Thursday, March 30, 2006

Barbie, we hardly knew ye!

A few weeks ago, I started volunteering at a community arts center on Thursday afternoons. I've only been twice so far, but I really REALLY like and respect the program. From 2:30 to about 3:00 is book club. Volunteers read to the younger kids or listen to the older kids read to them. This past Thursday, I read the most bizarre book to a little girl. It was a book about Barbie, set during the American Revolution. Barbie helps an innkeeper while the innkeeper's son is off fighting the Redcoats. Along the way Barbie reveals her patriotism, helps carry out a few missions, and meets Ken, whom she woos with a homemade scarf. If I hadn't sat and read the whole thing out loud, I'd never have believed this book was ever published. When I decided to blog about it, it took nearly half an hour of searching to find a record that the book does, in fact, exist.

Let's take a moment and review the things I found on the way to proving that I didn't have a large pink-hued hallucination...

Bumper Stickers

There is a Barbie-related bumper sticker. Two versions of it, actually:

No Barbie entry is complete without a Dave Barry link!

Especially a link to a column he wrote about using Rollerblade Barbie in an attempt to set his underwear on fire.


There are many, many Barbie books. An Amazon search turned up 19 pages of books. Not 19 books; 19 pages of books. Some were pretty standard licensed-character fare...color words, shopping trip, sticker books. There are subcategories of Barbie books. Especially intriguing: "Barbie Feelings" and "Barbie Mysteries." There are Spanish-language Barbie books, which is cool. None of these had cover photos, so I'm not sure if there is a Latina Barbie in the stories, or at least a Latina friend doll.

The "Barbie Rules" series is also amusing:

Barbie Rules #1: Be Your Own Best Friend
Barbie Rules #2: Be Proud of Yourself!
Barbie Rules #3: No Teasing Allowed

This would probably be useful for those times you need a plastic role-model to quell your daughters' sibling rivalry:

This I found more than a little disturbing:

"From picking the perfect wedding dress, to finding the best present, to throwing a surprise bridal shower, Barbie has tons of fun because Barbie Loves Weddings! This storybook is filled with all-new full-color photos and wonderful wedding stickers. "

It's sort of paradoxical. On the one hand, Barbie is clearly an adult, so it's not abnormal that she would help plan a wedding and throw a bridal shower...but I am not very comfortable with the idea of little girls being obsessed with weddings and getting married. When I meet or hear of women who have been planning their dream wedding since they were little girls, it squicks me out. I'm not sure I can explain it rationally, but it seems like girls would be better off dreaming of being princesses in frilly dresses than brides, and even then I'm not too keen on the whole "prince charming" angle.

No girl should be raised to think she needs a man to rescue her, and that she should sit around patiently in a ball gown waiting for him to arrive. Little girls do not need to rush into marriage, either. No marriage is a perfect fairy tale, and your wedding is not necessarily going to be the "best day" of your life. I had a blast at my wedding, but I didn't build it up to be the Best. Day. Ever. No wedding is perfect. Mine was darn close to perfect for me and MB, but it wasn't magazine-spread-worthy.

Anyway, it seems odd to market a children's book about wedding planning. To add another layer of weird, there is a second version of the book available:

Notice that the African American friend doll has been replaced with a white bride and groom. Is this version for the slightly racist parents out there? I was a little disappointed that version 2 didn't feature an interracial couple.

Plastic and PC?

Apparently the Barbie machine is trying to be more politically astute, so this wedding thing seems like a missed opportunity. Then again, there's this article, which details how, in Barbie's historical "diary" of the 1960s, the author gave Barbie and her black friend Christie a role in supporting the Civil Rights Movement. The author never specified Christie's race in the text, and was counting on the art to show her properly. (Christie is an actual doll, not just a character made up for the story.) When the book's proofs came back, Christie was as white as Barbie, even though there is reportedly a line in the story where Christie remarks that a little black girl "looks like me when I was little."

Barbie likes that old-time religion

There is also a Pagan-Lite Barbie, called "Secret Spells Barbie."

And you thought I was making this up. I am not that good.

I couldn't find any good web posts about it. I had one I was planning to use, but then upon further reading it proved to be a magic-is-evil, anti-Wicca rant, and that ain't cool. I don't link to hate, dogg. So here's a weird and ranty--but occasionally funny--article about it. May not be suitable for sensitive audiences (as if I have one of those).

Another one that I'm NOT MAKING UP:

Forest Princess Barbie. Because everyone wears formal gowns and high heels when they go hiking! Dude...what? I do!

All this, and still no sign of American Revolution Barbie

So I finally tried a search query using "Barbie" and "horse Lizzie," which was the horse Barbie tends to in the book. That led me to a paper written for a women's studies class. Not kidding. Luckily, the paper provided me with a title...Barbie: A Ride for Freedom. The title at long last led me to a link proving it exists somewhere.

With the search over, it's time for some reminiscing...

I think someone could probably write an entire Master's thesis on the cultural implications and impact of Barbie. I'm kind of ambivalent about Barbie in general. I had Barbies when I was a kid, and I turned out okay. No major body-image serious fetishes for pink clothing, stiletto heels, or shopping. My mother did, however, wait until I was seven years old before I was allowed to have any Barbies, and when I got my first Barbie dolls, I got the Heart Family:

The Heart Family was made by Mattel, but they were more conservative. They were definitely marketed as a married couple with kids, instead of the non-married but long-committed Barbie and Ken. The mom had a Barbie body, but also dark hair and a hole in her hand so she could wear her plastic diamond ring. The dad was a brown-haired Ken with a gold wedding band painted on his hand. They had twin toddlers--a boy and a girl.

All the Barbie-style dolls I acquired after that were assimilated into what became a giant family. The Heart Family mom and dad were the parents, and they had many daughters--a Barbie, a Jazzie (taller, smaller-breasted, and flat-footed...also had crimped hair and some FAB 80s fashion sense), a Skipper, a Stacie, and a random doll of about Stacie's size that a friend gave me. Eventually they also had the dark haired version of the new Quints dolls. (My foster sister had the red-haired ones, and my sister had the blonde ones.)

I had the run of a tiny storage room off of our landing, where I set up the kickass Barbie house my aunt had made from four cardboard boxes. This was the BEST BARBIE HOUSE EVER. She wallpapered it with wrapping paper, added cutouts of paintings from magazines to decorate the walls, and made the most ingenious furniture from cardboard boxes, contact paper, and cloth. She made a bedroom set for the parents and one for the kids and a living room complete with a couch, armchair, television, and coffee table. She included a store-bought kitchen with plastic food.

That house was one of my most treasured things as a kid. I played with my Barbies until the summer before my freshman year in high school, and I turned out all right. I carefully packed away all of my Barbies and clothes and furnishings when I moved out to go to college. Sadly, the Barbie house had to be sent off to the great recycling pile in the sky, after more than 5 years of valiant service.

So, I know that just owning Barbies is not enough to give girls a skewed view of the world and their own girl-ness...but I still feel wary of the ideal that the Barbie machine seems to be pushing, and feel simultaneously impressed and horrified that it is such a juggernaut of both the toy industry and, in a way, of our culture. I'm not sure how I'll approach the Barbie issue if I have daughters someday.

At least I'll always know that the Barbie-as-Revolutionary-War-hero book wasn't a figment of my imagination. I'll always have that.

Reading: bad historical Barbie fiction; The Dogs of Bedlam Farm by Slate contributor Jon Katz

Playing: crazy mind games; Hypnotize, by System of a Down


  1. revolutionary war, eh? barbie's looking pretty good for being over 200 years old.

    by the by, did you know that barbie dumped ken a few years ago for some younger guy and now ken has gone out and gotten in touch with his spiritual side (and become a metrosexual complete with man-purse). the company claims it remains to be seen if barbie will give him another chance. i saw this on some morning show a while back. it was totally alarming the way they kept talking about them like they were real people instead of freaky little plastic toys.

  2. I think that's how Mattel does their press releases, so then news outlets have little choice but to report on it like they are real people. I saw an article about the same thing some time ago, probably when you saw something on television.