Archive for the Toys Category

Barbie at 50: Still looking good and causing debate

Posted in Fashion, Favorite stores, Shopping, Toys with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2009 by Dawn Raftery

Barbie—she of the glossy blonde locks and bullet breasts atop an impossibly tiny waist—is half a century old, and damned if she doesn’t look just as good as ever. Little girls everywhere emulate the Mattel doll, and even big girls—I’m referring to age here, not necessarily size—delight in the Barbie-verse, complete with a closet full of couture, a “dream house,” sporty cars, a plethora of impressive careers and an adoring metrosexual boyfriend.

I’m going against the feminist grain when I proclaim my love for Barbie dolls. It wasn’t until I minored in Women’s Studies at Northern Illinois University in the mid-’90s that I realized not all females were so enamored of the golden girl. There is plenty of venom aimed at the doll in certain academic circles and class discussions.

I’ll admit the arguments against Barbie have some validity. At 39-21-33, her measurements are not only unattainable, they’re absurd, and I certainly won’t refute the research that she would lack the requisite body fat for menstruation. But it’s silly to extrapolate from that information that Barbie, once such a close friend in childhood, becomes the enemy in adulthood, turning healthy young women into anorexics and bulimics.

Back in the ’80s, when Cabbage Patch Kids were the big toy trend and I had two of them, I never thought that they were setting the mold for what real babies should look like. In fact, I would have been appalled to discover that someone’s newly born baby could have passed for a Cabbage Patch Kid.

Barbie is a beautiful doll, but she’s a toy nonetheless, and I did not delude myself into thinking I could or should resemble her when I grew up. I also come from the unique perspective of being a minority—I’m Korean—so a busty, leggy doll with platinum blonde hair and wide blue eyes was never going to be a possibility for me.

I’ve read that dolls like Barbie have an adverse effect on minority children—the heart-wrenching story of Pecola in Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel, “The Bluest Eye,” comes to mind as a literary example—because they perpetuate the belief that beauty is best defined in white terms. I don’t want to discount those whose experiences run counter to my own, but I don’t consider Barbie to be the cause of prejudice in the world. That would be the territory of man, not plastic toy.

Without hating myself or having low self-esteem, I happily played with Barbie until junior high, sending her out on dates with Ken (and G.I. Joe when she desired variety), changing her outfit multiple times in an hour and sliding her—yes her, not Ken—behind the steering wheel of her camper van. Did she inspire eating disorders or depression in me? No. Did she lead to unrealistic expectations about womanhood? Well, maybe I hoped to one day have a wardrobe as great as hers, and that’s obviously not happened.

Not all girls treated their dainty dolls as kindly as I did. I’ve heard horror stories—at least they fill me with horror—from friends who flushed their heads down the toilet, cut off their hair, tossed them around in the dirt and drew on their faces with marker or pen. That to me was sacrilege, although I’m guessing many a feminist is snickering at the notion. (I, however, would point out that abuse against any woman, real or imagined, is reprehensible.)

Much like the maidens and princesses in fairy tales, Barbie almost always has blonde hair and blue eyes. But I had dolls from the international collection; they came from different countries and were designed accordingly. I had one from Scotland, Ireland, France and Korea. These were actually my favorite dolls, especially the Parisian one with copper-colored hair and a beauty mark who came clad in a slinky can-can dress.

Barbie didn’t impede my development into an intelligent, assertive young woman. If anything, she helped me push the boundaries of my imagination about how I’d interact in the adult world. I never looked at any of them as a substitute for my grown-up self. Rather, she was a heroine in a soap opera or epic miniseries with an exciting social life I could only dream about at that age. I enjoyed Barbie much like I enjoyed—and still enjoy—fairy tales.

The promise of transformation is a heady thing, and that’s the allure of both Barbie and fairy tales. They make you believe change is possible. Fairy tales have been reinvented and retold in recent years, spurring a wonderful book series edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow (or maybe it’s the other way around). Barbie’s appeal is enduring; every second at least three of the dolls are sold. She’s the ultimate siren, and I find it surprising she isn’t mentioned in Laren Stover’s “The Bombshell Manual of Style.”

Just last Christmas I succumbed to her powers of seduction once again. While shopping at Target’s toy department for my niece and nephew, I saw a Hello Kitty Barbie. It took me only a second’s delay before I scooped her up and rushed over to the cash register. She’s still in her box, resting comfortably on a shelf in my second bedroom.

Cheers to Barbie on her birthday. This dame is 50—and she still doesn’t need Botox. Lucky cougar.