EARLY this year, I dropped by a mall to get a doll, and was shellshocked by the epic struggle to find the Perfect Princess.
Even though my budget drastically whittled down the options, there still seemed an entire universe of pliable ladies simpering to be rescued if I could fork over anything from P99.75 to P499.75.
Being a mother of boys had spared me from even glancing at this merchandise. As godmother and aunt, I've generally stuck to giving books and shirts, ducking behind the rationale that kids are always wearing out their clothes but should be wearing out more storybooks.
But this one time was different. From the south, a three-year-old girl came with her mother and uncle for a free operation to begin repairing her cleft palate. On this first visit to the city, the little girl had not stopped crying or fussing into the night.
So, wanting to redeem her trip from the memory of examining doctors, the hospital smell, heat and noise, I paced up and down toy shelves, trying to decide which vinyl smile could make a child in tears hold out her arms.
But just a few minutes of scrutiny made me wonder if dolls did a lot of comforting.
Deceptively frothy, doll displays are disguised arenas for a showdown between warring standards of girl identity. On one hand is the ideal of gentility, represented by that 1950s icon, Barbie by Mattel Inc. In the opposing camp, pouting their bee-stung lips and flashing their hooded eyes, are the Bratz dolls of MGA Entertainment.
For a fashion doll introduced in 1959, Barbie forced many girls to live up to her impeccable standards. She confused me then, even as she still intimidates me, whistlebait waistline, price tag and all.
When my mother was fed up with my hellraising and urged me to “act like a lady,” I instinctively tiptoed, mimicking my Barbies. Despite the loss of most of their clothes and some of their hair, my blonde Barbie and half-brunette, half-bald Barbie had, aside from perfect gams, perpetually arched heels.
While the stuffed dolls slumped over their tea, the Barbies never slouched and never lost their regal bearing, thanks to those unbending vinyl knees. It was only after I saw a cousin's Barbie collection, perfectly preserved behind a glass cabinet, that I realized the point behind this perpetual tiptoeing: Barbie's feet were arched to fit high heels. (For a time, I really believed tiptoeing curbed inner demons.)
If she was hard on us girls, Barbie was merciless on herself. She is the most altered doll pre-Botox and other body modifications. According to wikipedia, her breasts were first to be altered after parents expressed unhappiness over her “distinct” chest. In 1971, Barbie's eyes were adjusted to look forward, in keeping with a modern gal. (The original model cast a demure sideways glance.)
According to the same online reference, Slumber Party Barbie came out in 1965 with a pink bathroom scale fixed at 110 lbs. and a dieting book that advised, “don't eat.” In 1997, Barbie was given a waistline that would put a stop to any anorexic fantasy after Finnish researchers revealed that Barbie's proportions lacked the “17 to 22 percent body fat required for a woman to menstruate.”
Contrasting with Barbie's neuroses is the Bratz babes' “attitude.” Though given lineages, names and skin tones that are multicultural, representative and inclusive, their political correctness stops with the excessive commercialism and overt sexuality.
Luckily, my budget saved me from having to seek out a toystore shrink to just work through my confusion if it is proper to give a child a premature Perfection Complex (via Barbie) or a Materialism Fetish (via any of the heavily accessorized Bratz babes).
Two days after giving my locally made Dream Princess, I asked our friend how her daughter was sleeping. No more tantrums, no crying to sleep, she reported: my little girl now sleeps like an angel, one arm around the clear plastic box containing a child's fantasy in pink tulle, complete with bendable knees and arms.
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* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 19, 2007 issue