2012-10-12

Odyssey, part 6: Anti-Barbie

"Chance is perhaps the pseudonym of God when he does not wish to sign his work."
- Anatole France

"Coincidences are spiritual puns."
- G.K. Chesterton

The concept of meaningful coincidences was first introduced to me in a bar. I was an eighteen-years old undergraduate at Atlanta’s Emory University. I was in that bar with a woman a couple years older, Madeleine, a fellow student whom I’d met in British Lit class. She had a deck of Tarot cards and looked like she knew how to use it. I eyed the cards skeptically. Mom had taught me to stay away from pseudo-science girls.

“It’s not,” Madeleine explained, “that I believe that your psyche, or the world, or anything exerts some force upon the cards as they are shuffled, causing them to turn up the way they do in an order which your personality uniquely determines. I don’t believe that. I believe some things are random, that quite a lot happens that has no reason for happening. By random chance it just happens to happen. Some things do have a reason for happening – a lot of things don’t. The shuffling of the cards creates randomness. The cards I’m about to turn up for you will have the same probability of being turned up for anybody else. The fact that your Tarot reading produces, say, the Page of Cups here and the Seven of Pentacles there is simple coincidence.”

She was apparently conceding everything to the skeptical debunkers – except that the debunkers infer from the randomness of the way the cards come up to a conclusion that Tarot readings are useless. Madeleine didn't draw that inference. She set about to present me with a layout of thirteen cards – thirteen little mere coincidences, and she suggested ways that the cards in the different positions interrelated into an overall story. It was then up to me to choose whether to make this coincidence meaningful to me. I could decide to make it part of my identity that I’m the guy that the Tarot cards just happened on that particular day to produce that particular story and lift up that particular set of interwoven reminders.

I know that after that build-up, you would like to know what those cards said on that day. That’s not what I remember. What I remember is the point that the way we make sense of our lives is largely a matter of deciding to give or see meaning in certain of the coincidences of life. Much of the story we tell ourselves of our lives is cobbled-together random bits of happenstance.

One of the coincidences of my life is Barbie. As noted in part 1, the month I was born was the month Mattel introduced the Barbie doll. Barbie and I grew up together. She was always around. The coincidence of our shared birthday affords me a way to tell the story of who I am: Not Barbie.

Barbie became an icon by being an exaggeration – yet she represents and reinforces cultural messages about what young women should be. I once read that if Barbie were life-size (i.e., 5’9” tall), her measurements would be 39-23-33. The numbers confirm what we see from one look: she’s not a realistic or healthy model for our girls or women to try to match. Barbie boldly proclaims the unreal. Mine has been the work of becoming real, of striving to be authentic. That’s the anti-Barbie work.

Barbie’s success is, in large measure, owed to the expression into which her face is molded: her “eternal look of compliant joy.” Her submissive bliss defines who she is. In 1991, Barbie was in a lawsuit. There was a rival doll, made by Kenner, the “Miss America Doll.” The Mattel people said that the doll was too similar to Barbie and therefore infringed on their copyright. You immediately see the irony: the Miss America doll was made to look like a typical Miss America, but the typical Miss America had spent her whole life trying to look like Barbie. What especially struck me about the lawsuit was the image of those serious Mattel lawyers explaining just what made Barbie Barbie and no other doll could imitate. The distinguishing feature of Barbie, argued these lawyers wearing straight faces and expensive suits, was her facial expression of compliant joy. And the courts ruled in Mattel’s favor, declaring that Barbie did indeed own the copyright on “eternal look of compliant joy.” (Marjorie Williams. “Barbie in the Volley of the Dolls: Mattel Goes to Court Against ‘Miss America’ Competitor.” Washington Post. 1991 August 1. p. A1.)

If your face were copyrighted, how would the copyright documents describe your expression? For an Anti-Barbie, perhaps “noncompliant joy” would do. Or maybe: “subversive bliss.”

The month when Barbie and I both came into the world, it seems as though some more elemental substance was split apart into opposites. This theory has a certain plausibility. It just so happens that 1959 was also the year that the Nobel prize in physics went to two scientists who discovered the anti-proton. See, what might have happened was that my mother, down at the lab, accelerated a Barbie prototype doll to near the speed of light, smashed it into an iridium rod, producing various antiparticles and, voilĂ , one anti-Barbie – me. OK, so that’s not how it happened. Actually, as you may know, Barbie was based on a German hooker doll. I’m pretty sure I’m not.

Of course, there’s more than one Barbie. There have been more than a billion of them. Placed head-to-toe, they would circle the earth 7 times – at the equator. There’s more than one anti-Barbie, too. Unitarian Universalists are Anti-Barbies, and there are hundreds of thousands of us – but not a billion. According to Mattel, every second, three Barbie dolls are sold somewhere in the world. It takes a little bit longer than that for any Unitarian Universalist congregation to gain three new members. And, let’s face it, we aren’t nearly as well-dressed as Barbie.

All things considered, I’ll take us. To illustrate what I like about us, despite our drawbacks, let me tell you about that train that I stopped. I was six-years-old, and I stopped the whole darn train. I was playing on the tracks in Pinetops, North Carolina where we then lived, and the train came along. I saw it coming, so I politely and prudently stepped to the side to let it pass. But the conductor, quite unreasonably to my mind, deemed the one-foot clearance I allowed between myself and the railroad to be insufficient, and the whole train ground to a halt until I moved farther back.

Barbie never would have done that. She never makes embarrassingly stupid mistakes. She’s not real bright – you may recall the fuss some years back talking Barbie came out and one of the things she said when you pulled her string was “Math is hard.” She isn’t a thinker. Yet somehow she just knows how to be perfect.

The thing about being a thinker is that we so often reason wrongly. There I was at age six reasoning: “OK, train’s coming, I need to let it pass. It will need to pass on the railroad, so if I step off the railroad to the side, that will suffice.” Barbie doesn’t think things through – she just has an inarticulate sense of propriety and decorum and that a goodly distance between oneself and hundreds of tons of speeding metal is called for.

The problem with thinking and reason is that we are prone to overlook something: that parts of a train stick out more than a foot, or that the thing is so huge that it may create air currents that suck in a bystander. As Zen master Koun Yamada put it, “How incompetent intellectual understanding can be!” But though the thinkers make embarrassingly stupid mistakes, they are also the ones who have that satisfaction that only working it out for yourself can provide. Barbie knows neither the sorrow nor the joy of either stupidity or achieving beliefs that are truly her own. We Anti-Barbies embrace the ups and the downs, the intellect’s foibles as well as its assumption-questioning success, as all part of a life fully lived.

That, at least, is what I tell myself when I again do something remarkably dumb.

Now, I do want to give Barbie the credit she is due. Let us acknowledge that before Barbie, the dolls available to an American girl were baby dolls, and that girls were thereby encouraged to think of themselves as nothing but mothers-in-training. Barbie does give girls a nonmaternal alternative model. Barbie isn’t even married. She’s a model of self-sufficiency. And with the arrival of the Ken doll, America was introduced to the concept that a man is just one more fashion accessory. That’s perhaps not conducive to the healthiest of relationships – but it is a sort of antidote to the idea that women’s complete dependence upon men for their well-being and identity was the natural and inevitable order of things.

Barbie has been a fashion model, an elementary-school teacher, a ballerina, a nurse and a doctor (a pediatrician) – during our various Mid-East military adventures she has surfaced as an Army medic. She’s been a businesswoman, an actress, an Olympic athlete – both in gymnastics and figure skating – a country-western singer, an astronaut, a Presidential candidate, a firefighter. There has been a Nascar Barbie and a paleontologist Barbie. The positive message is that a girl can be anything she might want to be. On the down side, Barbie has no center. There’s no there there.

As an entrepreneur, she’s produced her own comic-book series, innumerable coloring books, an aerobic work-out tape along with appropriate equipment, she has several lines of computer software, and Barbie movies have moved into the video market.

You won't see this Barbie on
the toy store shelves . . .
“Barbie, I grant you that we no longer live in a world where one can expect to hold the same job throughout a 30-year career, but goodness, Sister, all those occupations, all that busy-ness, does make one wonder what internal emptiness you are working so hard, so desperately to fill.

Physically, Barbie is an exaggerated ideal; materially, she’s very well off. In the last 30 years, she’s seen $26 billion dollars in sales – that’s billion with a B for Barbie. She’s got a pink Corvette with “Barbie” emblazoned on the side. She’s got Barbie’s Dream House. Spiritually, she’s an empty vessel. We Unitarian Universalists tend to want to say that this model of self-determination, choice, and freedom, and some measure of success must be something all our children can grow up looking forward to, girls as well as boys, and all girls – not just the ones who starve themselves skinny and make themselves appear happily compliant. Mattel has given us African-American Barbie, and Hispanic Barbie, and Asian Barbie. Those are progressive developments. But there’s a sameness to them all: same body shape, same facial expression. We have not seen Overweight Barbie, Lesbian Barbie, Elder Barbie, or Occupy-Wall-Street Barbie. Nor have we seen any sort of Barbie suggesting spiritual seriousness: Pastor Barbie, Zen Master Barbie, Shi'ite Barbie, or (how could they resist?) Baba Barbie. And we aren't going to, for, as anybody in marketing at Mattel can tell you, those things would violate the nature of what makes Barbie Barbie. (Though one woman has created a set of Episcopalian priestly vestments for her Barbie doll.)

...or this one.
A strange and winding series of accidents created you and made you who you are. Some long, elaborate, and highly unlikely chain of happenstance brought you to where you are now. Many of us, somehow, unlike Barbie, find our way to spiritual seriousness and to faith community. Each such community is itself a unique and improbable agglomeration of personalities.

What a fluke that the members of my Unitarian Universalist faith community should have come into this form of connection with each other. What an amazing and glorious fluke! We weave the fluke into a story that makes the happenstance meaningful. Randomness played a big role in creating our history and tradition, and in bringing its current members to that tradition. The meaning we make, building upon the meaning we perceived that first attracted us to become Unitarian Universalists, keeps us together to care for each other, to affirm and strengthen common values, to build a shared home for what is of ultimate worth, to connect with the holy, to work out ways to engage the wider world, and to awaken to all that this grand fluke has to offer.

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Next: "Odyssey, part 7: "The Knowledge Road to Nowhere"
Previous: "Odyssey, part 5: The Commune Attraction"
"Odyssey, part 4: Paragon of Loquacious Discourse"
"Odyssey, part 3: Mr. Bear's Lover of Leaving"
"Odyssey, part 2: Falling Apples"
"Odyssey, part 1: 1959"