My parents’ generation was the first (and possibly the last) in these United States to enjoy the true promise of prosperity: buying a home, raising a large family on one salary, having a shiny new car, plenty of food on the table, and a TV. Although they looked very young in their 20s, my mom and dad (and everyone else’s it seemed) acted very grown-up and sophisticated. I suspect magazines and commercials had much to do with that. The clean, sleek photos and illustrations, the smart ad copy; everything on the page and screen was literally within their grasp. Their cultured age group, born of an era of sturdy farmers and robust automobile industry workers, could now bask in luxury. Through diligent work and careful budgeting, anything could be obtained – it was only a matter of time.
Our newly-built home was decorated in a futuristic style with furniture now coined Mid-Century but it was simply described then as Dutch Modern and Eames. It wasn’t cozy furniture… I don’t think it was meant to be. No one lounged. In fact, it never crossed our minds to do so. We moved about in a constant state of activity: playing (outdoors, or in the blissful solace of our bedrooms, or in the basement where we performed original skits with neighborhood kids), using our imaginations to create things, doing chores, arguing and making up through sincere apologies, and playing again.
In this modern environment, I received a special Christmas gift: a glamorous Barbie doll. She represented the future to every young girl and we knew it as soon as we saw her. My grandmother (whose own generation struggled to make ends meet) was thrifty and a gifted seamstress who lovingly created doll clothes out of remnants as gifts to me which immediately inspired me to learn to sew. With my mom’s elegant sense of style and her taste for fine fabrics as inspiration, my creative impulse found a new avenue to explore. Before long, I received a Ken doll, and by far the most important of all, Midge, Barbie’s best friend. As if my world wasn’t complete, Barbie’s Dreamhouse arrived; furnished with modern furniture, looking as stiff as the cardboard it was made of and just as uncomfy as our own. It was perfect! I cut out colorful rugs from magazine ads to beautify the floors and proudly hung my home-made doll clothes on little plastic hangers inside the built-in closet.
But, like me, Barbie had to be continuously ‘on the move’ into the future of her dreams. After all, she could do anything… well, that is, as long as it was something spectacular – which meant being a “Stewardess” or “Doctor” – just as the commercials and pricey store-bought clothing dictated. Or, she could dress up again to go on a date with Ken. The same advertisements that enticed us to Barbie, stifled our sense of play and her very essence. Sure, she had Ken. They smooched. They drove around in her fancy plastic car. But he was dull and before long she became a bore, too.
In my make-believe world, Midge was the smart one. She tried to entice Barbie to do more with her life. Midge didn’t have to wear expensive clothes. She loved my grandmother’s carefully-designed dresses with the tiny buttons and easy-to-fasten snaps and even my own specially-crafted cooler versions. She didn’t need high heels. She ran barefoot. She was fun. She had the capability of doing whatever she truly wanted.
It seems ironic yet inevitable that Mattel has made a collection of dolls depicting characters from the Mad Men series – because the show’s characters were already, to me, living replicas of Barbie (rather, many Barbies), Ken, and Midge.
What hooked me on Mad Men is Matt Weiner’s brilliant writing. But what initially drew me in was its look – Barbie’s world had come to life: the set itself, the Mid-Century furniture, and a cast of real people who clearly resembled my very own dolls from childhood.
Most of the women on Mad Men are just like my Barbie. Their focus is on beauty, wearing the best clothes, and going on dates, and they ultimately become suppressed by their own boredom. Now, Peggy… she’s my Midge. She’s going places. As for Don Draper, we’ll see what the clever Mr. Weiner has in store during the upcoming final three episodes. Don could surpass the role of his look-alike, my Ken doll (who had no real substance and was only good for kissing), by becoming the best ad man ever – as we know he could be – or he might finally romance the one woman he truly loves, Peggy, even though she deserves better. Or, maybe, he’ll fall once and for all as the theme song has eerily suggested from the start… The lyrics could write themselves: Falling, falling, Don is falling, Falling, falling, Don is falling down…
My sense of play as a young girl in Michigan opened my eyes to a world of creative possibilities and the adventure brought me across the country to Los Angeles. I joined an Indie crew, meeting biweekly to make a dozen short films in a loft apartment on the corner of W. 5th and S. Bixel Street. While dressing our set for a shoot, I asked if anyone knew what was filmed across the street at Los Angeles Center Studios – no one seemed to have any curiosity about it. After we wrapped our six-month stint, I became a late fan of Mad Men and caught up on past episodes.
It was quite a surprise to learn that the mysterious studio across the street actually houses the soundstages of AMC’s Mad Men; ‘home’ to Betty, Don, and Peggy. Or, in another reality that only a child can imagine, it’s the cardboard playground of a glamorous Barbie who never finds herself, the difficult-to-know Ken who seems to walk as though he’s guided by his shoulders, and a really gutsy gal named Midge.
As a member of LACMA for many years, I attended an exhibition of Mid-Century style, California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way.” It was like returning home through a time machine… and there, on display in a glass case, was Barbie’s Dreamhouse.
16th November, 2023
7th November, 2023