By Porochista Khakpour

In the days leading up to Barbie’s cougariffic 50th birthday — today — most everyone has had a story to tell. Mine begins in 1958 in one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, Hamedan, Iran, and it begins with my mother, then just a small girl, and Barbie’s international predecessor and antithesis: the porcelain baby doll.

My mother used to break her porcelain baby dolls — a luxury among her friends, who grew up with mother- and sister-manufactured rag dolls — constantly. One day my grandmother, the teacup-sized trophy wife of the president of the National Iranian Oil Company of Hamedan, took my mother to the local toy stores in search of the routine replacement. To their horror, there were no dolls to be found.

The burden was then placed on a clueless male cousin en route from Europe to bring my mother a new doll. When it arrived, the new doll was everything the other doll was not — here was a foot-long, fussy thing, half the mass and a quarter of the weight of the old clunky ceramic suckling. Some parts were molded (earrings, lashes, breasts); others simply painted on (made-up face, polished fingernails, side-scoping eyes), and the doll donned grown-lady garb. It was the German Bild Lilli doll — the prototype that Ruth Handler used to create the American Barbie in 1959 — the postwar, sugar-daddy-mongering vixen of German comic strips.

My mother’s reaction: puzzled. How do you play with this? It’s a woman, not a baby! In the end, my grandmother had to take Lilli and my mother to the store, where my mother gave her up for yet another infinitely breakable, but round and cradle-able, infant, the type my mother could more comfortably mother. 

Twenty years later, at a time when Cher was her icon, my mother finally got Barbie. In my infancy in Tehran, I was awarded my first Barbie, a beaming blonde Malibu or SuperStar decked out in a disco metallic bikini. My mother was in love and as soon I was old enough to register playthings, so was I. From then, it was perpetual Barbie season.

Until we had to flee Iran, that is. When my family left Tehran almost overnight at the advent of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, we left behind an entire room full of expensive toys; the casualties included my beloved Barbie posse.

The transition to another life was made easier, I think, by the realization that it was a small world, especially when it came to Barbie. On one of our first refugee days in Paris, I shrieked my family to a dead halt in front of Galeries Lafayette. There in the department store’s window display was Pink ’n’ Pretty Barbie. My mother, trying to save every penny for an uncertain future, turned to my grandmother for doll help once again. And as she had so many years ago in Hamedan, she caved. I was elated; Barbie was everywhere, eternal and universal no matter where you were ...

Once we settled in Los Angeles, I was allowed, over the years, to build up the battalion with Great Shape, Dream Date and Rocker Barbies, plus some Vettes and the Dream House. But toward the end of elementary school, Barbie started to make me feel uneasy. I started to look in the mirror. I began Sharpie-ing the hair on my Barbies black (like mine) and calling them Persian names: Bahareh, Banafsheh, Skippareh. I even attempted to “tan” Peaches ’n’ Cream Barbie’s skin for hours one day, praying for her lotion-slathered skin to turn brown like mine, which it never did. I started to realize the one thing worse than being a foreigner was being a foreigner girl. 

Just as Barbie was coming to mean less and less to me, she was coming to mean more and more to the folks back in Iran. In the still shiny and new Islamic Republic, Barbie was spotlighted as a national threat of Jane Fonda magnitude. Wary of Western influences and her nation-corrupting pulchritude, the government battled the presence of Barbie in bazaars — the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults developed sibling dolls named Sara and Dara, Muslim versions of Barbie and Ken, with headscarves and prayer books in lieu of convertibles and boomboxes. The government also raided stores that carried Barbies — but this mostly resulted in black stickers on the packaging to hide the dolls’ calamitous contours.

The battle continues to this day. Last April, Iran’s prosecutor general, Ghorban-Ali Dorri Najafabadi, warned Iranians about the culturally “destructive" consequences of importing Barbies and again promoted Sara and Dara as ace alternatives. And yet, at three times the price, and mostly a black market moll, Barbie manages to reign supreme in the Islamic Republic.

In fact, Iran may be the only place where Barbie has got that somethin ’-somethin’ to capture young hearts — and apparently enflame adult minds. Now, 100 careers, 50 nationalities, 40 pets, a billion pairs of shoes, 50,000 makeovers later, Barbie came, conquered and the only place she can go is somewhere else — at least judging from her United States sales, which have been falling for years. 

Why did my Barbies end up dismembered, naked, pierced and slashed in the toy-dregs mausoleum of dusty closet crates? Apparently girls do this, according to research from the University of Bath, as a “rite of passage.” For me though, I had additional ire — by my pre-teenage years, I felt sure Barbie was in cahoots with my mother: impossibly beautiful plus an extra dose of bossy, someone who would chase me around the house with lipstick before an “event.”

For one brief phase, though, she got me. In New York, without family, without an Iranian in sight, I took to filling myself in and out, like a coloring book. My makeup palette turned all multichromatic madness and for exercise I simply raved away at nightclubs: Patricia Field stilettos, iridescent body shimmer, sparkly hot pants and sky-high afro — all hot pink, pleather and prattle.

My mother, that summer: What have you become?

During that era, my daylight hours were all crummy cubicle life in an office where I was the sole “ethnic person.” One day, I found myself at lunch with the usual group of middle-aged, disgruntled co-workers, all women. One hairy-eyeballed my big container of dressing-less salad and Diet Orange Sunkist — either that or my gold glitter French manicure — and muttered under her breath “Persian Barbie.”

She left before I could jump out of my seat and give her the hug of my life.

Contact: Division of Communications

Posted March 16, 2009

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