Look Ma, No Wrinkles, Menopause, Debt or Grief!

Abby Zimet

 A new version of the Barbie doll, right, stands next to the original 1959 doll in Malibu, Calif., Wednesday, March 4, 2009. (AP / Chris Pizzello)

as a slut, she has persevered through a billion outfits, 50,000
makeovers and 108 careers, including astronaut, lifeguard, doctor,
paleontologist, fighter pilot, yoga instructor, Canadian Mountie, Mary
Kay consultant, World Cup soccer player, Dallas Cowboys cheerleader,
rapper, and oh yes, President. In 2004 she broke up with Ken, her
boyfriend of 43 years, but they remain friends. Fighting off midlife
crisis, she recently got a slew of tattoos and opened a six-story store
in China. While remaining coy on whether she's had any "work" done, she
looks alluringly, maddeningly the same: busty, lithe, unlined and from
another plastic planet.

that pornographic, acquisitive, bubble-headed bane of every feminist
mother's life, turns 50 this month. For those of us who've grown up
with her – but aged somewhat less gracefully – her enduring if
unfathomable success poses a number of impossibly abstruse questions
about sexism, materialism, cultural imperialism, nature vs. nurture and
the acceptability of wearing dark shoes with a pastel outfit. "You're a
doll – live like it!" proclaims her voluminous website. Uh, actually,
no – that's the problem.

As glad proof that irony will never,
ever die, Barbie began life as "a sexually-themed gag toy for men,"
according to a biography of her creator Ruth Handler, who owned Mattel
Toys with her husband Elliott. On a trip to Europe, their daughter
Barbara grew to love a buxom doll based
on a female German cartoon character named Lilli who used sex to get
what she wanted – basically, a whore. Back home in America, Barbie was
born. No word if she ever revealed her sordid past to Ken.

1959, when she first went for three bucks, she has sold over a billion
versions of herself to 90 percent of American girls ages 3 to 10. An
estimated 8 million collectors have also bought her; a mint-condition
Barbie is worth $27,450. She has launched a cosmetics line, clothing
stores through Asia and an entertainment franchise that has sold 65
million DVDs. She attracts 50 million visitors to her hot-pink website
– "Let's face it, you can never have too much makeup!" – and a real
life Malibu Dream House tricked out for her 50th birthday sports a
chandelier made of her hair, a touch unfortunately though no doubt
unintentionally reminiscent of Josef Mengele.

her (albeit scattershot) achievements in the workplace, Barbie's fame
resides mostly in other, more questionable areas: her flamboyant,
anorexic-and-siliconed, 38-18-34 figure, her love of shopping and stuff – her never-full-enough Fashion
Fever Dream Closet exclaims, "Let's Get Gorgeous!" though these days
perhaps they should add, "Shop Till You Need a Federal Bailout!" – and
her mind-numbing stupidity. There can't be much behind that vacuous
stare; she must have made it through medical, paleontologist, fighter
pilot et al school pretty much on her back.

time, there have been attempts to make her (more) politically correct.
She had plastic surgery in 1997 to make her figure more life-like –
smaller breasts, wider waist – but when you look at the picture above
of her 1959 and 2009 selves, it's hard to tell. Rumor has it her legs
are still 50 percent longer than her arms, making walking tough, her
stint as an aerobics instructor notwithstanding. The ubiquitous
stilettos can't help. 

have likewise been more substantive moves to tweak a message that has
failed, sometimes hilariously, to keep up with the times. Exhibit #1:
Colored Francie in 1967. Exhibit #2:
disabled Becky, whose wheelchair, alas, didn't fit in the
Dream House elevator. A teen Barbie spoke – "Math is hard!" – but in
1994 the so-called
Barbie Liberation Organization reportedly switched her
microchips with G.I. Joes; then she said, "Vengeance is

the occasion of Barbie's 50th birthday, pundits have offered other
changes to render Barbie more like the imperfect world around her. She
could work at the soup kitchen. She could give bogus stock advice. She
could do therapy, or botox, or any number of 12-step programs – eating,
drinking, shopping – a particularly good fit since she already has no
last name.

Still, Barbie's message remains essentially static:
With a killer figure, the right outfits, an unending if mysterious
source of cash and an abiding oblivousness of the world, you can have
it all. Romance, dream house, a gazillion careers, eternal if mindless
happiness. She has no kids, so she doesn't have to find day care. She
doesn't age, so she doesn't need health insurance. She has no bad knees
or car payments or elderly parents or angst, no long nights sleepless
over writer Grace Paley's "little disturbances of man." No wonder she
has that what-me-worry? glaze around the fabulously unwrinkled eyes. 

is, of course, just a doll. And even for those of us who deeply believe
the personal is political and the political is personal, sometimes a
doll is just a doll.

Raising kids, who inevitably take their
own singular, circuitous route to becoming who they are, it's
inordinately hard to draw a straight line from here to there, from
cause to effect, and see what happened. You talk and you talk and you
teach and you teach and then they're gone and you can only hope they
were sometimes listening.

So how much does it matter, in the end,
what our kids play with? When you keep something from them, do they
just want it more? When he was growing up, I had one rule for my son:
no toy guns. Like a trillion kids before him, he used sticks instead.
He went on to spend a couple of years immersed in hip hop, the musical
equivalent of guns with bad rhymes. To date, he remains non-violent,
but time will tell.

My daughter is still in the Barbie
demographic. I think she saw her first Barbie in the hospital playroom
after her appendix had burst, though she claims she already knew about
her: "Barbie is everywhere." She loved the clothes. She wanted one. Her
birthday was soon. The hospital sucked, and she's my kid.

How long did I stand at the toy store shelf, staring in dismay at the Barbies, the devil? Too long.

with the rest, there was another problem: Barbie's longstanding Aryan
tendencies. They have marketed Barbie in the costumes of 50 countries,
but they are just that: Costumes. Exotic. The Other. Not Quite Like Us.
My daughter is Vietnamese. The
only Asian Barbies make Barbie's early years look positively Amish.
Swaddled in red silk and sexual promise come Geisha Barbie, Chinese New
Year Barbie, Fantasy Goddess of Asia Barbie. Just what we need: another
fantasy goddess. Why not just call it Stereotypes 'R Us and be done
with it? 

In the end, I got her a semi-dark-haired Barbie for
President. As President, Barbie wore really high heels and a really
tight skirt, but at least she had a laptop. We put it in her bag so she
could take it to the Inaugural Ball and get some work done. Maybe on
those Wall Street bonuses? 

Meanwhile, Barbie appears
periodically around the house, always in a different outfit. Sometimes,
her itsy bitsy clothes show up on some itsy bitsy stuffed animal,
looking embarrassed. I remain hopeful about the evolutionary curve. I
remain hopeful that my daughter, like generations of wise girls before
her, will eventually see fit to drop Barbie out the window to test the
theory of velocity, or drag Barbie behind her John Deere skidder to see
if she weighs less or more (probably less) than kindling, or put Barbie
in the microwave to see her vapid, oversexed, uber-shopping head

I wonder what will come out of it. That slut.

Barbie through the years


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