Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Barbies for grownups


I believe in a certain amount of frivolity in life. Repressive societies are those deadly serious entities that forbid free speech, casual beauty, jokes, and even fashion. Citizens are required to be uniform in dress, thought and action. That is a hideous prospect.

When a friend and I happened on a Beethoven concert in a small hall in Xian, China, in 1986, the first violinist came up during intermission and asked us, the only Westerners in the audience, what we thought. I complimented him and the orchestra but noted that most of the musicians' instruments were small. Where were the bass fiddles, the drums, and the tubas? He replied, "In the Cultural Revolution, they were too big to hide, but we could put flutes and violins under floorboards and in tiny spaces."

George Orwell's brilliant satire "Animal Farm" traces the fate of the silly mare Molly, banished from the totalitarian regime established by the pigs because she hid sugar lumps and colored ribbons for her mane under the straw in her stall.

So I am always leery of being too sober, too serious, too world-concerned, as I love a laugh and an occasional escape from the rigors of my life (which, I always remind myself, is so much better than one lived in the conditions of many suffering in the world).

Thus, I was excited at the prospect of the film version of "Sex and the City," the follow-up to many late nights I have spent alone in guilty pleasure watching the exploits of Carrie and friends in exciting and glamorous New York. I still haven't seen it, as my life has been full of some very immediate concerns, but I will, in spite of Anthony Lane's blistering review in the combined June 9/16 edition of "The New Yorker." His quarrel was not only with the performances, which he thought translated poorly from TV to film. His critique also challenged the way in which the elegant, expensive world of New York women as portrayed in the film is false. He says the message of the film is, "Don't be a mother. And don't work. Is this really where we have ended up—with this superannuated fantasy posing as a slice of modern life?"

He continues: "... there is a deep sadness in the sight of Carrie and friends defining themselves not as Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter did—by their talents, their hats, and the swordplay of their wits—but purely by their ability to snare and keep a man."

Then it hit me. Anthony Lane doesn't understand the Barbie Doll culture or, in my case, the love my generation had for storybook dolls complete with fancy dresses and small tiaras. Many girls from my time spent hours in fantasy, traveling around the world with tiny Spanish flamenco dancers in red silk or waiting for a white knight as did our lavishly attired delicate princesses. My best present ever was a bride doll with miniature pearls and a weensy bouquet. In spite of my girlish dreams of satin gowns and Prince Charming, I have managed. My daughters and their friends had Barbies in T-birds and the influence of TV portraying the luxurious mansions of the very rich. I do think those later generations of women have learned that life is not a fairy tale, but, raised on Barbie dolls, they still like to dress up once in a while and entertain the fantasy that "Sex and the City" offers ... a glamorous life of closets filled with the kind of teeny shoes you could get if you saved up enough for a new Barbie outfit.

We have had to face the remoteness of attaining many of the dreams we entertained as children. In addition, we have witnessed almost to the point of vulgarity the reality behind many of the people who lead what we think are glamorous lives. The last costume I made for my 10-year-old was a replica of Princess Di's wedding gown, complete with a long train. Look what happened to that girlish icon; look what happened to the dashing JFK Jr.

So I think it is perfectly OK to be silly once in a while, to pretend we could spend some time in another world, as long as our temporary aspirations don't become serious quests for meaningless material pursuits. Somewhere between selfishness and idealism, between lust and lasting love, between frivolity and a serious concern for others, most of us will find a balance. We've grown up.

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