What's it all about, Barbie?

Before the blonde bombshell gets a new body, let's take a fond, final look at the old one.


The Editors of Mothers Who Think
November 27, 1997 1:30AM (UTC)

Last week there was tension in the Persian Gulf and a terrorist
slaughter in the Middle East. But what was the story percolating in
the idle minds of editorial writers, TV newscasters, radio talk-show hosts and
ordinary Americans alike? Barbie's makeover.

No less a respectable organ than the Wall Street Journal thought it was front-page news that Barbie is soon to appear in toy stores everywhere (well, except maybe in Vermont) with a thicker waist, smaller bust and hips, and flat feet. An astonishing number of news stories and features were devoted to
Mattel's announcement that its 1998 line of Barbies will include this "more
contemporary" and anatomically realistic model.

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Typical of this earnest flood of coverage was the San Francisco Chronicle's Barbie frenzy
on Nov. 19. An unsigned editorial applauded the "healthy change" in Barbie's proportions,
citing the doll's "tortured ideal of beauty" as being partly responsible for
eating disorders in teenage girls as well as breast implants and cosmetic surgery
in adult women. On the Op-Ed page, Chronicle editorial writer Kevin Leary
voiced the dissenting opinion that Mattel was caving in to "shrieking Barbie-bashers."
Writes Leary plaintively, "Why not give her a mustache, cellulite and
varicose veins, too? ... Little girls -- and many boys -- appreciate Barbie
the way she is, exquisitely slim, with long, well-formed legs, a tiny waist
and extraordinary mamelonation for her size." Accompanying the stories was a political
cartoon showing a thick-waisted Barbie standing in front of the "Dream
House" -- a broken-down trailer -- with a beer-bellied, bald, couch-potato
Ken.

So Barbie endures -- as a pop cultural icon, a diva, a parenting issue, an object of sociopolitical satire, a symbol that invites impassioned interpretation. It's clearly those interpretations that raise the hackles on Barbie's maker, the humorless toy company Mattel, which has in recent years seen fit to cloak Barbie's nakedness by covering the lower half of her plastic body with unremovable flowered white panties -- though no bra as yet. Mattel puts panties on Barbie in nonliteral ways too, through its careful, if inexplicable, guarding of her image. (Why, for example, did Mattel keep Barbie out of the thoroughly wholesome movie "Toy Story," while licensing the national discount store chain to sell a tastelessly commercial "Target Anniversary Barbie"?)

But isn't interpretation what toys are really all about? And Barbie is, at bottom, a toy, despite the paranoid fantasies of conspiracists who'd like us to believe that the doll is an agent of antifeminist mind control. We don't deny that Barbie is the pink-and-lacy epitome of feminine role play. She's a little girl's first
brush with the mysteries of grown-up glamour, romance and adventure. She's a
powerful indoctrination into the culture of acquisitiveness and its
attendant disappointments: You don't get the Barbie Dream House for your
birthday, even though you asked and asked for it, and it scars you for
life. Later, even more of those Barbie dreams are dashed. You don't grow up
to be a ballerina or an astronaut or a gold medal-winning Olympic gymnast
or a Sea World whale trainer, like Barbie. But, then, just look how big and
grand those dreams are. Is it just us or is there something a little
depressing about Dentist Barbie? Or average-body, flat-footed Barbie?

For many baby boomers and their daughters, Barbie is girlhood
personified -- the dreams, the role-playing, the fantasies, but also the
persistent tug of new and confusing emotions and hormones. Barbie conjures intense, almost palpable
vestiges of girlhood bliss, anxiety and desire. What do we talk about when
we talk about Barbie? Sex. Envy. Ambition. Fear of parental abandonment.
Mute, unblinking and always perfect, Barbie is infused with meaning, the
way icons are supposed to be.

But that's not the Barbie we thought about when we started thinking about Barbie. Not Barbie the icon. Not Barbie the cultural symbol, the body image distortionist, the item we may or may not buy for our daughters. We thought about a long pink doll that smelled really good. We thought about those cunning little shoes and our brothers who blew up our Barbie Camper. We thought about the clothes, taking them on and off, crashing the Dune Buggy into a fence, using a Rock Hudson paper doll as a stand-in for Ken, trying to rub off the graffiti that baby sisters drew on Barbie's face with permanent markers, playing for hours on rainy afternoons, playing and playing and playing. Something we don't get to do much anymore. Except in this issue of Mothers Who Think. Here's what happened when we played around with Barbie.

-- The Editors of Mothers Who Think

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