I've loved Barbie since childhood. I remember surreptitiously grabbing my cousin's Barbie from her toy shelf and brushing those beautifully coiffed blonde curls, admiring the glittery little outfits and the high heeled shoes that magically stayed on those permanently arched feet. Even as a child, I was aware that most people would scoff at me for playing with a doll--Barbie was my dirty little secret. Over two decades after my earliest encounters with the 11.5-inch vinyl fashion icon, I came across the teaser trailer for Barbie Boy, a short film written and directed by Nick Corporon. Memories of my clandestine childhood affair with Barbie came rushing back. I knew that the story would resonate with me and my male Barbie-collecting contemporaries, so I watched it.
Imposing Gender Roles
The film follows Bobby (Trent Carlton), an imaginative 7-year old boy who begins to re-evaluate his relationship with Barbie and Ken after his father (William Kidd) expresses concern about how Bobby's peers might react to his playthings. While most parents would have been more forceful in imposing gender roles on toys, Bobby's dad simply discouraged him from sharing his love of Barbie with his friends. Mom (Lauren Dobbins Webb) is quite the enabler--even partaking in the role-playing games involving the dolls.
Conformity and Repression
"Then He Kissed Me," the Phil Spector-produced song that plays during the opening credits is a mood lifting gem, beginning an otherwise serious film with a touch of levity. Barbie Boy's central theme is conformity. Must parents and society at large impose gender roles on children by guiding them towards the "appropriate" toys and games? Is it really okay to let boys play with dolls and other toys intended for girls? Do these little plastic things shape the character of a young person, and if so, to what extent?
The 13-and-a-half-minute short raises more questions than it answers. Still, given the constraints of the format, it does its job of giving us something to ponder. The film has some very poignant and beautifully shot scenes, mostly of Bobby's home life. It would be easy to write a lot of expository dialogue on the subject of boys and dolls, but Mr. Corporon deftly chose to create silent moments brimming with thought and emotion. There were quite a few tight shots of Bobby's cherubic visage that captured his internal conflict. Trent Carlton, the young actor who portrays Bobby gave a very satisfactory performance, bringing the anguish of repressed desire just below the surface, subtly conveying the frustrations of a little boy who just wants to play with his dolls.
I enjoyed this short both for the nostalgia of the circa 1980s-1990s Superstar Barbie face mold heavily featured in the film (my childhood Barbie!), and for the thought-provoking content. It's a subtle yet effective piece. I hope it makes a New York City stop when it continues to make the rounds of film festivals all over the USA in the coming year.