Hugh Hefner turns 80 on Sunday, but his baby dolls who live in the centerfold haven't aged at all. Their flesh is still as smooth as a plastic baby's bottom.
Barbie, on the other hand, is 47 this year, and she shows the evidence of a few makeovers along the way. The most recent has turned her plastic form into flesh for the theater. "Barbie Live in Fairytopia," described as a "kidsical," is playing for the childset in Columbus, Ohio, before it takes off for a two-year tour of 80 cities.
Hef and Barbie occupy radically different worlds, but both have contributed to changing images of women in the culture, and both earned big bucks doing it. For Hef, the centerfold was the "girl next door with her clothes off," undressed to appeal to the male imagination. Barbie was the girl in the house next door who grows up to become everything she wants to be; doctor, lawyer, merchant or astronaut. She takes her clothes off, too. More than a billion outfits and pairs of shoes have been sold to the little girls who keep her.
Both Hef and Barbie turned away from ideals of motherhood and wifedom, but for different reasons. Hef told his editors not to get any foolish notions about "togetherness, home, family and all that jazz." The first issue of Playboy sneered at the concept of alimony. "You can buy sex on a fee-for-service basis," comedian Phil Silvers joked in the January 1957 issue, "so don't get caught up in a long-term contract." Barbie's liberation as a sexy, stylish, rebellious career "person" coincided with the feminist push for the "no fault divorce" that helped Hugh Hefner accomplish his wildest dreams.
Barbie dressed for the theater, in pink tights and tutu, sequins and angel wings, has been girliefied-down for the under-6 set who now play with her. The sugar-and-spice "Fairytopia Barbie" of the musical appeals to the younger, less sophisticated child, M.G. Lord, author of an unauthorized biography of Barbie, tells The New York Times. Ms. Lord thinks it's a "move of desperation" to spark sales. Barbie's sales figures sag even if certain highlights of her figure don't.
Both Barbie and Hef have always been aimed at the consumer. Playboy once sold 7 million copies a month (less than half that today) and sold lots of TVs, stereos and expensive Scotch. But competition from male magazines, the sexual revolution and the proliferation of pornography that Hef wrought has applied the meat ax, or at least the scalpel, to Playboy profits. He has become a victim of his own sexcess. The formula for the centerfold is based primarily on one type of model, one that the New Yorker describes as having "the face of Shirley Temple" at the top and "the body of Jayne Mansfield" below. Boobs are still big (in more ways than one), but on a more athletic body. The girl next door looks more vapid, less sexy and more decadent, reflecting the culture's lack of sexual innocence.
Barbie's narrow waist, abundant boobs and impossible slimness suffer from competition and declining revenues, too. By one estimate, if she were real, she would now be 5 feet 6 inches tall, with measurements of 39-21-33. Bratz dolls have pushed the envelope with a Britney Spears inspired doll with fuller lips, belly shirts and leggy skirts, more hip than hop, appealing to 7-year-olds.
To restore interest in Barbie, Ken has undergone a makeover to patch up their failed relationship. He's more rugged in a weathered leather jacket and rough jeans. But despite the "Brokeback Mountain" look, he's not even a metrosexual. To restore a semblance of interest in Hef, he's starring in his own TV reality show on E! cable, called "The Girls Next Door," with three of his dearest and closest friends. But Hugh looks a little sad and a lot seedy, with wrinkles, flab and pathetic celebrations of Viagra. He's Dorian Gray with his profligacy on display in real life; the painting in the attic is no doubt a horrid mess. Aging playboys are always out of date, if not out of dates.
Magazine essays testify to the ways we've taken the child out of childhood. The kids are exposed to the flash of sex on television and online, and marketers treat them like little adults, pushing products from soup to SUVs. They're rushed into growing up. Hef was once the cutting edge for this sexualizing of the playroom. Some of his centerfolds wore pigtails and bow ribbons; the magazine gave new meaning to the children's song, "Playmate, come out and play with me." Barbie is benign by comparison, but the teenager doll has replaced the baby doll as the favorite of little girls. More's the pity.