Toying with Barbie for all seasons

Posted: May 06, 2002 12:00 AM
Barbie's mommy is dead. Long live Barbie. Ruth Handler, 85, the creator of Barbie, died last week and leaves behind a doll who will live forever in childhood memories, loved and hated but undeniably important in shaping attitudes toward femininity and feminism. One billion dolls in 150 countries, a business estimated at $2 billion a year, makes a loud statement. Ruth Handler's natural children, however, were less than happy with the doll's celebrity. According to one biographer, neither her natural son nor daughter liked their plastic siblings. Ken, the son for whom the male doll was named, dismissed Barbie as "some sort of drag show." Her daughter, Barbara, who had outgrown dolls by the time Barbie was "born," forbade her family to call her by the (in)famous nickname. But for most little girls, for better and for worse, Barbie is a touchstone for growing up, creating opinions and fantasies about what they like and dislike about the female image in the popular culture. My own daughters had nothing but disdain for the doll, making fun of her "suburban" lack of hipness and her "plastic" artificiality. She was the equivalent of a Stepford wife, who couldn't think for herself. They liked running against the grain of their friends with Barbies, sharpening their independence, rebels with a child's cause. While I encouraged them in their disdain for Barbie's lack of reality, I recalled that my favorite doll as a child was a rubber Dy-dee doll, also called "Drink'n Babe" and "Betsy Wetsy," who "drank" water from a bottle and wet her diaper from a tiny opening in the middle of her left tush. Talk about the need for suspension of disbelief: The Dy-dee baby was promoted as "the perfect doll for prenatal education" and early childhood education, but if that were true a whole generation of girls would have grown up to make a terrible mess of toilet training their daughters. The point is that dolls aren't about what's real, but about what we want them to be. I didn't care that my doll baby was anatomically incorrect. While sociological critics have talked about the bad body model of Barbie, one that could lead a girl child to grow up to be Barbie the Bulimic, most girls fantasized with Barbie as they would with Cinderella or Rapunzel, an alternative to real life, reacting and testing life's options. Barbie's producers had an uncanny ability to update the doll as cultural and fashion tastes changed. This not only brought the doll renewed attention and publicity, but challenged girls of each generation to look with fresh eyes about what they wanted to be. How little girls reacted to Barbie's various incarnations could be seen as a Rorschach test in the stages of female identity. Feminists organized the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO), and went underground to kidnap (i.e., steal) Barbies and G. I. Joes from store shelves, switching the female and male voice boxes. Barbie yelled: "Eat lead, Cobra. Vengeance is mine!" G.I. Joe said: "Let's go shopping. Will we ever have enough clothes?" As far as I know, there was no "Battered-wife Barbie," but if there had been, Dr. Barbie would have known how to treat her. Barbie's friends today are multicultural and she's multiracial (black, Hispanic and Asian). The Japanese have a yen for her and have paid thousands of yen for collector's dolls. Barbie is a doll for all seasons, but she can be unseasonable. She was once banned in Vermont; no Barbie with Birkenstocks. Then she discarded her mink stole and became a campaigner for animal rights. She could cook for the Barbie-Q or go to college to cultivate her IQ. She morphed from airline stewardess to pilot and gave up the hula hoop for a space capsule. In a CD-ROM game, she dressed to kill. Pornographers have put Barbie in bondage and a rip-off artist created a "Hooker Barbie" and "Trailer Trash Barbie." Andy Warhol even made a Barbie portrait. In 1997, when Barbie underwent a facelift, a bust reduction, put on a few pounds at the waist and slimmed in the hips, the Wall Street Journal described the retooling as a "front-end realignment." (Autoerotic?) Since Barbie is big business, it was big news when Ruth Handler and her husband were ousted from Mattel Inc. in 1975, the toy company they had brought such success. They were charged with securities fraud and fined by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. If Barbie started out in a black and white zebra bathing suit, her creator might have ended her career in prison stripes. But whose fantasy would that have been?