Thursday, March 9, 2017

My Life and Times with a Cultural Icon: My Friend Barbie

The spring 2016  Barbie "Fashionistas" line will include dolls with petite, tall and curvy physiques.

An old girlfriend of mine was in the news last year. Her name is Barbie: the perfect-I can-do- anything-girl with the unattainable figure. She made headlines because she's received a major--or should I say several makeovers. The spring 2016 Fashionistas line of dolls will feature four body types (including its "original" version), seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles. Now, many little girls, (and I'm sure a few older girls) will have the opportunity to have a Barbie doll that more accurately reflects them.

Mattel's Barbie has been on the market since 1959 and has been a presence in the lives of millions of  girls worldwide. She has been connected to 125 careers, has wardrobe pieces designed by some of the world's top fashion designers, and has perfected the art of perfection. Barbie is a cultural icon. At age fifty-six, she looks fantastic!

The Barbie doll was invented in 1959 by Ruth Handler (co-founder of Mattel), whose own daughter was named Barbara. (Barbie's boyfriend, Ken, was named after Ruth's son.)

Barbie's German influence, Lilli
Barbie was inspired by a German doll, Lilli. This doll was definitely not for children. Lilli was a flirtatious and brazen high end call girl. Originally, she was  created as a comic strip character for a Hamburg newspaper in 1956. In the comics, Lilli was witty, irreverent and sexually uninhibited.

The Lilli doll was originally sold as an adult novelty toy that could be purchased in tobacco shops, bars and adult-themed toy stores. According to Robin Gerber, the author of Barbie and Ruth, “Men got Lilli dolls as gag gifts at bachelor parties, put them on their car dashboard, dangled them from the rearview mirror, or gave them to girlfriends as a suggestive keepsake.”

The dolls eventually became popular with children. In 1956, one of the dolls caught the attention of Ruth Handler's fifteen year old daughter, Barbara, while on vacation in Switzerland. Three years later, the first Barbie doll was unveiled at the New York Toy Show. The full name of the first doll was Barbie Millicent Roberts, from Willows, Wisconsin.  Her job was that of teenage fashion model. And the rest as they say, is history.

A few years ago I shared Barbie's racy past with my mother who replied, "I knew there was something I didn't like about that doll! My first instinct was to never let you play with those things!" To say that my mother was overprotective would be a gross understatement. I'm grateful she never knew of Barbie's German counterpart until recently. I know several women, who as children, were never allowed to play with Barbies because of her sophisticated and sensuous appearance.

My own relationship with Barbie began when I was old enough to take notice of the Saturday morning commercials that aired during network cartoon blocks of Saturday mornings past. Remember, the fact that these cartoons entertained children was secondary to their primary purpose, which was to sell toys.

I remember the Barbie commercials that featured the exciting life of this plastic superstar. Barbie had the perfect house, an outfit for every occasion and a boyfriend. She was beautiful, confident and led a glamorous life full of adventure. I wanted to be a part of that world.

At age five, I received my first Barbies (Barbie, her friend Midge, and a carrying case of clothes), hand-me-downs from my older cousin. My world changed forever!

My father always regretted never purchasing Mattel stock back then. Over the years my younger sister and I would accumulate about thirty dolls,  Dream houses, carrying cases, vehicles and many outfits. As a little girl I had plenty of beautiful baby dolls. But after Barbie came into my life, I never looked at them again. I joined the Barbie Fan Club, read Barbie Magazine and Barbie novels. (This was in a pre-internet world.)

For  me, Barbie would become more than a doll. She became a friend and mentor. I'll stop short of calling her a role model. When I was seven, my family moved to a new house. The move meant that I was no longer able  to see my best friend Beverly everyday as I had since we were toddlers. There were no kids my age on our new street. In school, I was shy and introverted. Barbie filled a void.

With Barbie, I elevated make believe to an art form. My Barbies took vacations to the Caribbean, Asia and  Europe. One summer a few of my Barbie dolls went on an archeological dig in my backyard.

While my Barbies always worked as teenaged fashion models, they explored different careers. At one point, I had a doll who was a news reporter, one who was a makeup artist and another who was a teacher. I had dolls who were rock stars, photographers and artists. A couple were attending college. And yes, I even had one doll who was a wife and mother. One of my Francie dolls (Francie was Barbie's Modern cousin from California) was married to Alan, Ken's best friend and the only male doll in the line I ever had. (He was a gift from my grandmother.) Together, they were the proud parents of a Little Kiddle. These miniature dolls were not part of the Barbie line, but my sister received one for a birthday. We condensed Francie's pregnancy to an afternoon one summer.

There were times when the dolls accompanied me to school as part of elaborate dioramas. I considered dioramas "acting jobs" for my Barbies. Little did I know I was foreshadowing my own future as an actor. The detailed tableaus were done as parts of book reports in English, a report on Paris in French, and once, Barbie portrayed Mary Magdalene in a religion class project (I went to Catholic school.) My projects featuring Barbie always earned me A's, and maybe a little extra attention from my teachers and classmates. 

Contemporary Christie

Christie was introduced in 1968 

In 1968, I received a Talking Christie for Christmas. Christie was Barbie's black friend, and the first full sized African-American doll in the line. (Black Francie in 1967 was the first.) I honestly don't remember thinking that this doll that resembled me. I do remember thinking she was beautiful.

There were two items in Barbie's world that my parents never purchased for my sister and me: a wedding gown, and Ken (Barbie's longtime boyfriend.) I don't know if these were conscious decisions  by my parents, but in retrospect, it makes sense. My parents constantly told us that our educations should be the most important part of our young lives. Perhaps thoughts of boyfriends and dream weddings would be bright shiny diversions. Later, when we became teenagers, dating was never encouraged because boys could distract us from our studies. (I didn't have a boyfriend until I graduated from high school.) My parents were raising us to be independent, intelligent and confident women.

Barbie remained a constant in my life until I was twelve, a little longer than most girls. On the first day of seventh grade I met a new girl, Amy, who'd transferred to my school. Seventh grade is a rough place, especially for a new girl. I saw her sitting by herself and introduced myself, which was a small victory in itself considering my shyness. We spent that first day together as I showed her the campus and helped her navigate the large school. Amy was confident, outgoing and fun. She wore makeup, had great clothes... and a boyfriend. I quickly realized that Amy was a cool girl. It was only a matter of time before she found her way to the cool clique, though we'd always remain friendly.

But after that first week, and influenced by Amy's example, I began to pay attention to myself.  I was now interested in clothes for myself instead of Barbie. I started experimenting with makeup and reading Teen and Seventeen magazines. I was growing up and developing opinions and a style of my own.  Most importantly, it was becoming easier for me to make friends. I no longer needed Barbie. Our friendship had lasted for seven years, but it was finally time to go our separate ways.

For years, my dolls were stored in the attic of the house where I grew up. When my parents sold their house and moved into a condominium, I lovingly packed up the dolls and their extensive wardrobe before shipping them to my home in California. They're currently in a plastic storage container in the back of a closet in my home office.

Teresa Barbie's Latina friend in 1988 
Teresa Now

Many times, while shopping at retailers who have entire aisles dedicated to Barbie, I find myself looking at the new dolls. For me it's like visiting old friends. The Barbie universe has become quite diverse. For several years you've been able to find Barbies with different complexions and hair textures which reflect different cultures and ethnicities. For example, Teresa, (Barbie's Latina friend),  joined Barbie's world in 1988.

Over the past few days I've read different responses to the new petite, tall and curvy Barbies. Most are positive. Many comments come from mom's who are glad their little girls now have dolls that project more realistic and varied body images. Some little girls called Curvy Barbie "chubby."  (Poor Barbie. Her figure has been a topic of conversation for decades.) In focus groups, little girls have overwhelmingly gravitated to the doll with blue hair (think Katy Perry.)  To me, they're all just  pretty dolls.

The Classic Figure
Over the years, cruel insults have been hurled at Barbie. She's been called too skinny, too busty and  far too sexy for a child's toy. Many have called her a bad influence and a poor role model. Honestly, isn't this a bit much? Shouldn't little girls look to their mothers, teachers and other prominent--and real women in their lives when looking for positive influences and role models? While Barbie may be a cultural icon, in the end, she's only a doll.

As a little girl, I adored Barbie. She served a purpose by helping me imagine the world of possibilities ahead of me. She was a devoted friend and was always there when I needed her. When the time was right, I put her away along with my other childhood toys, and said goodbye.

I never thought Barbie was too thin, busty or sexy.  I never worried or cared that I'd never attain her perfect figure, have her flowing long hair or be successful in numerous careers. I accepted Barbie just as she was...just like she accepted me.

Here are some additional vintage commercials that were too good not to share! The 1970's spot features Maureen McCormick; Marcia Brady from THE BRADY BUNCH.

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