When Barbie creator Ruth Handler died in May 2002, a friend of mine who writes for the Guardian asked whether I knew any anecdotes about Barbie that would be appropriate for an appreciation piece. I didn't know any production secrets or stories about Barbie dolls bringing people together, though I have read many of the latter; I had only my personal experience to offer. Part of this essay was written as notes to her (of which a single line ended up in the article), but then I was already "out" to her as an adult collector of Barbie, which makes me the scourge of certain feminists despite the fact that I'm regularly labeled a feminazi by readers of my reviews.
In addition to the Star Trek action figures I brought with me to college from my childhood home, I kept my Glinda the Good Witch. She was also made by Mego, with the same model body as the Uhura action figure, and had wonderful red hair to offset her outrageously pink dress. Though my sister owned most of the Wizard of Oz set, I never cared about Dorothy or the others; I just wanted the powerful sorceress who used her powers for the benefit of others.
When Mattel released Cock Ring Ken -- excuse me, Earring Magic Ken -- and scandal ensued, culminating in a People magazine article inquiring whether Ken was gay, of course I had to have one. Earring Magic Ken wears a (fake) purple leather vest, a mesh top, an earring in one ear, and a suspicious-looking ring on a necklace. Mattel's explanation was that little girls were supposed to hang charms from the ring. My Ken has never left his box, and he's the last Ken I've bought that didn't come with rooted hair, but that's getting ahead of myself. In the next decade I bought the Barbie Star Trek gift set (with Barbie and Ken dressed in original series uniforms) and inherited an X-Files Barbie and Ken dressed as Mulder and Scully that had been damaged during shipment to my employer, AnotherUniverse.com, but I really didn't pay attention to the explosion of the adult collectible market.
Then Mattel released an anniversary set of Wizard of Oz dolls, including a beautiful Glinda with the newer, smaller Barbie eyes and a talking wand. It went on sale for $17.95 at Toys 'R Us. And there in the toy store, on an aisle I had somehow avoided despite buying action figures for myself and toys for my kids in the same store for years, I rediscovered Barbie. My primary interest at first was to find a blue-eyed blonde that could be modified into a Kai Winn action figure should I ever meet a costume designer willing to take on the challenge. But soon Mattel released a Wonder Woman Barbie. Then they released a set of Hollywood Movie Star Barbies, classic Grace Kelly and Rita Hayworth lookalikes. And then came the Addams Family gift set.
So my bedroom, which was already overrun with Trek and Xena action figures, slowly became home to a small Barbie collection -- not the really expensive limited editions and not the play line, though good friends occasionally sent me Barbies who resembled famous women. Less good friends, however, generally reacted in horror when they discovered that I had Barbies. Actually, "horror" is putting it nicely -- they reacted as though I'd betrayed the women's movement and proved myself unfit as a progressive mother. These are people who had no issues with keeping an athame or books on lesbian sex where the children could find them, mind you; in my circles, Barbie was considered a far more corrupting force.
I just can't get worked up about this. I received my first Barbie -- a Talking Barbie -- in 1970 when my younger sister Nicole was born. The Barbie was compensation for not being allowed to dress up Nicole, who couldn't talk and wouldn't be able to for many long months. My Barbie had thick dark hair like me and came in a brightly patterned dress that would probably sell well in a vintage '70s clothing store now, were it full-size, if I still owned it. Playing Barbie was a social activity; my best friend across the street had an older model who had been given a terrible haircut and had most of her facial paint rubbed off, but we could still have swimming parties in the sink with our dolls, and set them up to have tea together while we were fighting over who got which color popsicle.
When my sister grew old enough for dolls of her own, our Barbies would whisper bad words together, and if my mother caught us, we would claim it was the dolls' idea. I can't recall a single instance of acting out what I wanted to be when I grew up with Barbie. The Sunshine Family -- Mattel's granola alternative to Barbie, with musical instruments and ranch house -- became my serious play dolls when they arrived on the scene. At some point I also acquired Barbie's sister Skipper and inevitable boyfriend Ken, but they were never any sort of models for my ideal family. Nor did I have any emerging social consciousness regarding Barbie's unrealistic figure or extensive, expensive wardrobe -- my doll made do with a couple of handmade outfits, plus a beautiful "ball gown," also handmade, purchased at a craft fair at an artist's colony for under $5.
I've been a no-makeup-and-comfortable-shoes feminist for years, but Barbie doesn't bother me as a role model for girls. These days she's a doctor, a horse trainer, a princess, a costume designer, a basketball player, a teacher, a world traveler, and a teenager with a cat whose litter box needs to be cleaned. She's also been President AND First Lady, a trick no other U.S. citizen has pulled off. Her body doesn't look any more unattainable to me than does Sarah Michelle Gellar's on Buffy or Melissa Joan Hart's on Sabrina -- few of us are destined ever to look like the young women held up to young girls as role models by the media, but that's an issue that started with Hollywood rather than toy manufacturers.
I think Barbie has been unfairly maligned. With her new laptop computer that matches her desk accessories, her ability to morph a business suit into a dance outfit, her bright pink self-cleaning kitchen appliances, her made-to-order boyfriends and multi-ethnic best friends, and her ability simultaneously to be a 15-year-old babysitter, a 25-year-old corporate executive, a 30ish schoolteacher and an ageless television star from a long-ago sitcom all at once, what other woman has ever come so close to having it all?