Households Made of Plastic
the door was to remain shut if I was playing Barbies. This was the most important rule. The second-most important rule was that I could only play Barbies alone. It was to be a solitary activity—no one could watch or participate. I had accepted the responsibility of keeping secret the knowledge that my Barbies had more to their lives than the careers they assumed with each wardrobe change. If my parents discovered that my imaginary Barbie world consisted of marriage and procreation, my mortified brain would have leaked out of my ears.
I could imagine the look of horror on my mom’s face if she came across the scene I’d set up: Barbie, accessorized in a chef’s hat and a pair of kitten-heeled sandals, carrying a box of cereal to a lounging Ken, pausing only to check her mascara in the minivan windows. When my obsession with Cinderella began to spread to all blondes, my mother bought my first Barbie doll with the hope that I would dress her in career-focused outfits. A closet-feminist living in a world of PTA and neighborhood newsletters, my mom set an example that she silently resented. At the time, I was acquainted with her complete disapproval of stereotypically female ambitions, so I knew that, if Barbie were caught catering to Ken’s demands, I would have to tearfully admit to my homemaking goals and assure her that I would discontinue my sexist behavior.
“Ellen, what the hell do you think you’re doing? Have I taught you nothing in the past six years?” she would say from my doorway, her lanky body quivering with anger. The repurposed t-shirt dishrag she held would be swaying in the air conditioning, running full-blast at the expense of my father’s income.
“I just thought it would be nice if Barbie had a family who loves her and a baby and a nice house and I wanted to buy Dog Walker Barbie so they could have the golden retriever, but I was afraid to ask for it, so now I’ll stop, I promise,” I’d say, wailing as I watched her put her hands on her hips.
She might have threatened to remove Ken from the household, creating a dire situation: Barbie would have been miserable as a single mother, and her daughter, Kelly—waiting in her packaging on the lowest shelf in my closet for her imminent conception—would be reduced to a bundle of depression and anxiety if she were raised without a father. I had a family to protect.
This duty to my Barbies, while rooted in a sincere desire to keep the dolls from facing the problems of a broken home, quickly became a power addiction. Locked in my bedroom, I would lose myself in deciding how the couple would struggle with raising a child. I had a very rigid script written in my head that I made sure the parents followed: they would be successful and wealthy, empathetic and kind, attractive and social. I'd spent a few years planning my own future, so I had already stumbled upon solutions for most of the major decisions Barbie and I would have to make through countless games of MASH played with oblivious friends at school. Playing Barbies was an opportunity to observe and edit my plan to ensure that any unforeseen scandals and tragedies could be avoided in my adulthood—no one wants to be married to a housewife who eats fistfuls of her hair while waiting at the bus stop, or to have to take care of a kid who likes to bury puppies alive in the neighbor's backyard.
The third rule, therefore, was to put Barbie's family in the most awful situations I could imagine.
“Oh, no! A blizzard hit Florida during our Christmas break and now our fishing boat is frozen at sea! How will we get through this?” Barbie would say. She was a complainer and a weak woman who relied on the rational solutions of her husband to get through the tough times. She brought to the table love, an obsession for PTO, a flair for bake sales, and ovaries.
“We'll just wait until the ice melts, Barbie. Thank goodness we have those turkey sandwiches and lemon bars you packed us!” Ken spent his free time eating steak, talking to the television while watching football, and making money. He loved coming home to a warm meal, after which he would play with Kelly for an hour and then go to sleep.
“I love you, Ken. You're the best husband a PTO mom could wish for.”
The tragedies into which I shoved this pretty family were not only enlightening, but were also awe-inspiring and romantic. Nothing was better than watching Ken catch his wife by her freshly straightened hair as she fell from the top of a bed-shaped cliff. Swinging in midair, I would imagine her crying out with passion: “My love for you is so strong that it’s making my scalp tingle!”
I was always excited to enact these beautiful Lifetime-esque moments—I hadn’t yet been introduced to Harlequin romance novels and so I had no other options for fulfilling my desire for marital bliss.
“Children grow up so fast. It's like watching life flash by your eyes,” Barbie would say. She was always emotional about these sorts of things.
The baby-Kelly figurine was instrumental to the success of Barbie and Ken’s relationship. I would plop her in Barbie’s outstretched arms, where she would balance until Barbie had to cook dinner. Barbie would stare into her child’s eyes with (my projected) maternal love, while she (but really me) thought about how lovely it was to have a husband who could financially support such a beautiful family.
Barbie (I) could spend hours thinking about what it would be like to have a young daughter, and then a teenage daughter, and then an adult daughter. The prospect of switching out the baby-Kelly figurine for the approximately-age-four Kelly doll was so thrilling that I couldn’t bear to part from my fantasy for longer than the time it took my dad to make me a bologna sandwich (grilled bologna, shrink-wrapped American cheese, white bread without the crusts); I had to act out everything that happened in Kelly’s baby life chronologically before she could grow up, starting with her home-birth, orchestrated by Skipper, the midwife, and I knew that would take a long time.
The threat of my lurking mother restricted the opportunities I had to further my work towards this goal, but I was a methodical, observant child: I learned, after several close calls involving the sound of my doorknob turning and of my Barbies’ bodies hitting the wall, that if I kept my bedroom door shut for too long, she would enter and question me. I knew it would be easier to act honest and to project a convincing innocent-and-naïve-child appearance. So, I played with my door open in the afternoons, when my mother was cleaning downstairs. Every time I heard the vacuum turn off, I would shove the plastic family members underneath my bed or fling them across the room, worrying that if my mom saw the trio at the dinner table, she would know that Barbie had spent her day cooking when she should have been pursuing a second PhD after coming home from her veterinarian day-job. Although I lived in constant fear that my mom would creep into my bedroom, looking for company during her boring days as a suburban housewife, I was eventually able to spend enough time manipulating Kelly’s childhood that she could surpass her toddler years soon after my birthday-money purchase of the approximately-age-eleven Kelly doll.
A few days after halter-top-wearing Kelly arrived in Barbie and Ken’s home, the family threw a party. It was a summer cookout attended by such guests as Mulan, Skipper, Hercules, and Barbie’s slutty and less successful twin, Malibu Barbie. I had been disappointed earlier that morning when my mom declined to buy a Barbie puppy for me, so Kelly was lacking presents; her parents instead let her take a ride around my rug on the roof of their van. Everything was swell—I was providing music with my Barbie Karaoke Machine—until I heard my mom’s footsteps in the hallway. There were too many happy dolls to separate. There was no way I could make everything look feminist within thirty seconds.
So, I tossed everyone face down in my closet, knowing that my mother would be able to read their chipper expressions, and grabbed a book off my bookshelf.
“What’re you reading?” my mom said as she crossed the threshold into my room. Her hair was pushed back and she wielded a bottle of Pine-Sol.
“Is it good?”
I glared at her, taking a moment to steady my breathing. “Yes,” I said. Barbie legs were peeping out from under the sliding closet door, so I maintained eye contact until she sighed and walked away. While I knew that a progressive woman like my mother wouldn’t disown me for having housewife dreams, I feared a confrontation in which I would be admonished for my unworthy life goals. With a full platter of career options before me, to disregard all of them in favor of sitting at home as a patient wife would in my mother’s eyes, be a disappointment. It was best, I decided, to keep my true plans to myself until she saw how great a mom and spouse I would be.
When I later began keeping a diary of the maternal fantasies I had while away from my Barbies, I devised a (slightly) more careful procedure for protecting my shameful secrets than stuffing them in my closet.
I kept these “diaries” for the first few years following kindergarten, and always insisted on buying the ones with puffy plastic covers and heart-shaped locks—locks I usually forgot to use or to which I lost the key as soon as I took it out of the package. I would write roughly a sentence on each page in my baby handwriting before stashing the book in my desk. It was easiest to store things at the bottom of my paper-filled drawers (I was a hoarder) because it was already common for me to yell at family members who tried to open them. Fearing that the stacks within would be disrupted or that my dad would dispose of everything stored within (homework assignments from the beginning of time, Build-a-Bear Workshop certificates, receipts for rock candy, school-mandated Valentine's Day cards from classmates who ate glue, etc.), any outside contact with the drawers would result in me screeching, then shrieking, then crying. Since I wasn't a cute crier, this method always got people to stop touching my stuff.
This also resulted in everyone’s ignorance of the contents of my diaries, which was lucky because I had decided to write them from the perspective of an expecting teenage mother with poor sentence construction skills.
“LAUREN IS PREGGERS DID YOU HEAR I AM PREGGERS TOO!!!!!”
Ten point award for creativity; eighty point deduction for being a crazy person before reaching puberty.
The gem of this manifestation of my obsession with procreation was my decision to create imaginary friends who would support me in my WASP-y endeavors: “Lauren,” a preppy blonde with a lawyer husband and a penchant for baking apple pies, was part of a close-knit circle of women all trying to get pregnant. I, at age six, was the founder of the first pregnancy pact.
But this too was confidential information. I was ashamed, much like any other child wishing to birth/dreaming about carrying a child would be. I couldn’t pull out Parents magazine and swap child-rearing tips with my peers. They were kids frolicking in summer meadows, and I was a budding mother waiting for her handsome husband to appear on her doorstep with a box of chocolates and a fresh-picked sunflower. So, I resigned myself to watching the rain trickle down my window, dreaming of a life fit for Jane Austen while the neighbor kids were busy playing Pirates and Don't-Step-In-The-Lava.
“Watch out! You’re stepping in a boiling pond of magma and now you’re sinking into the earth’s crust and you can’t get out!” my neighbor, Christopher, said one afternoon. I was walking through my living room with the intent of finding a CD I’d left underneath the coffee table, and had been met by a disassembled couch and a pack of boys.
“She’s going to pull us in! Save yourselves!” my five-year-old brother said, throwing a pillow at my face.
“I don’t have time for this, boys. There are real situations to look after. Just play video games and be quiet or something.”
“But your feet are melted. How will you get upstairs now?” Christopher said.
“Yeah, how will you get upstairs now? We trapped the weirdo in the lava!” The chorus exclaimed its joy in my apparent failure to survive as I walked out of the room, my CD trapped beneath the boys’ enclave.
I was destined to fulfill the role of the neighborhood loner.
Somehow, I managed to keep a few real-life friends, though I never told them about my creepy obsession. Although I often felt like I was lying to them when they looked at my collection of dolls and braided their hair, I decided it didn’t matter because they were younger than me anyway, and thus wouldn’t have been able to relate to my mature interests. I probably wouldn’t even have been friends with them if they hadn’t lived on my street.
Maggie, Jenna, and I would spend our time talking about things that I thought would make me seem moderately normal: homework, cute boys, and pop culture. I began watching Entertainment Tonight with my mom because the worst thing was being out of the celebrity gossip loop. But still I couldn’t help but compare every couple to Ken and Barbie, every newborn to little Kelly, every mention of Los Angeles to Malibu.
“Did you hear about Justin and Britney?” Maggie would ask.
“Yeah, it’s so sad,” I would say. “I thought they were going to get married this time. Where are all of the perfect couples?”
“I don’t know, but I like it better when they fight. It’s more fun this way.”
“Don’t you want them to be happy? And have babies?”
“What would we read about if they were happy?” she’d say, flipping her hair and turning the page of Tiger Beat. “Oh, look at Christina’s sparkly dress!”
I’d stare at the magazine page until I forgot about the despair plaguing the romantic human condition and would begin talking about red carpet outfits as if I’d never considered anything else to be so important.
After persuading my mom to buy me yearly subscriptions to YM and Entertainment Weekly, I would shirk my homework in favor of studying their news briefs and trend analyses. I practiced my new and “cool” knowledge on my unsuspecting friends when they came over after school. I would ramble about what I'd seen on TV as we played Barbie Dress-Up (a makeover game that was allowed to be played with friends under the parameters of rule four). If any of the girls initiated interactions with the dolls, I would begin commenting in excess on our Barbie style choices. Playing pretend with my friends and my Barbies still wasn’t in the rules, so I would redirect any of their attempts to treat my dolls like people.
“You know what would go great with that lab coat? This birthday party dress. The pink on those buttons matches it perfectly. I think I have some pretty shoes that’ll work too.”
Or, “I really want some denim shorts like these. Don’t you?”
Or, “These red trousers will look way better with that bikini top.”
I was master distracter and feigner of innocence, shoving those manufactured bodies into velour track suits as if I believed they were nothing more than plastic molds. If my playmate was unfortunate enough to break one of my rules, I would interject to comment on sticker earrings and, soon after, push her out of my house.
“Let’s pretend that Barbie and Skipper are going to a pool party,” my playmate would suggest, glowing with excitement at the scene unraveling in her head.
“Oh, that reminds me of a cute beach towel that came with Scuba Barbie. I got her last week at the grocery store for only five dollars,” I'd say in the attempt to shift her focus to clothes and other frivolous things.
“Look, Skipper’s already in her swimsuit. Let’s take them to the pool and invite Ken. ‘Ken, come to the pool with us! We’re having grilled cheese and would absolutely adore having you there.’”
“Good idea, but I think my mom wants me to do chores at two. What time is it now? Oh my gosh, that was five minutes ago!”
I was the smoothest of smooth as a child, as evidenced by my ability to a) keep my wish for pregnancy a secret, and b) kick people out of my house without letting them know that I was kicking them out of my house.
Well, sometimes they might have known. But that goal was secondary to the first, anyway. I would sometimes worry that they would fraternize at the neighborhood playground, swapping stories about how I hadn’t let any of them stay over for longer than an hour, and I would be discovered.
“She wouldn’t let me touch Ken, today.”
“We changed outfits on those dolls six times the last time I was over there.”
“Her mom invited me to stay for lunch, but she said she had homework and put my shoes on my feet. Who has homework over the summer?”
I would lean against my bed imagining the gossipy conversations, remaining in those nightmares until my mom called me down to the kitchen for dinner. I’d shovel mashed potatoes in my mouth at the table, ignoring all family conversation as I was sucked into a pretend world in which I was the outcast, the freak, the one no one bothered to play with anymore. In my attempt to keep my weird ambitions a secret, I was creating an even weirder reputation for myself.
The cover-life I was living had overtaken the one I’d worked to protect, and I felt guilty and anxious every time I began to think of how Barbie and her pristine family were doing. Instead of planning out Kelly’s teen years, I would envision my almost-friends shunning me at the swing set. In those moments, I’d put on a pair of jelly sandals and run across the street to where the neighbor kids were congregated, hoping I hadn’t missed too much of the afternoon’s fun.
And as I shared a box of chalk with the girls who lived next door, drawing stars and hearts and practicing our cursive, I could breathe with a clear mind. As I inserted myself into the social world, it became increasingly easy to carry on real conversations about shopping and movies and Britney Spears with girls who said they liked my shoes and wanted me to come over for sleepovers. I spent my solitary moments dreaming of real-life crushes and fashion shows. I tacked vacation photographs to my walls. I bought a cosmetics case. My Barbies started to look like clutter.
One winter morning, I tucked each of them into a plastic storage bin my mom had left in my room to create space for a boom box and stacks of the newest issues of Seventeen. I walked across the bare floor in long strides, admiring the way the sunlight warmed the carpet and the way the air seemed to lighten every corner. I slid the bin under my bed, relieved, and went outside to build an igloo in the cul-de-sac.
Barbie and her family still lie under my bed, their hair tangled and their clothes shoved into plastic bags. Ken’s head pops off sometimes, and I’ll find it in a bottom corner of the bin when I check to make sure they’re all still present. Faces smashed together, arms entwined, the family is more or less intact.
Ellen Duffer grew up near Cincinnati, Ohio, but has since moved to Boston to pursue her BFA in Writing, Literature, & Publishing at Emerson College. You can find her portfolio at ellenduffer.com