The Impact of Barbie on Me as a Brown Latina versus as a Mom

My first Barbie was a gift from one of my Puerto Rican aunts

Barbie mom Melina Gac Levin

Photo courtesy of Melina Gac Levin

My first Barbie was a gift from one of my Puerto Rican aunts. I was five years old when I opened the box to discover the many wires holding the doll perfectly in place. My family had just arrived on the island, my mother’s homeland, after years of living in Colombia, Holland, and France with my parents’ theater company. The Barbie was a homecoming gift. My first Barbie had the iconic blonde hair, dangly earrings, and hot pink rollerblades that sparked when forced into a roll. I loved her instantly.

Barbie stood out among my other toys. These were toys that were chosen by my parents and their friends. They were a group of political refugees, communists, activists, and artists. The blocks, trucks, doctor’s kit, and anatomically correct dolls they gifted me were intended to hold open the doors of possibility in spite of my gender. My only other blonde doll was a large, soft-bodied baby doll that my father named Terena. He claimed it meant peace or truce. In the company of these toys, Barbie, with her sparkling eyes and painted-on lipstick, shone. My father’s unvoiced — I can’t remember him ever saying anything — but palpable ambivalence only added to her mystique and my desire for more.

We moved again when I was six, this time it was to Carrollton, Georgia, a town west of Atlanta near the Alabama border. I brought four Barbies with me on the plane. My prized possessions, they were more than toys. They were a direct link to the beloved aunts I was leaving behind. They were a link to my roots.

Barbie was also the vehicle I used to play through the real life dramas of my childhood. She gave me a birds-eye view of what it was to move, to lose friends, to fight with a sibling, to love and hate your family all at once. A DreamHouse was out of reach for us, but I built my Barbies homes out of blocks and cardboard boxes. Not wanting to waste a birthday gift on a Ken doll, they dated my brother’s Ninja Turtles instead–more gifts from my aunts.

The newest one, with the most perfect hair, was always the protagonist. She was me. I loved her for her perfection. I loved her for allowing me to be perfect. Blonde with sparkling eyes and a Ninja Turtle boyfriend. I hated her for disappearing when I looked in the mirror.

My mother would tell me my brown skin was the color of honey. She’d run her hands through my black hair in wonder at its silkiness, so different from her waves. I never believed her that I was beautiful. Some of my contemporaries have shared how they rejected, or at least ignored, Barbie when they did not see themselves in her. I bought into the myth of her perfection and beauty as if were using the studies on Barbie and girls’ self-image as a roadmap. I loved and hated Barbie and myself in equal measures.

My parents, like many immigrant parents, did not make a conscious effort to pass down a sense of cultural or ethnic identity. For one, it did not occur to them that I would feel unmoored or uncertain of who I was. This is an experience we do not share. For another, our understanding of identity is different now than it was in the ’80s and ’90s when they were raising me. Their concerns were others.

By the time I moved to New Jersey at age 11, I felt more ashamed of being a brown Latina than proud of it. An adolescence spent in a predominantly white town only added to the dissonance I felt when my reflection betrayed my sense that I was more similar than different to my white friends. The pain I felt when some of those same friends threw my Latinidad back in my face during the college application season is seared in my memory. I believed one of them when she told me that I was accepted at Columbia University because of “who you are on paper.” It has taken years to undo this knot in what I believe about myself.

I, in contrast to my parents and like many others in my shoes, am consciously and consistently engaged with the question of how to support my own daughters’ identity development in relation to their cultural heritage and race. One of my primary concerns as a 1.5 generation American is to help them connect to and see value in their Latinidad.

Barbie Melina Gac Levin

Photo courtesy of Melina Gac Levin

My daughters’ toys are mostly made of wood. They have blocks, trains, and a doctor’s kit. I could tell you that this is because wood is more sustainable or that there is a pedagogical reason behind the materials. Both of these claims are true in their own way. More truthfully I choose these toys because they feel good in my hands and look nice on our shelves.

Their dolls, on the other hand, I have chosen entirely with my daughters in mind. They have a range of skin tones, hair, and eye colors. They have as big a range of body types as I have found. They have ballet tutus and astronaut outfits. Clothes that are fancy and clothes I’ve hand-sewn or knitted myself. I’ve kept the one with the missing arm. These dolls are windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. I want my daughters to see themselves and their neighbors in them. None of us look like Barbie.

My eldest’s first Barbie was a gift from our housekeeper, Carmen, who reminds me in more ways than one of my aunts. The Barbie has pink hair and high heels. My daughter loved her instantly. As soon as I saw the doll I wanted to make it, and all the discomfort it engendered, disappear. My child was two at the time and it would have been easy enough. Instead I froze. Unsure of what to do, I stayed in my emotional storm while my daughter enjoyed her new toy. She named her Ayanath, a combination of her music teacher’s name and that of an acquaintance who had befriended her at a party by offering her arms as a canvas for my daughter’s animal stamps.

We kept the Barbie. My voiced reason was that I didn’t want to create scarcity and amplify desire around the doll. The real reason was I wasn’t sure what to do. My daughter didn’t seem to care about her any more than her other dolls, and this made it easier for me. My husband and I went to Target in search of another plastic doll with darker skin and a less sexy look for good measure. We brought home a Moana doll with flat feet. Later, we added a Princess Leia doll with a serious expression and muscular arms to her collection.

We now own four Barbies. All were gifts. All are loved. Until recently my daughters have mostly used them as bath toys, hair to brush, or mannequins to denude. In the last two weeks my eldest’s play has changed. She creates storylines and dramas. Her dolls speak to each other and I hear my words shared between them, always spoken more harshly than I remember saying them. Do I really sound like I’m yelling when I ask her to put her clothes in the hamper?

Surprised as I have been to be placed at the center of my child’s dramas — but then, what mother doesn’t fear and suspect that she is the subject of her child’s therapy sessions? — this has not scared me. I know intimately the value of this play. I know how good it feels. Still, I’m on the lookout for when my child stops bouncing between protagonists.

I watch her looking at herself in the mirror out of the corner of my eye. In my periphery she smiles, poses, tries on anger, sadness, and smiles again. It’s her smile that I’m looking for. A sign (real or imagined) that she likes what she sees, that she feels good as herself. I tracked down a Selena doll, but at $250 for the collector’s item, a handmade purple jumpsuit for Ayanath will have to do. In the meantime, the Gloria Barbie, modeled after America Ferrera in the upcoming film Barbie, is in my cart, too. 

I am not naive enough to believe a Latina Barbie is emblematic of deep, lasting, or systemic progress. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to see the new Barbie movie. The first Barbie I purchase will look like me. It may be complicated, but it feels damn good.

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Barbie Diversity and representation Featured latina dolls trending
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