Barbie has been a photojournalist, a game developer, a dolphin trainer, an Olympic athlete, a yoga instructor. She’s been Scottish, French, Ghanaian, Indian, Thai, Russian and dozens of other nationalities. She has been white, Black, brown, indigenous, Asian and Latina. And she’s been gender-neutral, curvy and a wheelchair user. The diversity of Barbie has made her someone almost everyone can identify with and it’s what’s been most celebrated in the publicity push of the “Barbie” movie.
But the one thing Barbie has never been, at least openly, is Jewish.
And Barbie is Jewish, with a story of origin and assimilation that doesn’t differ too much from those of most post-war Jewish American families. Her progenitor Ruth Handler, a Jewish woman and a co-founder of Mattel, discovered Barbie’s ancestor, a German doll, and brought her home to the United States where she was adapted to American tastes and given the name Barbie after Handler’s daughter Barbara.
The only time Barbie’s been recognized as Jewish is when she’s been discriminated against. “Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful,” read a statement against Barbie on the site of Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice when she was banned there in September 2003.
I knew none of this when I was gifted a Magic Curl Barbie, a doll whose normally silky long blonde hair was instead puffed up around her shoulders in tight curls, held back from her face by a yellow ribbon that matched her dress. On the box were three photos of Barbie. The first was of Barbie as she appeared in her package. Next to it, it said: “Curl!” The next was of Barbie with voluminous light waves and the exhortation: “Straighten!” And in the third photo, Barbie was back to her curly self, no ribbon this time, just a mass of fluffy spirals so overwhelming they forced her to tilt her head down, obscuring her smile a bit: “Curl again!” Inside were packets of unknown chemicals to achieve this follicular feat. And in those packets, I saw my chance.
I was too little to realize that my curly hair, the thing I saw standing in the way of me looking like most of my classmates and friends, was part of my Jewish inheritance. I barely even knew that I was Jewish then since my father’s family was as set on blending in as I was. I had just learned that my family name had been changed by my grandfather after World War II for reasons no one would answer yet and when I asked my Italian mother where my dad’s family was from, she only gave vague and shifting answers about Eastern European countries and changing borders.
The only concrete thing I did know when I held Magic Curl Barbie in my hands was that I finally had in my control the ability to straighten not just my doll’s hair, but my own. I read the instructions and was disappointed about its requirement of a spray bottle. I was too little to obtain such a thing without my parents asking why and so I decided I would just put the powder and a little water in my hands and mix them into my hair. I worried what the consequences would be for undertaking such a thing without permission, but I did not care too much since when I imagined them, there was also the image of me with longer-looking hair, loose waves where curls had been.
But like anything, the results did not live up to the package. I shook the meager contents of the straightening packets into my hands. I could only do one small section of the bottom of my hair. There were no glossy, flossy results, just a frizzy and dry patch, a preview of what years of heat styling every day would eventually wreak on my hair.
There was no easy way into the gentile straightness that Barbie had achieved so easily. Barbie didn’t just fit into a beauty standard, she molded it. While I resented her then, I now look on her as subversive. Barbie’s market dominance worked a system to win popularity among an audience that might not otherwise welcome a Jewish woman with such open arms. Less than 15 years after the Holocaust ended, when the United States was so resistant to accepting refugees from its horrors, Barbie showed up and became something quintessentially American, defined it even.
I feel for Barbie. I understand what it’s like to have to assimilate yourself away to be accepted until you’re unrecognizable to your authentic self. I’m aware of the advantages this kind of transformation confers — one that many other marginalized groups don’t have — but especially lately in America, like other Jews, I know that when it comes down to it, it’s no real shield.
Almost every time I flat iron my hair, I remember the words that closed out an infamous podcast interview of Jewish Man Repeller founder and fashion it girl Leandra Medine: “I couldn’t stomach another white assimilated Jewish American Princess who is wildly privileged but thinks she’s oppressed. At the end of the day you guys are going to get your nose jobs and your keratin treatments and change your last name from Ralph Lifshitz to Ralph Lauren and you will be fine.”
Ken would gladly fill the closets of his Mojo Dojo Casa House with the Western wear of Ralph Lauren. But the bordering on camp take on cowboys could only be the work of someone who never lived that life, born in the Bronx to an Ashkenazi family. The same way that those LoveShackFancy dresses obsessively bought up by Southern sorority sisters are undoubtedly the fantasy of an outsider, Jewish New Yorker Rebecca Hessel Cohen. And even before Angelyne, that living embodiment of Barbie who for decades has driven around Los Angeles in her pink Corvette, was found to be the daughter of Holocaust survivors, her embrace of such an outsize American identity should have given her away.
I haven’t had a nose job (not that I didn’t hold out hope for one years back when I thought I had broken my nose), but I do straighten my hair and go through life with a name that gives away nothing about my ethnicity. And while I’m very proud to be Jewish, it’s clear that generational trauma has bred an overcompensation to appear American into some of us, even Barbie. So while her smile says she’s fine, I know that it covers how she worries that she may have boxed herself in.