Forever young

Over the years, she's enraged feminists, beguiled little girls, and built an empire. But does Barbie, at 50, still matter?

By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / March 5, 2009
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Less than a foot tall, she has captivated young imaginations and courted controversy from the moment she arrived. Gone with the flow, adapted to changing times, and, to be frank, had some work done. Been pilloried, parodied, accessorized, analyzed, novelized, and fetishized to within an inch of her fabricated life.

Some question her iconic stature in a world populated by Bratz dolls and Britney videos, a rather harsh thing to say about an American legend who turns 50 next week.

She is, of course, Barbie, the original teenage fashion doll, who hits the Big Five-O on Monday. The milestone is not going unnoticed. Mattel, the toy maker that introduced Barbie five decades and a billion units ago, is rolling out commemorative dolls and staging events around All Things Barbie in an attempt to recapture market share lost over the past decade. Biographers are publishing, critics are criticizing, and retailers are hoping for a Barbie bonanza in a cratering economy, even as domestic sales of the doll have fallen by as much as 12 percent in recent years - down from $1.7 billion in 2003 - and Mattel has tried to sue the Bratz line, introduced in 2001 and now Barbie's biggest rival, right out of existence.

Nevertheless, Barbie remains a cultural and commercial force, the best selling - and most polarizing - toy doll ever. Generations of women have grown up with her wardrobes, careers, relatives, pets, playhouses, and romances (on and off) with Ken, a.k.a. the Boy Toy Who Won't Commit. Feminists, educators, and others have long accused her of sending harmful messages about body image and consumerism.

Ageless in many ways, Barbie is not immune to age issues, to be sure. As her target audience has grown younger, sliding downward from grade schoolers to preschoolers, more sophisticated, interactive dolls, toys, and video games have moved into her neighborhood. Once considered edgy, the first anatomically "adult" doll marketed to schoolgirls, Barbie now seems tame, a nursery-room innocent, compared to the real-life Barbies like Pamela Anderson and Jessica Simpson, who parade across the pop-culture stage. Tweens, meanwhile, have been lured away by the pouty-lipped Bratz dolls and by the Hannah Montana line, the Disney Co.'s entry into the fashion-doll sweepstakes. Sometimes it's hard to recall what all the fuss around Barbie was about, anyway.

"To be honest, at this age those (past controversies) don't play a part," says Kathy Wentworth, 42, who grew up with Barbie dolls and was helping her 5-year-old daughter, Colleen, pick out a Barbie at a Peabody toy store last week. "She just thinks Barbie is beautiful."

"And fun to play with," chimes in Colleen, who got her first Barbie at age 3, according to her mother, and now owns about 20 more.

Nostalgia notwithstanding, never underestimate Barbie's power to stir emotions, positive and negative.

"I'm convinced I became a novelist by playing with Barbie and constructing elaborate narratives around her," says Yona Zeldis McDonough, author of "The Barbie Chronicles." If she could send along a birthday message, says McDonough, "It would be, you go, girl. And you keep on going."

Critics like Wheelock College education professor Diane Levin are more likely to say: stop. Barbie "actually worries me much more than it did 30 years ago," says Levin. "The whole culture - see things like Hannah Montana - has caught up with Barbie, enveloping young girls in a marketing cocoon."

It's a debate as old as Barbie herself. Is she a vehicle by which girls can imagine themselves becoming anything they want to in life, from fashion editor to presidential candidate? Or is she a gateway toy into a world of hypersexualized grade schoolers, eating disorders, and shopaholics? Both, perhaps?

"There's always been this dichotomy between what girls do with the doll and what adults think they do with the doll," says Robin Gerber, author of "Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her," a book that paints Barbie as "both a controversial icon and a money machine" and her creator, Mattel executive Ruth Handler, as an unapologetic defender of the doll's educational value.

Among Gerber's revelations: Handler, a free-spirited woman, faced strong opposition to Barbie from within her own company; Barbie was originally modeled on a German doll marketed as an adult sex toy; Mattel made a risky, unprecedented bet by heavily advertising on television shows like "The Mickey Mouse Club"; Ken Handler, Ruth's son, was a closeted gay man who hated the Ken doll (named after him) and later died of AIDS; and Handler, a breast cancer survivor, spent her later years making prosthetic breasts for cancer survivors. She died in 2002.

To Gerber, Handler is the story's unsung heroine and key to understanding how revolutionary, and enduring, Barbie remains. As for controversies over boobs, bling, and body image, "I guess we haven't moved all that far in 50 years," says Gerber, who calls it unfair to blame Barbie for a host of societal ills.

Critics like Levin strongly disagree, however. Last year, the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood, an organization Levin cofounded, gave its Worst Toy of the Year Award to Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader Barbie for what it called "a host of harmful expectations about what girls are supposed to be like."

Beyond the dubious wisdom of modeling a child's doll after an NFL cheerleader, says Levin, is a Barbie marketing machine hawking everything from breakfast cereals to bedsheets. The real lesson Barbie teaches impressionable young girls? Not "try, try, try," according to Levin, but, "buy, buy, buy."

"My other problem with Barbie," she says, "is that it transforms play from creative, imaginative, growth-producing to controlled, programmed, imitational. It produces robots." Meanwhile, young girls start wanting to dress like Barbie, look like Barbie, be like Barbie, contends Levin, coauthor, with Jean Kilbourne, of "So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids."

Toy industry analyst Stephanie Oppenheim is among those waiting to see whether Mattel can retool the Barbie line to appeal to older girls - or continue to be victimized by so-called "age compression," which causes kids to leave toyland earlier and earlier.

"I honestly cannot find an 8-year-old who plays with Barbie anymore," says Oppenheim, whose Oppenheim Toy Portfolio reviews children's media. Walk into a preschooler's bedroom, she says, and you'll see piles of headless Barbies, younger girls lacking the manual skills to dress and undress the doll properly. Similarly, the whole Ken-romance story line has faded, she says, as hair styling and makeup choices supplant boyfriend banter.

Bratz dolls have cut into Barbie's popularity, Oppenheim concedes, but she thinks there's life in the old girl yet. "To me, Barbie is at her best when she's smart," she says. "And by that I mean, when she's portrayed as an astronaut or doctor or teacher rather than fashion queen or emblem of some unattainable body image. What happens to the brand in the next couple of years is crucial."

Reinvented and re-accessorized, beloved and scorned, Barbie is still on the scene, commanding attention. Happy 50th, kid. Here's hoping you don't spend your birthday waiting for Ken to commit.

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