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.

On Trashing a Dream

I closed a chapter in my life today twenty years in the making, and, in the process, I trashed a dream.

I went to law school with the idea that my legal career would involve civil rights. I was fascinated by constitutional law, and, be it through the academy or a litigation practice, I envisioned myself fighting the good fight for gay rights. I could articulate the arguments that, to me, seemed so obvious, but, to others, were less so. I saw myself marching toward a meaningful career that fused personal and professional interests.

It never really happened.

I guess my first mistake was attending a law school known more for its focus on corporate law than civil rights law. I wrote a few law review articles on gay rights, and they got some attention. But central Kentucky was not a hotbed of civil rights jurisprudence, and I definitely was not linked in to the gay rights movement. In an odd (and dispiriting) twist, when I did travel to Washington, D.C., to interview for a legal job with the nation’s most prominent gay rights advocacy group, one interviewer told me that, in my subsequent interviews that day, I should lose the “aww-shucks” Kentucky accent. I came to interview to fight for equality, and was told I shouldn’t be myself.

I ended up taking a job clerking for a judge with a federal agency, never again to seriously flirt with a job in the academy or the civil rights movement. For the next fifteen years, though, tucked away in a trunk, I kept my law school text book for my civil rights litigation course, as well as my class notes and final exam outline. A few times a year, I would pull it out and thumb through the pages. I’d wonder about roads not taken. And I always returned it safely to the trunk, thinking to myself, “Who knows?”

Then, today, I found myself cleaning out the garage. As we prepare to move into our new home in nine months, I decided to rummage through some crates and trunks and make room for packing. When I did, I came across my course work again, but, this time, I made a different choice. For my psyche, it was a moment of reckoning. The materials represented a dream, my thrust to go to law school, my idealized version of the attorney I thought I would be. In the end, though, it wasn’t the attorney I turned out to be. And, in some ways, I was never fully accepting of the direction of my career, and, by keeping the materials in the trunk, I held out the possibility that the career I imagined might, one day, come to fruition.

But as I stood there in my garage, sweat dripping, and flipping through the course text book for the hundredth time since law school, I realized that, rather than holding out the promise of a dream I wanted to chase, the course materials were getting in the way, literally and figuratively, of me moving on with my life. When you think about what might have been, you stop yourself from accepting, embracing, and appreciating what is. In fifteen years I had not taken one step toward that old dream, and, if actions speak louder than words (or old text books), it was time to admit to myself that that dream was not alive. Moreover, I was okay with that.

So, today, the course materials didn’t go back in the trunk; they went in the trash and recycling. As I slid the trunk back into place, I felt fine. I’m happy, I’ve got an amazing husband, we are growing our family, and I’m making room for even more wonderful memories to come in our new home. It’s time to focus on the present and the future, not the past and what might have been. Time for some new dreams…