The Barbie doll has played a prominent role in so many girlhoods, including my own.
So, why now, as women, do many of us want her banished from the lives of our daughters?
Barbie is the “incarnation of anti-feminism,” I heard a teenager say recently. This has been the prevalent message about Barbie to recent generations.
For decades, we have heard feminists and other Barbie detractors say the Mattel doll encourages anorexia, that it makes a fetish of breasts and that it places too much importance on beauty rather than brains.
I have been inclined to accept this description of Barbie. I have always thought of her as a negative role model for young girls. But is the doll itself dangerous? I’m not so sure.
Despite adjustments to her original 1959 physique — Barbie has had a breast reduction and a waist enlargement to protect her from falling flat on her face — she still sports an anatomy that is just too ideal to be true.
She looks more like Paris Hilton than you or me, with our dull brown hair, our thick thighs and our ape feet.
And despite Barbie’s attempts to fit into the modern workforce (mainly by dressing the part — in 1984 she was sold with a briefcase, calculator, newspaper and business card), she has never been a convincing icon of hard work, industriousness, professionalism, academic success, or talent of any kind.
In fact, Barbie’s reputation as a “bimbo” has only increased over the decades.
In 1965, Barbie came with a diet book that said, Don’t eat. And in 1992, each Teen Talk Barbie spoke four out of 270 possible phrases, including “Will we ever have enough clothes?”, “I love shopping!” and “Math is tough!”
Barbie, more than any other pop culture figure, is the symbol of femininity. She is the kind of pretty that the Paris Hiltons of the world are thriving to emulate.
Cindy Jackson, a 52-year-old Ohio native was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for having had the most plastic surgeries — all of which were done in her quest to become a Living Doll, the title of her autobiography.
“I looked at a Barbie doll when I was six and said, ‘This is what I want to look like.’”
Jackson said playing with Barbie as a child fueled her escapist fantasies. “In my imagination I dreamed of a happy and glamorous life for my doll.”
I remember those days. While I sat on a cold basement floor in my play clothes, Barbie donned a shimmering evening gown, her luxurious blond hair piled high. She drove her pink sports car to the ball, where she met Ken, and danced the night away.
Two women over 50 reminisced about similar childhood experiences during a 2002 Barbie convention in Denver. Kitty Alegre and Joane Baumer made their dreams come true by volunteering to turn themselves into “living Barbies” for the meet.
The New York Times wrote: “Kitty wore a blue-on-blue sparkle lamé evening dress with a white satin bow. Joane was decked out in an aqua taffeta mini with chiffon oversheer, sprinkled with gold glitter and paired with shimmery butterscotch hose.
“Each outfit was topped off with an equally ostentatious swing coat and bubble-bob brown wig. Kitty took particular pleasure trimming her coat in marabou, a fabric she wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing in real life.”
Desperate housewives? Not quite.
Joane Baumer at the time was a physician and chair of the family medicine department at the large public hospital in California. Kitty Alegre was a registered nurse heading up two units at Ventura County Medical Centre in California; she flew herself to Denver in her own Beechcraft T-34.
Each woman raised children while pursuing her career.
Dave Cullen of the NYT wrote that most of the women at the conference were in fact not unsatisfied housewives at all but successful professionals — “ambitious overachievers.”
Cindy Jackson, the woman who has sliced her way to Barbie perfection has not dwindled away her time as a wall flower waiting for Ken to notice her either.
Before her surgical transformation, Jackson was in a punk band. Now, her blond ambition has propelled her to become a best-selling author, the CEO of a successful beauty product line, a model, and a tireless hobnobber whose website includes countless photos of her embracing other celebrities.
And while her new life may sound a tad shallow to most of us, would we really discourage our daughters from similar “ambitious overachievement” without the Barbie makeover?
The quest for Barbie perfection may be more about the pressure for perfection in general.
Isn’t the dangerous part about Barbie that her unnatural physical image and the values she encompasses are more pervasive than God?
All I know for sure right now is that two Barbie dolls have recently entered my home and my two-year-old daughter is more interested in these than any other toy she has ever held.
She has never seen a Barbie commercial or a Barbie movie. And she is almost as happy when Barbie’s head is perched upon the body of a plastic dragon named Blue Thunder.
I haven’t taken them away (yet), partly because I’m too fascinated by her fascination.
Is it possible that there is something innate in little girls that make us love Barbie?
Would it be more harmful to her development as a woman if I enforced a strict ban against Barbie, against femininity, against all frivolousness?
What I might choose is to never buy one. If Barbie represents the opposite of the values we want our daughters to embrace, our refusal to perpetuate them will send her a powerful message.
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.