Why do most languages have something like a word that sounds like mama that means mother? Etymology, the study of the history of language and words, tells us part of the story, but biology tells us the other part. And we really can figure out why some things come to stand for other things, like a mmmmm sound for the one who birthed you and feeds your from her breast and for a while in a child’s life is indistinguishable from the child’s self. A pretty good article all about this can be found in the Atlantic.
We naturally make sounds before we can consciously shape the mouth, tongue and lips. Unclasping the lips from nursing and releasing a breath makes something akin to a ma or na sound. The mother reinforces the baby making that sound and the baby emulates her words and the positive experience. And wah lah we have a pretty damn near universal word recreates with every generation. Me beginning with the same sound as ma is not universal but is an Eurasian phenomenon.
This month I said I was working with iconic imagery that is associated with the essential or elemental feminine. Mama is one of the words that truly meets the criteria of iconic. Everyone has a mother. The woman, food, comfort, love, and a state of contentment are components of a preverbal association laid down in our earliest experience. In this way a mother, and as a universal experience, the mother truly stands for a concept in such a way such that it is more than simple representation, and that the icon embodies the concept.
The inverse is also true; we come to include the child’s response of naming Mama as part of this essential and symbolic element of this primordial relationship. Messing with icons breaks all cultural rules. This is also why creepy dolls who say, “Mama” are the subject of horror stories.
I offer this A to Z entry up as a roll out for Mother’s Day posts.
The Barbie doll was introduced in 1959 as an adult doll to serve as a role model for little girls. Up until that time girls primarily played with baby dolls as their staple toys.
Later-born baby boomers grew up with Barbie as the doll used to act out adult female roles in their play. This generation imprinted on Barbie and grew up thinking of Barbie as a normal adult female shape.
Concerns about Barbie were commonplace at first, mainly about her breasts, but sales boomed and the line of playscale teen fashion model(1/6th scale model) dolls was a winner.
I was always uncertain about the folktales surrounding Barbie. But a colleague of my husband grew up down the street from Barbara and Kenneth Handler who were the kids of Ruth and Elliot Handler and she confirmed much of what I had been told about the beginning of this doll that has become a feminine icon. Ruth created the prototype and Elliot was the cofounder of Mattel.
Barbie is so American. She came from Europe just like the first white settlers. She was sued and capitalism won out when the manufacturer of the doll that was the European inspiration for the American Barbie settled out of court and was then purchased by Mattel. Such an American story.
Whether the influence of Barbie’s appearance on the children who play with the doll was, and continues to be, good or bad is a matter of opinion. Barbie’s measurements would translate into an absurdly proportioned woman along the lines of Stormy Daniels but with a much smaller waist, probably under 20 inches. It has been said that Barbie would have less than a 16.5% body fat index which would probably cause from amenorrhea.
I understand all this. I have opinions on the topic of representational Barbie, but I would like to share how I played with Barbie. I used Barbie just like Ruth Handler hoped little girls would. She was my imaginary playmate with who I engaged in role model play. I was a weird kid though, and my imaginary play with the Mattel dolls as role models was probably very different than what the originator had anticipated.
Barbie in the Jungle
I grew up on a small farm where disposable income for Barbie accoutrements was nonexistent. But I had a vivid and wide ranging imagination. To set up my jungle scene I would move potted plants to the floor and arrange a deep jungle. Then Barbie and Ken and Skipper would be dressed in loincloths and beads. I loved making clothes and adornments from scraps from my mother’s sewing box. I would make treehouses from shoe boxes placed on end tables above the potted plant forest.
I was quite happy having my semi-naked Barbies live in the living room jungle until my mother put the kibosh on such play. Nakedness above the waist, my chosen attire for my Tribe Tarzan of Mattel, was then verboten. I was outraged but I did not want to lose access to my playmates , so I complied.
Fortunately I had other options.
Space Station Barbie
Reinforced boxes had these great “angle iron” shaped corner supports which I stripped out of the boxes and used as aerial walkstations between spaceport chair, spaceport couch, and lamp table space transfer point. The Mattel space travelers were clad in form fitting aluminum foil space suits.
I suspect that the Barbie’s Dream House, from the Sears Catalog that cost a whopping $9.99 in 1964 dollars only arrived under the Christmas tree because my mom was worried about the atypical play in which I engaged and wanted to channel my play into appropriate household fantasies.
It did not work. I equate my Barbie play with my love of Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler, not to mention Margaret Atwood.
Ruth Handler wanted to encourage little girls to play with dolls and put them into forward looking imaginary scenarios, not just feed and dress baby dolls. This certainly worked with me. I ended up being and anthropologist and a writer. Of course, I did go through an anorexic period, but that had more to do with the a-hole I lived with than with imprinting on Barbie.
A to Z of Iconic Femininity
A to Z Blogging Challenge – April 2018