On Barbie and Ken

In comedian Sarah Silverman’s hilarious new special, she riffs on the unattainable example of Barbie’s body and the impact on the little girls who play with Barbie dolls. It’s not a new criticism of the dolls, but it is interesting (and funny) to consider that Barbie is unable to wear anything but high-heeled shoes, along with myriad other body-morphing proportions. It certainly isn’t unreasonable to assert that a barrage of such images throughout a young girl’s childhood communicates a message that, at minimum, isn’t body-positive.

But what about Ken?

I never played with Ken dolls, although I’m sure my sister had a few. My toy chest contained an assortment of GI Joes, Star Wars figurines, and He-Man action figures. Come to think of it, despite my efforts to exercise several times per week, my body isn’t even close to resembling the buff, chiseled figure that He-Man himself cut. No one is confusing me for a military assassin, ala GI Joe. I’m certainly no Star Wars Jedi, although perhaps a little more back hair would allow me to pass as Chewbacca. The point is: my toys presented a version of masculinity that I have, on almost every conceivable level, failed to attain. Sure, memory fades, but I know none of my toys resembled the stocky, 41 year old, orthotic-wearing, hair-thinning “specimen” I’ve grown (devolved) into today.

Taking my head out of my toy chest, my failures only multiply. My childhood room was wall-papered with posters of Michael Jordan, but my lone year of organized basketball in 5th grade stands as a sad testimonial to the fact that the power of positive thinking isn’t always that powerful. As I grew older, my bookshelves contained examples of great minds, but my pedestrian intellect once again falls short.

At almost every turn, I’ve fallen short of the toys, heroes, and role models I surrounded myself with. Way short. And that’s not a rebuke to those that level fair criticism at Barbie dolls. It’s true that women have lived and to a very large degree still live in a sexist culture where their looks are prized over their intellect, character, achievement, and spirit. That is wrong, and it makes the criticism of Barbie dolls an important point to make. That said, it’s also important to point out that things, be they dolls or action figures or sports heroes, only have the power that we grant them. Try as I might, I was most likely genetically predestined to fall very short of Michael Jordan’s basketball example, but my fascination with his athleticism and will to win opened up a sport to me that at every stage of my life, whether playing or not, has brought me joy.

I imagine most of us, especially when we are young, wile away the hours dreaming of being beautiful or brilliant or strong or funny or adventurous to such a degree that the world has never known, yet all but the most lucky few never reach those great heights. In fact, it’s been said that it is that very instinct — to be more than we are — that is the essence of humanity. These dreams, these fantasies, can inspire and animate our lives, but they can also teach us the hard but valuable lesson that falling short, but not being defeated in the process, is an essential part of the human condition.

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