I wasn’t raised with stringent gender norms. I was never limited in my activities to things that were “acceptable” for young girls to do. I played year-round basketball for most of my childhood. I was part of our PAL street hockey league for 2 summers. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather working with my hands, building things. I was never told I couldn’t do something or be something simply because of my gender. Yes, I also took dance lessons for 15 years but it wasn’t because it was something I thought or I was told that I had to do because I was a girl. I just liked it.
I say all this to impress upon you, dear reader, that while all of this is true, it was also the 1990s and Toys-R-Us was still pretty divided along gender lines. There were “boy toys” and “girl toys” and woe be unto you, 6-year-old child, if you are caught playing with the wrong one. Which brings me to the point of this article.
I own a lot of Barbie dolls.
Well to be more specific, between my sister and I we own 52 Barbie dolls at last count. And this does not include, Kens, Kevins, Todds, Skippers, Courtneys, Kellys and any other friends and lovers I may be forgetting.
We also own an impressive number of playsets (including both a generic hamburger stand shaped like a giant hamburger AND a branded McDonald’s Drive-Thru) but the one that I played with the most and the one I secretly hope to sneak out of my mom’s house without my sister noticing (HI SHANO!) is Barbie Fold ‘n Fun House.
The FnF House had two rooms, a balcony and a patio, which is more than I can say about my current apartment in Brooklyn. Technically, it has three rooms, but if Barbie refuses to acknowledge her bowel movements well then so shall I. The design is pretty great, the entire house folds up into a carrying case and within the house itself the tables and beds are also storage units for the house’s accessories. The set comes with a lot of small pieces, so, as someone who regularly lost Barbie shoes, this was preferable to tossing them in the bin with everything else and hoping to find them the next time I played with them. Despite the playset folding up for on the go play, I don’t think I ever removed it from my house, except for maybe bringing it to my Grandparents’.
I’d spend a not insignificant amount of time setting up the house just so. Making sure the planter boxes were evenly distributed on the balcony which did not have a staircase so Barbie flew to the top of her house a lot. Setting the picnic table for a meal that could not be cooked in the house because it did not have a kitchen so I often borrowed pieces from the food sets we had, sometimes setting up the grill from the camping set.
I do have to give an honorable mention to the Wet ‘n Wild Water Park which was arguably MORE fun than the FnF House but it was a seasonal toy and only got unboxed if my mom wanted to clean up the muddy mess we were bound to make. It had a working water fountain and small sprinkler and as I’m writing this I realize now we technically had three separate snack stand-based playsets. There’s a very good chance the internal tube mechanisms are disintegrating but dang it I want to set this up and watch my cats play with it.
The Fold n’ Fun House is probably a little worse for wear these days. I know that I definitely chewed on pieces I really shouldn’t have – I had a really bad habit of doing that as a kid – and I wouldn’t be shocked if the Real Working Lamp was corroded entirely from an old AA battery but I still want to dig it out the next time I’m home. There really is something calming about revisiting an old puzzle or toy set – your muscle memory just kicks in and you’re kind of transported back to being a kid. Just sitting on the floor, building a dream house, filling out your dolls’ internal lives and writing adventures. As I got older, I replaced that fantasy world building with Dungeons and Dragons but I think the idea is still the same. You have an avatar that can do anything you can imagine, be anyone you want it to be. You can write your own narrative and execute it however you see fit. Having a bit of escapist fun transcends age and I’m really glad I never fully grew out of it.
Amy Bilancini is an attorney in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Twitter.