Babes in Toyland

Anna Quindlen

August 01, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

New York -- THE NEWS that Barbie had been caught shoplifting sent shock waves through the world of little girls.

"Why did she do it?" said one. "Barbie had everything. She had jumpsuits, business suits and an astronaut uniform with a lavender helmet. She had a Corvette, a beach cottage and Ken."

Quickly I riffled through the newspapers, where there was a side bar to the main arrest story by a child psychologist: "Barbie's Boo-boo -- What to Tell Your Children." It said that petty theft often masked deeper problems and was a cry for help.

"It was a cry for help," I said. "A manifestation of some need, perhaps unmet in childhood, for affection and a feeling of belonging."

I thought of Barbie, with her impassive feline face and one-and-a-quarter-inch waist. I wasn't buying it.

I explained it might have been a mistake, that Barbie might have slipped those pantyhose into her Sun-N-Fun tote bag intending to pay for them and then had just forgotten.

It occurred to me that Barbie might have been set up by foreign toy manufacturers who wanted to flood the market with cheap imitations, dolls named Ashley or Melissa with lounge singer wardrobes and boyfriends named Rick.

Like so many parents, I had learned my lesson from the Pee-wee Herman debacle of 1991.

Over the years, the people in children's television have usually fallen into one of three categories: father (Captain Kangaroo, Jim Henson), puppet (Big Bird, Lamb Chop), or animated (Daffy Duck et al.). Despite the suggestion by the Rev. Donald Wildmon some years back that Mighty Mouse appeared to be snorting cocaine in a cartoon, these characters rarely get in trouble with the law.

But Pee-wee Herman was none of these.

Suddenly that summer there were stories everywhere telling parents how to explain to children that the weird little guy in a bow tie and lipstick who appeared on Saturday morning TV with a talking chair and a pet pterodactyl had wound up in the clink, charged with exposing himself in a triple-X movie theater.

At 7 one morning, looking at the tabloids, I knew that before my first cup of coffee I was going to have to face two small boys and explain the difference between cartoon characters and real life, a difference I was a little fuzzy on myself, having lived through the Reagan years. So I did what anyone would do under the circumstances: I hid the papers.

"If they don't get their questions answered by their parents, where will they?" one child psychologist said to a wire service reporter.

Simple: They'll get their questions answered on street corners and in the back of the bus to day camp.

After archery, I did explain the difference between characters and the actors who play them, the difference between being arrested and being convicted, the difference between private and public behavior, as well as the rules for keeping your pants on, which I can assure you we've been over a hundred times.

I explained that even grown-ups make mistakes and that despite published reports, what the actor who played Pee-wee was accused of doing was in no way comparable to mass murder, although in his mug shot he did look like a member of the Manson family. This made it easier for the kids to separate television and reality, although for a long time afterward they kept asking who played Peter Jennings on the evening news.

Pee-wee, of course, was history. This is a very unforgiving country, particularly after you've been famous enough to be made into a doll and sold at Toys 'R' Us.

So when the Barbie story broke big, it occurred to me that I might be witnessing the twilight of a career. I was not sorry. I had never wanted American girls to have a role model whose feet were perpetually frozen in the high heel position.

Well, as you know, that's not the way it turned out.

The next day Barbie's agent started spin control, and before you could say "dream house" there was Sad-N-Sorry Community Service Barbie, with the navy blue shift and the open letter about how even dolls make mistakes.

Little girls read it in the toy aisles and their eyes filled. "It wasn't a cry for help," I said. "It was a public relations stunt." But by that time the little girls I knew had gotten Community Service Barbie from their grandmothers, and they didn't care.

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