I Can Be

Somehow we recently found ourselves at Barbie at the Symphony, a very girly extravaganza featuring a full symphony orchestra on stage in their lovely black attire, dignified instruments gleaming, and behind and above them an enormous screen on which an animated Barbie floated in time with the music. The idea behind these concerts is to get kids to fall in love with the symphony, just the way (I suppose) cartoons or boiled down picture books of classics like Huckleberry Finn or Anne of Green Gables are meant to make them embrace literature. As I sat watching Barbie and listening to the works of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Dvorak, I wondered whether such crazy attempts made any sense at all. Why not give them the real thing when they are ready, instead of substituting it with something void of all the complexities that make it meaningful?

Here’s how Barbie at the Symphony worked. The conductor came on and introduced the orchestra, and told us that these talented musicians would be playing musical accompaniment to clips of Barbie movies. Being such a huge and busy star, Barbie herself was unable to be with us in person, but periodically she would arrive via satellite – from Venice or Paris, zipping around the world with phenomenal speed and not a hair out of place – and she’d touch base with us and make sure we were all having a good time watching her in clips of her movies.

Beethoven: an irascible, irritable man

We settled in. The beautiful music soon drowned out the whining toddlers and the sound of potato chips being crunched and Koolaid Jammers being slurped through straws. N and I were unfamiliar with Barbie movies, but we quickly learned that they were (sometimes very loosely) based on things like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and the Grimms’ Twelve Dancing Princesses, and so in some bizarre way they were a natural fit with a symphony orchestra. Every once in a while, the conductor told a little story – like how Beethoven went deaf but still continued to compose, conduct and play music. (I guess he subscribed to the Barbie philosophy of “I Can Be Anything”). And I thought to myself that he’d been cranky as well as hard of hearing, and apparently somewhat pigheaded. I couldn’t imagine he’d think much of Barbie at the Symphony; but Joseph Haydn may not have minded the affair, and he was sometimes called the “father of the symphony.” Apparently he had a wonderful sense of humour and liked practical jokes. He may have particularly enjoyed the part of the performance where the conductor invited Barbie herself, via satellite, to conduct the orchestra from her place on the screen. She flashed a smile with her bright white teeth, pulled out her wand, and proceeded to guide the performers through the piece. I guess the feat was all the more amazing given that the orchestra couldn’t see her.

Barbie animation is saccharine and dreamy, just the kind of thing so many little girls love. And it seemed to me as soon as she appeared in her flowy dresses, the little ones forgot all about the orchestra working so hard to accompany her. I, however, became more and more curious about the people on stage. There were some who smiled wryly throughout; others who looked mortified, as if they couldn’t understand this strange path their instruments had led them on. But for the children, Barbie was more real than any of the performers on stage. And not just other people’s children, I must admit. At one point when the conductor was addressing the audience sans Barbie, my very own N, feeling a little dozy I guess, slipped her coat on backwards like a blanket, and put her hood over her face. “Tell me when Barbie comes back on, Mom.” At least she had the decency to whisper.

And yet I was heartened when, right at that moment, the conductor asked, “Does anyone here play a musical instrument?” and N whipped down her hood and shot up her hand with a jolt of enthusiasm. She plays piano, but that’s a topic for another post. For now it’s enough to say it’s not always easy to get her to practice. I sometimes think it’s because the learning curve is so steep, seemingly never-ending – she wants to be good at it already, rather than to learn inch by inch, note by note, while the pieces get harder and harder. In theory, Barbie should be able to help with that. The “I Can Be” line of dolls transforms Barbie into everything from Pet Vet to Pizza Chef to Race Car Driver, just by changing her outfit – though there are also of course the Ballerina, the Bride, the Ballroom Dancer, and the Rock Star. You can be anything, is her message to little girls, and yet, dressed in their pink dresses and sparkly tiaras, gazing up at her with adoration, they seem mostly to want to be her. And interestingly enough, when you visit the “I Can Be” page on the Barbie website, you see that very message in a cloud of pink: I Can Be … Barbie.

Joseph Haydn might have had a chuckle

By the end of Barbie at the Symphony, the screen went blank and the orchestra played a piece without their glamorous artificial hostess. Little girls got up from their seats and danced in the aisle, swaying to the music and arching their arms up high and twirling, as Barbie had done in so many of her performances. And watching them, I couldn’t deny that they were embracing the sounds the instruments made. But would they take away anything more than memories of Barbie herself? I Can Be … doubtful. But I can also be hopeful. In the end, N and I thoroughly enjoyed our evening at the symphony, just the two of us a little dressed up and out on the town. We had fun. For me it was food for thought, and for her – well, that’s for her to decide.


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11 responses to “I Can Be

  1. Shannon

    Barbie sure seems to be making a comeback… I was kind of hoping she’d be permanently upstaged by some slightly less blond-blue-eyed-skinny role models by now. Ah well. Thanks for your honest reactions to her latest incarnation!

  2. I don’t have a child…so I don’t have to torture myself with the moralties of raising one. I know that you so try to do the right thing for N. and she is a lucky girl indeed to have such amazing parents with such grounded values.

    But look at you and me. We grew up with Barbie…and we became feminists. We loved her and learned to resent her in equal measure. She helped me to embrace my girlness…and eventually, good feminism helped me to realize, I didn’t have to look like her AT ALL to be well, let’s say accept myself.

    Perhaps we have not come as long a way baby as we would have liked on some fronts, but sometimes I think, phew, can’t we just have a little princess magic and fun sometimes?!

    xo Auntie S

    • kristendenhartog

      Oh, we DID have fun. And I readily admit that if it weren’t for Barbie, I would not have begun making stories so early and so dramatically. I think in her own way she contributed to my writing life! But I’ve posted about that before. And as much as I think there’s a danger in too much Barbie etc. without context, I think there’s a danger, too, in trying to keep OUT too much of that stuff, and that just makes them crave it all the more.

  3. jim

    How true all that seems to me particularly that little kids need joy in life. I’m reading The Thorn Birds and little Meggie (I’m only a little ways on) needs ‘Barbie’ in her young life. She is shown little love and that only by her brother Frank. The nuns are sickeningly hateful creatures, her Mother can show no love while her Father is a disciplinarian too early in her yearning young life.

    Although Meggie gets her ‘Agnes Barbie’, by far too little and with no exhibition of accompanying love, “too much of that stuff, is kept out of her life.

    A most enjoyable take on Barbie, feminism and what one would want for one’s little ones——

    • kristendenhartog

      Definitely wonderful to have an imaginary world to escape into when the real one is rotten; and even when it’s not. What I loved most about Barbie when I was little was making up my own stories around her and the other “characters.” For me it had little to do with the sparkly display I saw the other night — a sugary princess world. Or maybe it was due to my lack of awareness as to who Barbie was. She was just a doll, and it was me doing the deciding about everything else. Enjoy the book! As I remember it is quite a saga!

  4. madge

    Omigosh, I laughed so hard I cried. Great blog! We’ve missed you. Barbie is a conundrum, isn’t she? When I was little I was truly enamoured of Barbie, and would have been just like the girls in your story – thoroughly enchanted with the Barbie image and totally “whatever” with the orchestra. As an adult, I’m the opposite, so as Sara and Jim pointed out in different way, perhaps little girls just enjoy the fantasy. I also think, though, that it’s our job as parents and adults to “keep it real”, as they say. Too much Barbie, without a symphony performance or two, is not very real.

  5. jim

    I’ll echo that!

  6. madge

    I thoroughly enjoyed The Thorn Birds. Perhaps I will re-read. Thanks for the reminder, Jim.

  7. Marilyn

    I haven’t read your blogs for a while but this one is very funny. When I saw the words “Barbie” and “symphony”, my first thought was “What?” But introducing the symphony in this way is great for little girls, who, no matter how hard mothers try to steer them away from this frothy likeness of womanhood, they love her anyway. I can just see little N staring up at this floating Barbie, but in the backgroung is the music, and hopefully this will also remain in her memory.

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