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My Mentor, Barbie

Life lessons gleaned from a party doll on the occasion of her 50th birthday.

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Instead of throwing Barbie a 50th birthday party, feminists have been dissing the popular, petite plaything. Yet far from being a bad role model, Barbie was actually a modern girl's dream mentor. Over the years, I learned some very important life lessons from Barbie:

1) Family Is Fundamental: Barbie's my age, and, as the only girl in a suburban Midwest clan of boys, I was Mattel's dream customer. I had 68 Barbies who shared a pink plastic convertible car and split-level condominium, along with 12 Little Kiddles and 28 Dawn dolls so tiny that instead of changing their clothes, I just switched their heads.

2) Many Girls Have the Same Name: There were six Susans in my second-grade class, which caused two of them, on the first day of school, to run home crying. Not me. I'd spent my formative years with Talking Barbie, Tropical Barbie, Color Magic Barbie, Twist 'n Turn Barbie, Living Barbie, and three Malibu Barbies, which taught me that individuality was determined not by your name but by what special activities you did best.

3) A Shortage of Men Won't Ruin the Party: Whether it was an elaborate prom spread out on the pink carpet or a Barbie beach holiday, the guest list always read: red-headed Barbie, Malibu Barbie triplets, cousin Francie, Scooter, Skipper, Casey, Christie, Julia, Stacey (visiting from England), Midge, Dawn, Angie, Twiggy, and Ken. Thus I realized, way back then, that women have superior social etiquette and most important galas do not require the attendance of guys.

4) Alternative Lifestyles Are Acceptable: In a doll domain with 96 eligible females and Ken, unusual pairings were common. Sometimes Skipper and Scooter slept in the guest-room shoe box with Casey. One night I found the Malibu Barbie trio in my desk drawer on top of cousin Francie. It was okay by me, as long as they followed one rule: Everyone shares clothes.

5) It's Cool To Have Many Careers: At different stages, Barbie was a ballerina, torch singer, equestrienne, president, majorette, stewardess, astronaut with pink space-pants outfit, nurse, doctor, and fashion model. This paved the way for my subsequent employment as receptionist, confessional poet, secretary, paperback book critic, waitress, and part-time teacher.

6) You Can Have Love and Work: Throughout Barbie's professional soul-searching, Ken was a constant. He didn't question why she needed fulfillment outside the home. When she went Malibu, he got tan too. When she was Guinevere, he was secure enough in his masculinity to wear a silver lamé tunic, purple tights, and gold belt with his scabbard and sword.

7) Dysfunction and Deformity Are a Part of Life: Accidents were bound to happen. The pink convertible kept crashing into the pink stereo, and I once stashed Midge in my Suzy Homemaker oven. Another time, red-headed Barbie wound up with half her nose and hair cut off, hanging from the pull chain of the light switch. But burned, squashed, or decapitated, they were still included in all cookouts and slumber parties.

8) War Is Hell: Despite repeated warnings from my mother, many an after-school social was marred by attack from my brothers and their pet snake, pet spider, and battalions of little green Army men. We were always on alert, because any minute they could bomb us with water-balloon grenades or Lucky Charms.

9) All Homeless Must Be Sheltered: When in need, emergency sleeping arrangements called for boot-box extra bedrooms, filled with my mother's sanitary-napkin cots and slippers doubling as bunk beds. Room was always made for such transients as my cousin Lisa's Chatty Cathy, my neighbor Jill's orange-and-purple alien trolls, and several dozen little green P.O.W.'s.

10) Monogamy Can Work: Marriage was one of Barbie's great achievements. Once she and Ken tied the knot, she did not play around. Okay, Ken didn't have much competition, although Barbie was once tempted by the romantic antics of G.I. Joe, who could twist his arms and legs around in a complete circle. He had a fling with Francie instead, and Barbie wound up back with dependable Ken. When he got on her nerves, she just tossed him under the bed.

Susan Shapiro is the author of Only as Good as Your Word and Secrets of a Fix-up Fanatic.

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