Long Live the Barbie Birthday Cake

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Long Live the Barbie Birthday Cake

It was my fifth birthday party. I had already rejected the frilly pink dress my mother had carefully chosen for me, opting instead for my usual uniform of the leggings-and-sweatshirt combo that was so popular in the late ‘90s. It was probably becoming clear to my parents that I was not the hyperfeminine little girl they might have expected; my obsession with insects nipped that dream in the bud relatively early. But I had not eschewed dolls entirely, so my mom decided to celebrate my birthday with what was perhaps the most iconic birthday food item/decoration of the era: a Barbie birthday cake.

A few days before the party, my mom had selected the doll from my collection, choosing the one with the prettiest dress, the most coiffed hair, the biggest, most garish earrings. I was not picky, but I could see that there was something different about this Barbie in particular. She looked more put together than the others, like she had spent an extra hour and a half in front of her plastic mirror getting ready for the big dance or the figure skating performance or whatever other event fit her simplistic storyline.

We delivered her to the bakery section of our local Giant supermarket and handed her to a baker who told me, with a wink, that my doll was in good hands. I was unphased; I preferred my stuffed animals to the Barbie’s cold, plastic limbs and oddly protruding joints anyway.

The next time I saw her was on the day of the party; the Barbie’s torso was sticking out of a vanilla cake covered by an ungodly amount of white and pink frosting. My mother excitedly presented the horde of already sugar-afflicted little girls with the cake, which elicited oohs and ahhs from the onlooking moms. The Barbie had been transformed into a piece of consumable art; she sparkled with edible glitter before her puffy skirt was sliced and dismembered, passed around, and eaten by rambunctious children and tired parents.

By the time the afternoon party had ended, the Barbie wasn’t looking so good. She was smeared with bits of sugary pink frosting, which had stuck in her plastic hair and ruined her painted-on makeup. Globs of too-sweet, half-eaten cake clung to her thighs. She had been left teetering on the edge of the cake plate, forgotten in the mad rush of overstimulated children toward the sugar-spiked delicacy.

Though I had never particularly cared for this specific Barbie before that day, something about her newfound state intrigued me. She looked tired, used, a little janky, but she had seen things. Despite the bits of frosting still lining her joints, she became my favorite Barbie. My other Barbies, lying flat in their clear plastic bin at the top of my closet, still looked perfect, their long, straight hair untainted by globules of dried frosting, their shiny plastic legs free from the sticky residue that the chosen Barbie now suffered from. But the Barbie in the cake had lived. She had experienced the rush and excitement of the grocery store bakery, had watched with fear as hungry toddlers grabbed at her cake-skirt with their dirty fists. I respected her for her life experience.

In the late ‘90s, Barbie functioned as the face of what “modern” femininity was supposed to be. She may have started out as a fashion designer in the ‘60s, but by the ‘90s, she was a pilot, a firefighter, a dentist. We were told that women could be anything—they’d just better look perfect doing it. Barbie’s newfound financial independence apparently did not free her from the prison of appealing to the male gaze. In the brave new world of the late 20th century, she could finally work a 50-hour week just like the guys before coming home to put on her prettiest outfit for Ken and making him a four-course dinner. What an inspiring vision of womanhood.

But my birthday cake Barbie did not follow in the footsteps of her peers on the commercials. My mom tried to scrub the remaining bits of cake out of her sugary joints, but it was mostly a lost cause: She never fully recovered from her excursion to the bakery. With one missing earring, an eye that had been partially rubbed off, and smelling faintly of vanilla, she could never again take her place beside the “perfect” Barbies and look like she belonged.

I, like many, if not most, women of my generation, was raised with a raging internalized misogyny that I still have not completely unpacked. I left childhood with the impression that Barbies (and by extension, women) were lame, unserious, “for girls” in the worst possible sense; though somehow, my brother’s green plastic army men were cooler. Despite the disdain for Barbies, though, I also had the sense that they depicted how women should present themselves in the world: physically perfectly and willing to do anything and everything for everyone else.

But the birthday cake Barbie provided me with a new, more resilient vision of womanhood. Yes, she had been used, consumed, as all women are in a society that undervalues them and questions their humanity. But in the face of experience, she had not, could not, maintain her perfect, inoffensive exterior. I want to think, though, that it must have been worth it being jaded in the way that she was; she was never forced to return to the cold, clear plastic bin again. As I near my 30s, the birthday cake Barbie seems like the better role model.

Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.

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