The Mattel Barbie doll — more familiar to us as Barbie — has, in the last four decades, taken on a life and persona of her own. In 1994, an unofficial biography revealed that Barbie was modeled on a German cartoon character, an ambitious hooker named Lilli. At a 1995 exhibit, “Art, Design and Barbie: The Evolution of a Cultural Icon” at New York’s Liberty Street Gallery, Lilli’s role in Barbie’s evolution was heavily underplayed. This subterfuge was part of a larger controversy, in which columnists and curators accused Mattel Inc., the sponsor, of being excessively meddlesome. While Mattel purged the exhibit of certain works of art inspired by Barbie, the company also did its best to camouflage the doll who had inspired the creators of Barbie. To understand why this was inevitable, we must put ourselves in Barbie’s shoes, and follow the progress of a very hard-working plaything.
Until recently, few Barbie owners were conscious of Barbie’s true age — or of the life this all-American prom queen once led in another land, under another name. But Barbie’s first playmates are now old enough to handle the truth. M.G. Lord, the author of “Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll,” is one of those women. In “Forever Barbie,” Lord reveals that Lilli — “an eleven-and-a-half inch, platinum ponytailed” German doll — was the pre-American Barbie. The Lilli doll was the three-dimensional version of a popular post-war cartoon character who first appeared in the West German tabloid Bild Zeitung in 1952. A professional floozy of the first order, Bild Zeitung‘s Lilli traded sex for money, delivered sassy comebacks to police officers, and sought the company of “balding, jowly fatcats,” says Lord. While the cartoon Lilli was a user of men, the doll (who came into existence in 1955) was herself a plaything — a masculine joke, perhaps, for West German males who could not afford to play with a real Lilli. A German brochure from the 1950s confided that Lilli (the doll) was “always discreet,” while her complete wardrobe made her “the star of every bar.” The Lilli doll who made it into the “Art, Design and Barbie” show was dressed in her most (perhaps her only) demure outfit. This was a literal cover-up. Easily overlooked by anyone who didn’t understand Barbie’s history, Lilli was dressed like a prostitute who didn’t want to be noticed — lost among the other non-Barbie dolls who were provided for educational purposes.
It seems fitting that Lilli dolls were manufactured in Hamburg, a city where government-approved, licensed prostitutes are a fact of life. In the United States, where legal hooking is virtually unheard of, Lilli had to tone down her act. (Perhaps she changed her name in order to get around a U.S. immigration law barring prostitutes from becoming residents — but that is just conjecture.) While it is still unsafe for a foreign prostitute to reveal her trade in the United States, Barbie — decades later — is no longer foreign. She is more American than many Americans, and perhaps even more hypocritical.
As you can imagine, Lilli did not become Barbie overnight. Like Vivian, the awkward streetwalker in the movie “Pretty Woman” (who transmuted into a social swan), Lilli “cleaned up really nice.” But her transformation from adult hussy to quasi-virtuous teenager was a painstaking miracle of art and science. Jack Ryan, a Mattel designer with a Yale engineering degree, worked on making the doll look less like a “German streetwalker” by changing the shape of her lips and redoing her face, says Lord. When the ex-hooker’s body was recast, her incorrigible nipples were rubbed off with a fine Swiss file. Although she submitted to corporate mutilation, I do not regard Lilli as a victim of prudery — or of capitalism. She was up to her own perverse tricks, an agent of her own future.
To get to the American public, Barbie had to capture the buyers at the annual American Toy Fair. Working the 1959 Toy Fair as a respectable ingenue did not come easily, and the Sears buyer, a man, didn’t fall for this makeover. While we have no reason to think he had known her as Lilli, it’s clear that Barbie’s sexiness betrayed her, for he refused to stock her. This initial rejection didn’t prevent Barbie from overcoming her scarlet origins and selling herself into the hearts and lives of America.
Barbie’s not the first canny harlot to have shaved four to seven years off her mileage, or to have changed her name. But compared to other enterprising trollops who delete whole decades in a day while renaming ourselves every other week, Barbie is quite restrained. She has changed her name only once.
Over the years, millions of people have found her respectability utterly plausible. Now, Barbie’s past has returned — not to haunt her, but to be flaunted. The disclosure of her history was perfectly timed. Heidi Fleiss, Norma Jean Almodovar and the Mayflower Madam (aka Sydney Biddle Barrows) have paraded their collective, commercial past on television talk shows, making it trendy for Barbie to open the closet door. Activist hookers like Margo St. James (whose bid for a San Francisco Supervisorial seat was supported by many gay Democrats) have politicized the prostitute’s image, making Barbie’s past appear more wholesome. In this era of Sex Worker Chic, Barbie the ex-hooker is no symbol of shame. Instead, she is “the girl who got away with it” — a role model for ambitious women who will have their cake and eat it, too. You can’t keep a good pro down, and the success of Lord’s “Forever Barbie” has turned Barbie’s hidden past into an official piece of our country’s social history.
Marketed as a harmless plaything for 35 years, the all-American prom queen turns out to have been a foreign whore on the run. Somehow, the kind of girl your brother couldn’t take home to Mom became a role model for million of young girls. How did this unthinkable change occur? Picture a little girl on Long Island (or in Westchester) openly playing with a facsimile of the New York call girl her suburban father secretly visits during his lunch hours. If I am startled, shouldn’t middle America be horrified? More amazing is the thought that this whorish facsimile could be a gift from her parents. But that is exactly what has happened — and what continues to happen — in homes all over North America. Barbie has become one of the family, and nothing can stem this tide. Even the most committed feminists have been known to buy Barbie dolls for their daughters, as have fundamentalist Christians. She is everywhere, even in the enemy’s nursery.
Is Barbie a sneaky trollop who hid the truth when it was convenient, revealing it now to keep up with the Zeitgeist? Or was she, perhaps, one of the great powers behind this cultural shift, helping to make prostitution more acceptable? During the 1980s, Western Publishing was marketing Barbie’s Dream Date, a board game that Lord says could easily be called The Hooker Game. Players find ways to make Ken spend “as much money as possible” before the clock strikes 12, then “tally their date and gift cards.” (Could this make her a role model for hookers who need to get their beauty sleep?) “What I objected to in this game was its covert prostitution,” Lord told me. In “Forever Barbie” she suggests that it’s contradictory to market Barbie’s Dream Date alongside We Girls Can Do Anything, a Barbie game in which girls strive to become doctors and designers.
But the covert behavior makes perfect sense to me. Like many women who use their bodies to pay the rent, Barbie has had to have a straight cover. Almost every successful call girl I know has a customer who can only get it up for a part-time pro with a cute, respectable career — as an interior decorator or journalist, perhaps. A smart hooker’s entire Rolodex may be composed of guys who think they are helping out a Good Girl who has temporarily lost her way. In adult magazines, phone-sex ads entice jaded callers to chat with a “blonde coed,” as do the not-very-pristine stickers plastered strategically (next to the tow-truck stickers) on public phones. As I write this, one of the few remaining peepshows in New York’s Times Square area still attracts business with this neon message: “LIVE MODELS WORKING THEIR WAY THROUGH COLLEGE.” In the adult entertainment classifieds of many publications, men are regularly tempted by “non-professional” talent. Nobody would seek out, or feel good about paying, an amateur dentist. But a private stripper’s “amateur” status is often a selling point, as is a prostitute’s. Purity is a hot commodity in the sex industry. I have been told by clients and colleagues alike that my great allure is that I “don’t look like a hooker.” Friends who have seen Bombay’s notorious “cages” tell me that a whole section of Bombay’s sex district is devoted to “virgins” (who presumably have no repeat customers).
Closer to home, some call girls have told me that they refuse to exploit the good girl/bad girl dichotomy because it is dishonest. One Toronto activist told me she would never let a client think he is “saving her” from prostitution, no matter how lucrative the deal. I believe she is part of an earnest, politically motivated minority. I have had generous (and otherwise worldly) clients who needed to believe I had never turned a trick before; prostitutes at all price levels have told this story because that’s what some customers want to hear. In a society too enlightened to value clinical virginity, a prostitute simply offers the next best thing: her commercial innocence. And Barbie serves as our guide.
“We Girls Can Do Anything” has more than one meaning. Barbie can do anything she wants as long as she knows how to dress and act like a respectable career gal. Or, Barbie, like many prostitutes, can embark on a career in the public sphere while getting men (or Ken) to support her in private. She can do anything, as long as she keeps her public persona separate from her covert sexual behavior. By the standards of many in the prostitutes’ movement, a politically correct board game would be We Girls Can Do Anything merged with Barbie’s Dream Date: the hard-working yuppie seamlessly integrated with the girl who can work a hard-on. In such a world, We Girls might include a stint as a lap dancer to finance a player’s way through med school. But that kind of social realism would never work in the toy stores.
And Barbie wouldn’t go for it. No matter how obvious Barbie might seem, she is not a militant or brazen prostitute. She wants to get maximum bang for her bod without suffering the consequences of being labeled a whore. She enjoys her double life with its secret motives, and does not really want to tear down the barriers. That is Barbie, and that, whether you like it or not, is your average American call girl. The prostitutes’ movement is uneasy with this contradiction. Preferring to blame the prostitutes’ secrecy on stigmatization, we have assumed that some of the highest paid call girls in this society are simply victims of culture. But prostitutes who hide from public scrutiny are usually agents of their own fate who prefer to be in control of their lives.
Some will accuse Barbie of being the ultimate female eunuch: without a pussy to call her own, Barbie has no business marketing herself as anyone’s wet dream. Or has she? One might also argue that I, never having posessed a Barbie, have no business claiming her as a role model. But you did not have to own a Barbie to be touched by her, to know her as a part of your childhood landscape to emulate her. And Barbie did not have to have a pussy to benefit from the power of pussy. I once watched performance artist Penny Arcade re-enacting an exchange with a guy who had leered at her in the street: “Look!” she screamed, lifting her skirt in exasperation. “No hole! I’m just like Barbie! There’s no hole!” Because she had “no hole,” Barbie flaunted her sensuality without having to deal with emotional, legal or physical consequences. Long before abortion was legalized, she had the system beat.
I sometimes wonder how many unplanned pregnancies and unwanted “date rapes” could be pinned on Barbie’s unrealistic situation. Her idealized breasts, the otherworldly span of her waist — these things did not make her vulnerable. An intensely desirable body can get other girls into trouble, but Barbie’s plastic perfection has never been threatened by rape, conception or herpes. Barbie paid no price for her fabulous curves or her erotic power because she has no working orifices. She could be totally involved in the drama of her own image, oblivious to men’s forceful desires. Barbie could stick those amazing breasts in Ken’s face just for kicks without even getting a rise out of the guy — he has no penis.
For better or worse, Barbie’s lesson to young women has been: “We girls can get away with anything.” In real life, we get away with some things and not with others. It’s clear to me that many of us believe “we girls can wear anything” without expecting men to react normally. And Barbie has persuaded a number of prostitutes that we girls can do anything. Is she to blame for the naiveté of so many middle-class prostitutes who enter the profession unprepared for their own illegality? “You can get away with anything” could pump up a girl’s self-confidence while she lets down her guard in a dangerous universe. Whether dodging the law, thumbing our nose at conventional taboos, or playing with a man’s sexual appetite, we are wiggling through a minefield, running a tab that can be presented to us for payment at any time. At worst, Barbie has spawned a generation of sex-positive flakes who aren’t prepared for this.
And yet, she has also passed down some useful lessons about her own femininity. A topless dancer who flaunts her synthetic breasts could well decide to keep her gyrating crotch covered throughout her career. And the prostitute who relies on hand jobs or blow jobs (rather than intercourse) is doing something remarkably old-fashioned: symbolically, or in fact, she is saving her vagina for the highest bidder. These women are practicing what Barbie preached: your pussy, a form of power in itself, can be more effective when you don’t have to use it. This approach to power is what separates pros from amateurs, skilled sex objects from the exploited. Similar observations have been made in less erotic areas of industry. Charles Peck, a compensation specialist, observes that power can be “bracketed or taken out of play” when its existence is acknowledged. In my view, Barbie’s vagina is not really missing from the equation after all. Girls who have paid attention to her teachings have figured that out for themselves. And Ken, who has nothing to hide, is no match for them.
Recently, I had a tense discussion about Barbie with a NOW (National Organization for Women) member who supports the prostitutes’ rights movement. When I poked fun at feminist Barbiephobia, she began to bristle. To oppose Barbie was de rigueur — until I told her about Barbie’s status as a former prostitute. I could hear her ideological wheels spinning, as Barbie’s credibility grew. “Really?” she said brightly. When I argued that a hatred of Barbie might suggest prejudice against sex workers, she listened intently. But I felt somewhat guilty about exploiting a friend’s political sympathies. For I have to admit that Barbie, in her previous incarnation, could never be anything as mundane as a sex worker, and she would never have joined a political movement or party unless there were wallets to be plundered. Lilli was a scheming floozy, perhaps — a fickle slut, a child-woman seeking the protection of money, a bitch after your wallet, a shopaholic temptress. Lilli might even have been all these things at once. But she was never one of those faceless, clock-watching laborers on the erotic assembly line. If Lilli glanced at her watch, a man didn’t feel like a neglected consumer in an impersonal sex mill. Instead, he felt like a patsy — her patsy. Lilli was a holdover from a sexier, brasher era — the era of Josef von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel.”
But Barbie lives today, in a different time and place. If Barbie could don an astronaut suit when Woman had yet to conquer space, why not a Decriminalized Barbie with her own Little Black Book, working the Sex-Positive ’90s? Or a Legal-in-Nevada Barbie? Recent developments in Barbie’s life suggest that it could happen, but a part of me hopes it won’t. I’d like Barbie to stay slightly out of reach, two steps ahead of the sex-positive thought police. For if Barbie becomes a sex worker, she’ll forget about the immense power she wielded as an ambiguous woman with a past. Lying about her name, her age and her origins, she trained a generation of hussies, and we have been surprisingly shameless, despite the fact that our teacher’s power derived from her ability to keep a secret.