THE HIS­TORY OF BAR­BIE:

60 years with the world’s most con­tro­ver­sial doll

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

She is the woman who has ev­ery­thing her own dream house, a pink con­vert­ible and a long and var­ied ca­reer. Soon to turn 60, she is still fiercely loved by a global legion of pink-clad acolytes, yet like many prom­i­nent women, her place in the spot­light has come with criticism and abuse. An­gry stu­dents burned her in the 1960s. Iran ex­iled her in 2002. Ger­man fem­i­nists cru­ci­fied her and held a “Bar­bie’cue” to protest the open­ing of a life-sized dream house in 2013. For a woman who has been an Olympic gold medal­list and the Pres­i­dent, Bar­bie is a con­tro­ver­sial and po­lar­is­ing fig­ure.

She is not real, of course – the 29cm minia­ture man­nequin is mostly plas­tic and rub­ber – but her in­flu­ence is huge. More than one bil­lion Bar­bie dolls have been sold into 150 coun­tries since 1959, mean­ing there is now one Bar­bie for ev­ery seven hu­mans on earth. Ninety-nine per cent of Amer­ica’s daugh­ters own a Bar­bie. A 2006 UK study sug­gest­ing she causes low self-es­teem is a

favourite ref­er­ence of Bar­bie crit­ics but that hasn’t stopped young devo­tees con­tin­u­ing to beg for a Bar­bie of their own.

“She’s a pro­jec­tion of what you want to be,” says Karen Valen­tine, 47, who owns more than 500 Bar­bies. “You get to ex­pe­ri­ence things in an adult world that you can’t your­self. I have a Bar­bie that is some­what sim­i­lar to me, with long dark hair, and she’s cosied-up to Johnny Depp in my cab­i­net.”

Dur­ing my own play­ground days, Bar­bie was a sta­tus sym­bol the way a hand­bag might be now. Six-year-old cub­by­house bouncers would de­mand to know if you had a Bar­bie and if so, which one? We didn’t do it know­ingly but Bar­bie was our way of sig­nalling we were aware of trends and had the means to be part of them. One girl had a guar­an­teed in­vite to ev­ery birth­day party be­cause she al­ways ar­rived clutch­ing a recog­nis­ably rec­tan­gu­lar present. My sec­ond-wave fem­i­nist mother re­jected ev­ery­thing Bar­bie stood for but, like her friends, caved in to pester power.

Through­out the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury, Bar­bie dom­i­nated the doll mar­ket. Lit­tle girls were be­witched by her sparkly gowns and tiny glint­ing ac­ces­sories, but

Bar­bie also at­tracted her share of criticism.

Her pinched waist, white skin, blonde hair and lean legs have been con­demned for cre­at­ing unattain­able stan­dards for girls. The only sker­rick of flesh on Bar­bie’s finely en­gi­neered form are her breasts, which are as large and buoy­ant as twin blimps. (If fur­ther proof of Bar­bie’s power is needed, her 1998 breast re­duc­tion made the front page of The Wall Street Jour­nal.) As hun­dreds of ar­ti­cles point out, a real woman with Bar­bie’s di­men­sions would only have room for half a liver.

In the doc­u­men­tary The Most Fa­mous Doll in the World, a for­mer toy seller re­calls the scan­dal caused by “the doll with the tits”.

Her un­canny and unattain­able pro­por­tions are said to have been based on a nov­elty Ger­man doll and car­toon char­ac­ter, Bild Lilli, who was a “woman of the night”. While Bar­bie’s as­pi­ra­tions dif­fered markedly from her pre­de­ces­sor’s, her di­men­sions didn’t.

Karen says Bar­bie’s con­tro­ver­sial physique is largely the re­sult of prac­ti­cal lim­i­ta­tions and in­sists that those who are crit­i­cal of her tiny waist “don’t un­der­stand the his­tory of the doll. When she was de­signed, with the cou­ture and fash­ions at the time, she had to have a very slim waist so the three or four lay­ers of fab­ric that she wore would not make her look like a Miche­lin Man. The dolls can be scaled down but fab­rics can’t.”

Mat­tel is on the record say­ing Bar­bie was never meant to be real, but in 2016 the com­pany re­leased three new body shapes (tall, pe­tite and curvy), and Bar­bie’s fig­ure is not her only at­tribute that’s moved with the times.

In Bar­bie’s ear­li­est in­car­na­tions, she didn’t seem to stray far from her dream house but, in fact, Bar­bie’s very ex­is­tence is the re­sult of one mother’s de­sire to open her daugh­ter’s eyes to a fu­ture out­side the home. When cre­ator Ruth Han­dler un­veiled the first-of-its-kind doll at the New York Toy Fair in 1959, the men at the con­ven­tion said it would never sell. As we know, she proved them wrong. Named af­ter Ruth’s daugh­ter, Bar­bara (Bar­bie’s full name is Bar­bara Mil­li­cent Roberts), the doll showed that women could have a role in the wider world. She be­came a nurse (1961), an as­tro­naut (1965) and a sur­geon (1973). In re­cent years her man­u­fac­turer, Mat­tel, has sought to fur­ther amp up Bar­bie’s colour­ful re­sume and fem­i­nist credentials by im­mor­tal­is­ing trail­blaz­ers like avi­a­tion pi­o­neer Amelia Earhart, artist Frida Kahlo and Aussie en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Bindi Ir­win.

Mat­tel’s 2017 an­nual re­port stresses that suc­cess in the com­pet­i­tive toy mar­ket re­lies on cor­rectly pre­dict­ing so­cial and me­dia trends. With Bratz dolls and Dis­ney Princess fig­urines nip­ping at Bar­bie’s plas­tic heels she’s had no choice but to evolve and Mat­tel is plainly mak­ing a bid for the daugh­ters of fourth-wave fem­i­nism. Will it work?

Au­thor Mon­ica Dux has not bought a Bar­bie for her daugh­ter. She dis­misses Bar­bie’s 100-plus “ca­reers” as merely ac­ces­sories that are not fundamental to her per­son­al­ity and is con­cerned that she per­pet­u­ates rigid gen­der roles. How­ever, she has also ob­served that most girls defy them. “Chil­dren make a re­ally big ef­fort to make some­thing epic with Bar­bie and they do en­gage in a lot of dif­fer­ent play, and that’s a re­ally good thing,” Mon­ica says.

Au­thor Emily Maguire says the hys­te­ria that sur­rounds Bar­bie is mis­placed, and in­fan­tilises the girls who play with her. “I don’t see Bar­bie as any kind of fem­i­nist icon or hero, but I cer­tainly don’t think she’s the sort of de­mon she’s been made out to be,” Emily says. “Ob­vi­ously she’s an un­re­al­is­tic fig­ure but I don’t know how you isolate that from all the other in­flu­ences we have.” Grow­ing up, Emily was a self-de­scribed tomboy but she can still re­call the ex­cit­ing mo­ment her mother took her to the toy aisle to pur­chase the Lov­ing Hearts Bar­bie. The tac­tile plea­sure of the vel­vet hearts that adorned Bar­bie’s gos­samer-look gown

re­mains a vivid mem­ory. “We re­ally cov­eted those dolls,” she says. Her de­sire for the doll was, she agrees, a lit­tle bit about school­yard sta­tus but Bar­bie’s en­dur­ing ap­peal lay in her ver­sa­til­ity. Emily and her sis­ter treated their Bar­bies like ac­tors. “It didn’t mat­ter which ones we had,” Emily says, “what their out­fits were or their pro­fes­sions – we just made them what we wanted. We were al­ways cut­ting or colour­ing their hair or tat­too­ing them. When we were go­ing through a Mur­der Mys­tery phase in our read­ing, they were al­ways com­mit­ting mur­ders.”

Hu­man rights ad­vo­cate and au­thor Tara Moss says she cried the first time she was given a Bar­bie. “I won a run­ning race and there were two tables with wrapped prizes – one ta­ble for boys and one for girls. I was told to choose a prize from the girl’s ta­ble,” she says. Eight-yearold Tara wanted a prize from the boys’ ta­ble, but the race or­gan­is­ers were hav­ing none of that. She se­lected a parcel from the des­ig­nated pile and un­wrapped a Bar­bie.

“I re­mem­ber cry­ing my eyes out when I got home,” she says. For­tu­nately, Tara’s mother, Janni, knew just what to do and helped Tara turn the doll into a “kind of Vam­pira FrankenBar­bie. We dyed her hair black and put stitches in her cheek and things, and I loved that doll to bits af­ter that. I wish I still had it,” said Tara.

Pioneering AfricanAmer­i­can film­maker Ava DuVer­nay told Van­ity Fair she agreed to lend her like­ness to a Bar­bie be­cause of her fond mem­o­ries of play­ing with the doll. Like Tara, Ava didn’t ac­cept the blon­de­haired, blue-eyed Bar­bie she was pre­sented with. She gave the dolls rad­i­cal makeovers so they more closely re­sem­bled the most beau­ti­ful women in her neigh­bour­hood – the Latina sis­ters. “Spiel­berg had a Su­per 8 cam­era when he was lit­tle – I had a doll,” she told Van­ity Fair.

The DuVer­nay Bar­bie was sup­posed to be a one-off but fans suc­cess­fully pe­ti­tioned Mat­tel to make her avail­able in stores. Even Bad Fem­i­nist au­thor Rox­ane Gay tweeted to say she wanted one. Adult col­lec­tors will tell you the source of the doll’s ap­peal is that she is a re­minder of a sim­pler time. Lit­tle girls, they say, love the fantasy. Bar­bie had a boyfriend, but her as­sets – the home, the car, the car­a­van, the horse – were all hers. She rep­re­sented adult­hood and agency.

Emily dis­agrees. “I don’t think I’ve ever come across a girl who was as­pir­ing to be Bar­bie,” she says. The stu­dents Emily has taught, her nieces and her younger self, all looked to the real women in their lives for role mod­els.

In our school­yard, none of the Bar­bies were ac­tu­ally called Bar­bie – each had her own in­di­vid­ual name. The first thing any of us did when we cut Bar­bie from her plas­tic man­a­cles was strip her of her clothes. The urge to chop off her blonde hair was pri­mal. I was never al­lowed a Ken com­pan­ion for my Bar­bie, so when I got a new one, the old one was given a buzz cut, dressed in a uni­sex hand­ker­chief pon­cho and re-chris­tened Adam.

In an ar­ti­cle on the fe­male body, Mar­garet At­wood de­picts a scene between two par­ents dis­cussing whether to pur­chase one of the dolls. The father ob­jects to her “false no­tion of beauty”. The mother ar­gues their daugh­ter will feel sin­gled out without one. In the end their wor­ries are for noth­ing when the doll comes “whizzing down the stairs, thrown like a dart”, stark naked and hair chopped off. “She’d been tat­tooed all over with pur­ple ink in a scroll­work de­sign,” At­wood writes. The father con­cludes: “I guess we’re safe.”

The tri­umph of the daugh­ter’s imag­i­na­tion over the toy she’s been pre­sented with in Mar­garet At­wood’s world is rem­i­nis­cent of the play de­scribed by the women The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly in­ter­viewed. Rather than be­ing a sex ob­ject, a sur­geon or a soc­cer player, Bar­bie was Tara’s vam­pire and Emily’s cun­ning mur­der­ess. She was Ava’s Latina god­dess and my pon­cho-wear­ing Adam. Mat­tel may be try­ing to make Bar­bie all things to all peo­ple, but in the hands of imaginative girls Bar­bie truly can be it all: an as­tro­naut with perfect lip­stick and a buz­z­cut and ball­point pen tat­too.

“We dyed her hair black and put stitches in her cheek, and I loved that doll to bits af­ter that.”

50s The 1950s Bar­bies were an evo­lu­tion of pa­per dolls. Ruth Han­dler had seen her daugh­ter, Bar­bara, project her as­pi­ra­tions onto the pa­per cut-out and created a three di­men­sional “teen fash­ion model”.

10s Bar­bie was given her most rad­i­cal makeover yet with Mat­tel re­leas­ing three new body types. She also got her own iPhone in 2014.

Mat­tel founders Ruth and El­liot Han­dler named Bar­bie af­ter their daugh­ter, Bar­bara. Their son, Ken, was also a source of in­spi­ra­tion.

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