Friday, August 6, 2010

Big Bad Barbie

My friend, YA writer Melissa Wyatt, sent me the early reader BARBIE GOES TO A PARTY (pictured left) knowing how much I adore that doll. As it happens, Melissa owned the same book when she was a kid and loved it. (Incidentally, she grew up to be an accomplished doll maker herself.) The gist of the book is, what will Barbie wear to the party? She tries on outfits for her mom, then decides. That's it. No message except, perhaps, that wherever one goes, choosing the right ensemble is the first priority. And that's bad. Right?

The current prevailing notion is that Barbie is a harmful influence on little girls. She's fluffy, inconsequential, vain, and silly. Her measurements are distorted. She's an advertisement for body dysmorphic disorder. Some women my age (old) claim that they never loved her! They disdained the tiny open-toed stilletos, the strapless evening gowns, the fur-collared boleros, white cat-eye sunglasses, zebra-striped swim suit, tight capris with filmy cocktail coat, the winged stewardess cap and exquisitely detailed flight bag! I could go on about my favorites and the bumpety-bump my heart made when I dressed my titian-haired bubble head Barbie in them. But that would be wrong.

Here's what made Barbie fabulous to me: 1. She was forbidden by mother for all the forward-thinking, female-empowering reasons listed above. It wasn't until I was taken to the hospital for a nasty tear on my mouth that my parents relented. Bleeding as I passed a little display case featuring a Barbie nurse and Dr. Ken, I thrust my hand out and whispered, "Barbie! Barbie!" as best as I could with a torn lip. The next day, my dad brought her home to me for being brave and enduring the stitches. I declared it was the HAPPIEST day of my LIFE! If I'd known that all it took was a facial injury to get my hands on that beautiful doll, why I would have fallen off the fence ages ago.
2. Barbie's fabulousness spoke to my heart. I was living in a shoebox house in a little rainy lumber town in southern Oregon. My mother, a gorgeous woman, had four kids under the age of 6 and an extremely limited budget that went largely to pay for our out-of-pocket antibiotics, stitches and casts. Barbie spoke to me of a possibly more glamorous future. She was my fantasy, and I was passionate about her--as, I'm sure, were many little boys who dared-not-speak-her-name. (You'll find them competing on Project Runway.)

To this day, I love fashion. It is a spectator sport for me, but no less pleasurable for that. When I see her old clothes on ebay, I feel the same glow that I felt back in the days of the New Frontier! I'm partial to the old Barbie--the one who wore a ton of eye makeup and didn't smile so much. But I won't despair for any little girl who adores her today.

Just don't get me started on Bratz...


  1. You know, from a purely practical doll-maker's perspective, the real reason Barbie's waist is so much smaller in relation to her bust and hips is because the fabric for her clothing is not in scale with the doll itself and therefore when you gather it at the waist for a skirt or add a waistband of any sort, it's going to take up a lot more room than it would on a real five-foot-five woman. If Barbie's waist was in correct proportion, by the time you got her dressed up, her waist would be the same circumference as her hips. I'm just saying.

    Barbie: so worth the stitches.

  2. I'm guessing you're talking about the scale of the print on the fabric? (I'm a little thick.) In any case, there are inherently logical reasons for the wasp waist and ample bust. I am surprised!

  3. Wow yeah, Barbie. Now this brings back memories.

    My daughter Rachel was OBSESSED with Barbie food---teeny tiny platters of roast turkey and cupcakes and hamburgers and malteds. Candelabra. Tablecloths and napkins. Some of it ended up vacuum fodder---and she always took it personally, like we had vacuumed up the food out of her very soul.

    Rachel did eventually have a Ken and Barbie to go with the Babbette-feast she kept in a shoebox all those years ago....


  4. Part of the allure of Barbie stuff is that it's miniature. I didn't know there was so much little fake foodstuffs, though. That must have been a more recent development. Remember, when I had a Barbie Dream House, miniature record albums by The Lettermen were included for her tiny cardboard hi-fi. We're talking black and white TV days. Alarm clocks you wound up. Orthopedic saddle shoes. Petticoats and middle waisted dresses. Stone age Barbie.