Hello Barbie will be arriving at a toy store near you next month, and she’s ready to be your daughter’s new BFF. She is the culmination of years of research, a technological arms race to develop artificial intelligence that fits within her diminutive frame, and every little girl’s dream.
Hello Barbie is equipped with cutting-edge technology that will allow her to have full-fledged conversations, to ask questions and seemingly understand the responses, and to use an appropriate intonation and offer an appearance of emotional support when needed. She’ll remember your favorite color and other salient information—perhaps that your parents are divorced, for example—so that she can formulate future conversations appropriately. Some might say she’s the ideal playmate, really.
I had approximately eighty-seven Barbies when I was a little girl (that’s a conservative estimate). I had a knockoff version of her mansion, her silver Cadillac, a wardrobe for any occasion that my imagination could conjure up for her, and even a couple Ken dolls for good measure. These days I am a successful professional and a champion for positive body image for girls everywhere, but you won’t find me chiming in on the conversation about the negative influence that Barbie has been for girls. I love Barbie. I think of her with fondness and nostalgia, and I forgive her for that ridiculous body and the whole “math class is tough” debacle. Barbie and I are friends.
But Barbie was never my best friend. Without a conversational Hello Barbie at my disposal back in the 1980s, I was forced to have real human friends (and yes, we walked to school uphill both ways back then).
Kira and I met in kindergarten, and we were mostly inseparable until high school. We were on the same soccer team and in Campfire Girls together, and we always got to be each other’s “plus one” on family vacations. We shared clothes and toys and secrets and childhood, in all its glory.
We fought, too. We made new friends and felt left out, we had crushes on the same boys, and we occasionally talked behind each other’s backs in moments of jealousy and insecurity, as girls can do. There was the time at sixth-grade sleepover camp that Kira chose to bunk with Caitlin instead of me—I was crushed. There was our first year of junior high together, when the drama reached a point that prompted me to write the following letter to Kira:
I’m sorry that the whole lunch scene had to happen on your half birthday . . . it makes me kind of mad that Caitlin says she feels ‘replaced’ . . . my whole life I’ve been replaced. Just look at 1995: Caitlin replaced me (being best friends with you. Carolyn replaced me being a cool seventh-grader and the whole Derek situation). I feel like, well, I’m not sure. I feel hurt, I feel mean, I feel angry. I think the four of us need to talk ALONE and make everything happy because happy is good.
Twenty years later, I don’t have the slightest recollection of what “the whole lunch scene” was that day. I laughed until I cried when Kira produced that note recently. It’s so embarrassing and so amazing at the same time, a tiny snapshot of our 13-year-old selves and everything that consumed us.
But we worked it out. We passed more notes, and we called each other from the landline in the kitchen to call a truce and plan the next slumber party. We needed each other, in all our messy human drama.
I’m sure that a talking Barbie would be an amazing toy to have as a little girl. I remember talking to my dolls as I made up lives for them and imagined what sort of scenarios I could create. But an engaging toy is no match for human connection.
Kira needed me when her parents split up, and everything went sideways. I needed her when my older brother got straight A’s, again, and I was convinced that my parents loved me less than him. Neither of us had the right answers or the perfect antidote for each other’s heartbreaks, but at least we weren’t alone. We had each other.
We could always be found when we were needed. Our batteries never died, and we never malfunctioned. We never offered each other politically correct answers to avoid sounding inappropriate. We didn’t even know what “politically correct” was. We never truly forgot the times we hurt each other—those were the training grounds in which we learned about human relationships. We learned what it meant to be vulnerable, to feel hurt, to apologize, to move on. We learned about sticking together and that with each year that our friendship survived, we were crafting a hard-earned and precious treasure.
I’m a parent now, and I’ll be sending my oldest to kindergarten next year. God, I hope he meets a Kira out there. I hope that when his feelings get hurt or he feels left out that he doesn’t just retreat to his room where a robot toy has a perfectly scripted Hallmark card for him. I hope he has friends who call him out when he’s a jerk and that he has the guts to apologize. I hope he has someone to confide in when he thinks I’m the worst—someone who won’t just tactfully remind him that parenting is hard work, but maybe someone who will agree with him and then suggest that they go play kickball together.
I hope that as Hello Barbie—and all the descendants that are sure to follow her—enters toy stores and homes everywhere, childhood stays just as messy and wonderful as it was for Kira and me. I hope that kids still realize how much they need each other. I hope we all realize that.