbie. An important motif is Barbie’s breasts as cultural icon, symbol and statement of feminine status, power and vulnerability. Two of the characters, Midge’s mother and Barbie’s creator Ruth, develop breast cancer.”
More on that in a sec.
The play was my introduction to Ruth Handler. I must admit, I’d never given Barbie’s creator much thought. Although more than 1 billion Barbies have been sold in more than 150 countries, and although Barbie even has her own Hall of Fame, in Palo Alto, CA, I never thought much about her. I have bought Barbie dolls, clothes, and accessories as birthday gifts for Macy’s friends, but knew nothing of Barbie’s story or that of her creator.
I do now.
Barbie was created in 1959 for Handler’s daughter, Barbara. (And yes, Ken is named for Handler’s son, which is kind of creepy when you think about Barbie & Ken’s relationship. Ewwww.)
Based on a German precursor named Lilli, Handler intended the Barbie doll to help girls “play out their dreams of adolescence and beyond,” hence Barbie’s trajectory from going to prom to going to college to getting married to going to the Moon. She’s embraced every fashion trend that’s come along, and she’s dabbled in nearly every career imaginable. In her 1994 autobiography Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story, Handler wrote: ”My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”
I suspect that Handler was talking about more than just Barbie’s wardrobe.
I wonder, though, if Handler had any idea of how wildly popular Barbie would become. As the co-founder of the Mattel Toy Company, Handler clearly had a head for business, and could be considered a visionary in terms of the range that Barbie ended up encompassing. Did Handler know that Barbie would become a flashpoint for debates in psychology, cultural politics, feminism, fashion, women’s rights, and body image, just to name a few? Did she consider the firestorm of controversy Barbie could ignite, for example, just by her Teen Talk version uttering the phrase “Math class is tough?” That one really got the feminists going, and reinforced the stereotype that girls aren’t so great at math.
Well, I didn’t play with Barbies much as a little girl, and thankfully escaped her attempts to sway my feminist tendencies or influence my attitude toward math. In fact, my next-door neighbor growing up is a female statistics professor who taught classes, wrote textbooks, and became the chair of the math department. She gave me a tote bag once that says “Anything boys can do, girls can do better.” When my middle-school speech class had to present a debate-style speech, mine was on the ERA, and I carried my notes in the girl-power tote bag. Take that, Teen Talk Barbie.
I missed the memo, too, on Barbie dictating body image. Like most of the world, I certainly have always thought her proportions are ridiculous — a real-world scale determined she would be 5 foot 6 with a 39-21-33 figure. Her internal organs wouldn’t even fit inside that package, for pete’s sake. Although she did undergo a makeover in 2000 to eliminate the waistline “seam” that made her poseable and reduced both her bust and her hips, she’s still a pretty unrealistic feminine ideal. However, it never occurred to me to let a doll determine how I feel about myself.
Maybe missing that memo allowed me to cope with losing my breasts to cancer, just as Handler did in 1970. She was diagnosed and underwent a bilateral mastectomy the year after I was born. To say that diagnostic and surgical progression has been made since then might be the understatement of the year. Facing her diagnosis the same way she approached the toy business — aggressively and successfully — Handler took on cancer awareness and made it her mission to ensure that women who joined the pink ribbon club after her had an easier time with it.
See, Handler faced breast cancer at a time in which real women had fewer choices than Barbie; the Women’s Health & Cancer Act that required insurance companies to cover reconstruction wasn’t enacted until 1988. Handler faced her post-mastectomy body-image demons head-on. And, dissatisfied with the limited prostheses options available at the time, she created her own.
Handler developed the Nearly Me breast form and founded Nearly Me Technologies, Inc in the mid-1970s after she discovered that the breast forms available at the time were “not comfortable, realistic, beautiful, or easily purchased,” according to the company’s website. Handler said, “When I conceived Barbie, I believed it was important to a little girl’s self-esteem to play with a doll that has breasts. Now I find it even more important to return that self-esteem to women who have lost theirs.”
”Until now,” Handler said in 1977, ”every breast [prosthesis] that was sold was used interchangeably for the right or the left side. There has never been a shoemaker who made one shoe and forced you to put both your right and your left foot in it.” She’s right about that.
Keep in mind that Handler was operating in an era in which there was little talk about breast cancer. She was determined to change that, however, and worked tirelessly toward early detection as well as helping post-mastectomy women reclaim a sense of normalcy. Handler personally fit First Lady Betty Ford with her prosthesis after Ford’s mastectomy in 1974. In promoting Nearly Me prostheses, Handler would unbutton her shirt during interviews and publicity jaunts and challenge a reporter or photographer to feel her breasts to determine which was real. Handler said that with high-quality prostheses, “a woman could wear a regular brassiere and blouse, stick her chest out and be proud.”
In talking about her two careers–creator of both Barbie and Nearly Me–Handler was known to say, ”I’ve lived my life from breast to breast.”
She knew what she was doing when she hired retired Mattel workers to design the Nearly Me prostheses. The same people who created Barbie’s breasts went to work, using similar manufacturing processes and materials. They discovered that using a polyurethane outer skin over silicone gel provided the structure and shape to match a real breast. And, just like with Barbie, no nipples were necessary.
So how does all this fit into a play? Very carefully. A review of “I Am Barbie” said that “the trickiest aspect is Beacham’s decision to include Ruth’s struggle with breast cancer as a recurring theme. One can see why Beacham felt it important to include this part of the real Ruth Handler’s story, relevant to the play’s theme of women’s body image.”
A breast cancer diagnosis, while dreadful, is real. Good things happen to bad people, and even Barbie gets the blues. Beacham did us all a favor by including this theme in the play. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to face heavy subjects, and perhaps some audience members felt a bit squirmy as they saw Ruth’s and Midge’s struggles portrayed. With all the “pink-a-fying” and prettying up of the disease, it’s nice to see a gritty and realistic version.
So thank you, Walton Beacham for not shying away from breast cancer’s impact on women. And thank you, Ruth Handler. For inspiring a playwright to tackle the very real theme of breast cancer and body image. For proving once again that life does not end with a breast cancer diagnosis. For saying “that’s not good enough” to the options available post-mastectomy. Oh, and for creating Barbie, too.
P.S. Of course there’s a Pink Ribbon Barbie, whose marketing material says she’s “wearing a pink gown with a signature pink ribbon pinned to her shoulder, Pink Ribbon Barbie doll can help open a dialogue with those affected by breast cancer, while supporting this worthy cause!” She can be yours for the low, low price of $78.99 at amazon.com.
After reading Cutting For Stone, I was hungry for more from author Abraham Verghese. Wow, was this a great book. Like some of my other all-time favorite reads, it took me a while to get into this one, but once I did, I was so well rewarded. I felt a little bereft when it ended, another sign of a great book. The characters were so richly drawn, they truly seemed like real people, and I was sad to think I wouldn’t know what happened to them for the rest of their “lives.”
I’m not crazy; this happens with good books, and I’ve heard other people say the same thing so I know I’m not crazy. At least not in this case.
I searched in vain for more books by Abraham Verghese and although he’s written prolifically for such esteemed magazines as The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, he doesn’t have dozens of novels at the ready for voracious readers. He has written a book called The Tennis Partner, however, which I quickly scooped up on amazon.com.
Verghese is an infectious disease doctor and has been a professor of medicine at Harvard and Stanford, in addition to being a bestselling author. The Tennis Partner tells the story of Verghese’s friendship in El Paso, TX, with David, a medical student who is a recovering drug addict. Their friendship grows amid a shared love for tennis, and they both find the game to be “an island of order in the midst of personal chaos;” in Verghese’s case, his crumbling marriage, and in David’s case, his drug addiction.
One of the things I love so much about Verghese’s writing is his innate ability to describe a scene in such a way that makes it familiar and easy to visualize. For instance, when writing about moving to El Paso, Verghese says “This is the great promise of moving: that if you fold your life into a U-Haul truck and put it on the road, you will be given a clean plate with which to approach the buffet.”
Beautiful prose. Simple and clean, yet so on-the-money descriptive.
It’s a great story, not just because of the tennis. Both men were struggling with different things in their lives, yet tennis became the equalizer. Verghese says, “In the way we controlled the movement of a yellow ball in space, we were imposing order on a world that was fickle and capricious. Each ball that we put into play, for as long as it went back and forth between us, felt like a charm to be added to a necklace full of spells, talismans, and fetishes, which one day add up to an Aaron’s rod, an Aladdin’s lamp, a magic carpet. Each time we played, this feeling of restoring order, of mastery, was awakened.”
I get that. Wow, do I get that. One of the reasons I wanted to get back to playing tennis as soon as I could post-mastectomy was to impose order on a disorderly life. And guess what? 9 days post-reconstruction, I already can’t wait to get out on the court and put this mess in order.
One line in the book has really stuck with me, and I carry it with me in my game. David and Abraham are battling it out on the court, David being the more experienced and younger (read: more spry, less creaky, and speedier) player. He always manages to best Abraham, and after yet another victory explained his winning strategy. It’s very simple. “Remember, the one with the fewest errors wins.”
True, so true, and not just in tennis.
I love tennis, and I’m fascinated by how the human body works. I’ve written about this before, and now that my latest surgery is in the rear-view window, I’m again impressed with and amazed by how our bodies react and heal.
I’m also fascinated by doctors. Surgeons, especially. Not in the “reverence for the white coat” aspect of previous generations, nor because of the fact that they perform a very difficult job. There are lots of hard jobs out there, and I’m sure there are plenty of things other professions require that docs wouldn’t handle well.
It’s more a fascination with what makes them tick and how their minds work. I always want to ask my specialists, why did you choose oncology? why did you choose plastic surgery? I’m overly curious (some would say nosey) about the minutia of their jobs: how many patients call them after-hours? how long does it take to repay med school loans? what do you do to unwind and feel like a regular person? I mean, after say, a 7-hour surgery in which they restore order to a hellacious mess of a chest wall, do they wash up, drive home in traffic, pop a beer and veg out? Or do they refrain from drinking, even after a long day, because they can be called into surgery at any moment?
Verghese writes quite eloquently about the physician as a regular person and of medical humanism. He’s an old-fashioned doctor in a modern world, and he teaches new-fangled doctors his ritualistic bedside observations. He believes medicine is a passionate and romantic pursuit, not just a science.
Kinda reminds me of my own infectious disease doc telling me that in my case, because of the post-surgery infection, he was practicing the art more than the science of medicine. A lovely thought after months of exams, tests, and hospitalizations that had left me feeling like a piece of meat. Not Grade A meat, either.
As I prepared for my most recent surgery, I remembered a lengthy but compelling passage from The Tennis Partner. Even though my pre-surgery to-do list was a mile long, I found myself flipping through the book to find this passage. I wanted to re-read it, as if absorbing these words into my brain would somehow transfer into the surgeons’ hands as they cut me open and tried to repair the damage that had been done. It took a few minutes, but I found it.
Verghese was treating a young woman in El Paso with mysterious symptoms and no clear diagnosis. He writes about how as he entered her hospital room, he was looking for more than just physical manifestations of an illness:
“I was attentive to the aura of the room, vigilant for her icons — a doll, rabbit-ear slippers, a prayer card, her own nightgown. I inhaled discreetly so that her scents, all the eructations and effluvia that were hers, the redolence that night spell the name of the disease lurking below, could land on the free nerve endings of my olfactory nerve. Smells registered in a primitive part of the brain, the ancient limbic system. I liked to think that from there they echoed and led me to think “typhoid” or “rheumatic fever” without ever being able to explain why. If the diagnosis eluded us in the first few days, her chart would thicken as pages of computer printouts bearing witness to the blood urea, the serum creatinine, the liver enzymes, and other soundings accumulated. But no computer could make the mind-pictures I could form if given the right clues: a liver hobnailed by cirrhosis; a spleen swollen like a giant and angry thumb from mononucleosis; a smooth-walled cavity in the lung apex within which a fungus ball clatters like a bead in a baby’s rattle.”
I love the “eructations and effluvia” especially. That’s some good alliteration.
I also really identify with the patient, and know that I too have a chart that has thickened with computer print-outs and such. Not that it’s a contest, but I bet my chart is thicker than hers.
I’m completely entranced by my latest book club book, a super fun story that has me itching to find out what happens next. Not in a suspenseful, dramatic sort of way, but more in the way of great character development that makes the characters seem like real people.
I thought I might get some reading time in while sitting with my aunt at the hospital today, but we chattered and blabbed the whole time instead. After running my errands and doing a few chores, I had about 20 minutes before Macy came home from school, so I raced to the car to fetch my Kindle and get to reading.
I was engrossed enough that when Macy barreled through the door it startled me a little. She wanted to run to the mailbox to see if her latest order from amazon.com had arrived. She too has been bitten by the reading bug and has devoured a new series of books. Her eager anticipation paid off and she was rewarded by the sight of a cardboard box in the mailbox.
Before long Payton was home, too, and barely got his backpack off his shoulder before announcing he was going straight to his room to stretch out on his bed and read. He started a new series just after Christmas, and I am thrilled that it’s something other than Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Nothing against the Wimpy Kid or author Jeff Kinney — I think he has a cute product — but I like to see Payton reading something a bit more substantial.
Both of my kids are sucked into great books, and I couldn’t be happier. My mom, the former English teacher, would be equally tickled to see her progeny so captivated by literature.
My house is so quiet it’s a little unnerving — no thumping feet up and down the stairs, no phone ringing, no door slamming, no Nickelodeon laughtrack or video game sound effects. It’s pretty great.