August 8, 2014 5:45 pm

Barbie as a role model

Barbie had notched up 150 careers by the age of 50, including dolphin trainer

Home alone, in boiling sunshine, I had passed a “whithering” afternoon. It was spent asking to what end, action, condition, result or the like are we proceeding here? Whither the novel? Whither the family? Whither the sorrow of the daily mounting disasters on the news? Whither the, I don’t know, point?

I took two large sacks of clothes to the door of the charity shop with that awful feeling that they might be refused by the lady behind the counter. I sidled in, dragging the bags to the till area, but she was chatting away so I just slipped off empty-handed.

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Susie Boyt

Complicated matters of loyalty arise when you get rid of things. Accusations of hubris were flying through the air from the piles of skirts and jerseys and baby clothes. “You’ll miss us when we’re gone,” they said. Passive aggression from your discarded items is a key element of spring cleaning and nobody ever talks about it. Recently a reader wrote to tell me that if you thank your old things, before ridding yourself of them, if you give them a metaphorical gold watch for service, courage, fidelity, this feeling lessens. I wonder . . .

In the absence of a nearby fridge I checked my telephone for answers. I was in luck: a friend had sent me the words to a song I didn’t know that boasted the lyric: “It’s a lousy world but it’s the only world in town.” It was an oddly cheering thought. Just now I feel the lure of a second act, I am twitching after pastures new, there’s a desire for a change of setting (or at least seating), a hankering after a different backdrop or even frontdrop.

What-next-ishness is pulsing through my system. What it boils down to is, for the first time in my adult life, I don’t want to write a novel. It’s not writer’s or even writers’ block, it’s a feeling of having expressed what I want to express, a sense of an ending. I’ve written five and it’s enough. The big full stop has descended.

“It’s just a phase you’re going through,” people say as though I am acne or bell bottoms. On a good day it feels like opportunity knocking coyly with some gin and a wink, and on a bad day a dazzling white blank.

I did a mental survey of all the things out there that people can do, and all the things in here as well. Maybe you need to do a little less and be a little more, my slinky inner mindfulness guru suggested but she and I have never been what you’d call thick. She insists (in her green leotard) that I should live in the moment and I retort that all moments mean more and have more value when imbued with memory and anticipation. And so we roll on like Judy and Punch.

. . .

In the evening, as luck would have it, I was meeting a friend who is an expert in psychology and the workplace and had just attended a conference on this subject. Most specifically she had been looking at a character who by the age of 50 had notched up 150 careers. Barbie!

“150? Really?”

She talked me through Barbie’s career highlights. In 2013 alone she was a space explorer, chef, magician, dolphin trainer and baby doctor. She’s been a presidential candidate, a librarian, an architect. One strand of a paper called “unpacking Barbie’s CV” was subtitled “from pet-sitter to astronaut”. It was some trajectory.

‘Can Barbie be an entrepreneur?’ the conference was called, for this is her new incarnation for 2014 in a Victoria Beckham-style pink and black dress with mock-croc tote containing an iPad and phone. The message she wants to get out to girls? “If they can dream it, they can be it – anything is possible!” Other Barbie maxims concern thinking outside the box. I am not making this up.

Barbie as life coach, inspiring and uplifting, was a nice idea, but groundbreaking roles and gender stereotyping make for an uneasy marriage. True, Barbie was an astronaut several years before Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon. Yet who can forgive the iron reign of her cartoonish proportions, her glossy exterior and her absence of personality? Much as we love clothes, they don’t maketh the woman and they certainly don’t maketh the career.

“What about Ken?” I asked my friend. “What does he turn his hand to? Does he enjoy a fast-paced portfolio career as well?”

“It’s the funniest thing, Ken has never been known to have gainful employment.” “And how does that work for him?” I wondered, thinking, thinking . . .

susie.boyt@ft.com, @SusieBoyt

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