Academic Barbie
by Paullette Gaudet

I lived on an Air Force base in Utah during the early Eighties. My family had cable television with HBO because it was new, and my father then still enjoyed new technology. Our “large” television, a thirteen-inch Sony Trinitron, was in my parent’s master bedroom. I sat in a beige recliner while my dad propped himself up on his king-sized bed and we watched the movies that we both enjoyed and my mother hated. She and I watched television in the summer, during the day. Our base housing swamp cooler would blast moist air through every room as we watched soap operas, and episodes of The Wild, Wild West with Robert Conrad and his tight, tight pants. But evenings were for dad, and HBO. We would often watch the same movie together a couple of times, if we liked it. They were always on and we were always there, in the room with thin beige curtains blown out by either screened summer breezes or heated winter floor vents. One month, we watched Educating Rita three times.

Educating Rita (1983): Starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters (later received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay). Walters is Rita, a working-class woman seeking the path to self-discovery. Bored with her life as a hairdresser, and under pressure from her husband to start a family, she enrolls in literature tutorials at a British university (actually filmed at Trinity University in Dublin) determined to better herself. Caine is Frank Bryant, the disillusioned English professor assigned to teach her. While Frank watches Rita embark on a radical transformation, his own life changes in a different way as he finds himself falling in love with Rita while sinking into the depths of his alcoholism.”

The screenplay was adapted from a play, and this shows–several moments in the film are overly broad and “stagey.” The film spans a year, dutifully marked by bright summer scenes, charming winter snows and budding spring leaves. Despite this, or because of it, or completely unrelated to this, the film plays sharp and funny now, and was even more so then. In the middle of the film, Rita has been influenced by an artsy, pretentious roommate and comes to her tutorial wearing a scarf wrapped around her forehead, and a painfully posh accent: “Hallooo, Frenk,” she says. My father and I greeted each other like that for the next two months.

I’ve been a hairstylist for almost as long as I’ve been a college student. I never seem able to be just one or the other at any given time, always both. This isn’t a problem, really, until I open my mouth. At work I must remember to always use contractions, to drop the t or g of all applicable verbs and add an -na ending (examples: gonna, for going to; wanna, for want to), to replace the word said with the word like, to never use words with more than four syllables, and to ideally substitute one with three. At school I must remember to say yes instead of yeah, to raise my hand before speaking, to use words with at least four syllables and to ideally substitute one with five; remember that I cannot ask these particular virtual strangers if they are married or what their weekend plans are, and that I must refrain from running my hands through their hair.

In an early scene of Educating Rita, Rita is climbing the stairs to Frank’s office for her first tutorial. She passes a group of students. One laughs and tells the others, “He actually said, ‘What is assonance?’ He didn’t have a clue what assonance was.” They all laugh.

My clients love my failures, because I make them funny: the classes I missed registration for by just one day; the time my stalled car was towed from a freeway on-ramp while I was calling my dealership, costing three hundred dollars to retrieve; the guy I had somehow ended up watching a movie with, the one who looked like an elf and swore he just wanted to massage my feet. My clients like that I can say “fuck” at work.

Rita, at her first interview with Frank: “It’s only the masses who don’t understand. It’s not their fault but sometimes I hate them. I do it to shock them sometimes. You know, like, when I’m in the hairdresser’s, where I work, I’ll say something like, ‘I’m really fucked,’ dead loud and it doesn’t half cause a fuss. But educated people don’t worry, do they?”

I don’t mind being old on campus, I’m just glad to be there. I love listening to students talk in class–dissecting what we read, seeing connections and threads and metaphors, always metaphors, you can’t see the text for the metaphors. They interpret all of these while I just see words, and people and storylines. Sometimes I forget the names of things, have to think carefully and hard before remembering what an allusion is, or a simile, or when exactly the postmodern (or modern, for that matter) period occurred. I remember liminal space, though; it’s kind of the threshold between what is said and what is meant. I like the word infelicities, too.

Most people might not be able to tell you the exact moment when adolescence begins, but I can (for girls, at least)–it’s when you stop playing with Barbie dolls. For years, when visiting friends or having friends visit, it is only a matter of time before the words “Wanna play Barbies?” are said, and you retreat to a bedroom with a door that closes, and proceed to comb out synthetic, golden-blonde hair. Until one day, when you ask that question of a new friend, or perhaps an old one, and are sneered at. “I don’t play with Barbies anymore,” you are told, and watch as your new friend or your old one saunters around your room, looking for lip gloss or cigarettes.

Passing reference or indirect mention. A figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared. Influenced by the disillusionment induced by the Second World War, tends to refer to a cultural, intellectual, or artistic state lacking a clear central hierarchy or organizing principle and embodying extreme complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, diversity, and interconnectedness or interreferentiality. A late nineteenth, early twentieth century art movement. Instances of inaptness, inappropriateness, or awkwardness, as of action or expression.

My parents, before cable television, collected Lladro figurines. We lived in Spain in the mid-seventies and visited the Lladro factory in Valencia and purchased a number of slightly flawed pieces at a steep discount. Lladro had a series of figurines depicting various professions; these included ballet dancers, doctors, lawyers, and a sea captain smoking a pipe. My parents sent my aunt Denise a nurse figurine for Christmas one year (she’s a nurse anesthetist). Barbie dolls came in different professions, too. It was usually just the same blonde doll, but dressed as a stewardess she merited her own separate box and title, “Stewardess Barbie.” I remember Veterinarian Barbie, Doctor Barbie and Malibu Barbie, who apparently surfed and tanned at a professional level. As Barbie’s career choices mounted, the chances of collecting them all sharply decreased. My frugal mother instead bought different Barbie outfits as gifts, showing me how a simple (inexpensive) business suit could turn my old doll into Secretary Barbie, or how a (marked down) shiny orange bodysuit could make her into…well, I-would-think-of-something Barbie. I got the point. I even got Hawaiian Barbie one year, because she had dark hair that couldn’t be purchased separately.

Most of the hairstylists I’ve worked with are funny. They kind of have to be, even if it isn’t exactly their nature, in order to secure a clientele and decent tips. Some stylists excel at funny monologues while others are brilliant at witty banter. At the very least most have great timing, a sense of rueful morbidity and some degree of skill at mimicry. Salon laughter is quick and often dirty, and highly dependent on a shared base of cultural and television references between stylist and client. College laughter is different; it is a moment’s press against fine-grained sandpaper, while salon laughter is a cheek held against a red stovetop burner. The power of college laughter stems from its reserve, I think; it is a ninja that strikes in surprise and with utter decimation. I like college laughter, and wish I could dehydrate my humor enough to pass.

RITA: What do they call you around here?

FRANK: Sir. But you may call me Frank.

I used the orange bodysuit to turn my doll into Buck Rogers Barbie; she was a blonde version of Erin Gray (the actress who played Colonel Wilma Deering in that television series). On the floor of my bedroom, she took increasing control of her intergalactic missions with Buck, and increasingly ended up bunking with him for the night in tents on inhospitable planets. With the addition of plastic roller skates, my Barbie doll became Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu. She sang Electric Light Orchestra songs (voiced by me) while performing quadruple-axels in order to achieve world peace.

I can’t remember exactly when my father and I stopped watching movies together. It must have been when we moved from Utah to San Antonio, Texas. The Sony Trinitron was placed in our new living room, while our smaller eight-inch set rested on my father’s desk in the office-slash-guest room. He watched television there, in the background, while he worked on the increased number of projects he was responsible for now that he had been promoted to major. I watched television at night in the living room with my mother. Our favorite show was Remington Steele, but I always went to the kitchen to make more microwave popcorn whenever Laura Holt (played by Stephanie Zimbalist) and Remington (played by Pierce Brosnan) got lovey-dovey.

Laughter may be universal, but sometimes it just doesn’t translate. I told several clients this recent college anecdote–one of my creative writing workshop professors railed against students who begin stories with their main character waking up first thing in the morning, and said that never happens in important published literature. “Take Kafka’s Metamorphosis,” he said. “How does that start, again?” A student replied, “I’m pretty sure it begins with Gregor Samsa waking up.” I am still laughing at this, but only two of my carefully-chosen clients (college-educated, literature-minded) truly appreciated it–most laughed politely, and a few sat quiet and grinning, waiting for a final punchline. It could be my delivery, though. I suck at anecdotes.

RITA: What does ‘assonance’ mean?

FRANK: Erm…assonance, it’s a form of rhyme.

RITA: Erm, what’s an example?

FRANK: Do you know Yeats? Well, in his poem “The Wild Swans At Coole,” Yeats rhymes the word swan with the word stone. You see? That’s an example of assonance.

RITA: Ooh, yeah, means getting the rhyme wrong.

It hurts to cut hair, sometimes; every year it gets a little more painful. My feet ache just a bit more than they used to at the end of a workday, and I’ve started to feel sharp twinges in my shoulder sockets more than once a year. My clients, after waiting an hour to see me, dutifully ask if I need a break as they glance at their watches. I’m fine, I say; sit down.

A less recent example of humor not translating can be found at community college in the mid-Nineties. I am early but hungover for my Composition 103 night class; it is a required course I am overqualified for. The teacher is younger than I am and we are learning how to compose sentences that contain a series of commas. I am not enjoying the class.

TEACHER: “I went to the pool, changed into my bathing suit, and swam.” That’s the basic structure. Dan, can you give me another example?

DAN (late-forties, moustached and relaxed): “I put down my shovel, went to my girlfriend, and moonlight shone on the dew.”

TEACHER (laughs): That sounds like a haiku. Paullette, you’re next.

ME (rolls eyes): “I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker.”

TEACHER: I’ll see you out in the hall.

I’m getting better at language-management. I try to follow my singing teacher’s advice to speak in my natural register, which is much higher than what I consider professional, or sexy. I curse a little at work, when appropriate or funny, and have been delighted to discover that the word “fuck” is often welcomed in graduate academic settings. I don’t use it there much, though.

In San Antonio my mother and I didn’t talk much outside of television commercial breaks, but she befriended the fifteen-year-old girl who lived behind us in base housing. Mia looked like the spangled models on the Korean calendar in her bedroom; she was demure and polite to my mother in our kitchen, but when my bedroom door closed she rolled her eyes and shrugged her shoulders until the neckline of her tanktop fell to its natural place just above her nipples. “Do you smoke pot?” she asked me. “I haven’t, yet,” I said. She pulled her lips back in a sneer that melted into a smile. “No. You probably still play with Barbies.”

Print Friendly