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You've Come a Long Way, Barbie : If you're still blaming Barbie for your problems, or your daughter's, you've got a problem, girl : FOREVER BARBIE: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, By M.G. Lord (Willam Morrow & Co.: $25; 256 pp.)

December 11, 1994|Leslie Savan | Leslie Savan, advertising columnist for the Village Voice, is the author of the recently released essay collection, "The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture" (Temple University Press)

In 1960, my father hauled the family from St. Louis to the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles to campaign for Sen. Stuart Symington. John F. Kennedy won the nomination, of course, but the only political drama I remember from the trip concerned my Barbie doll.

My cousin Jackie and I were playing with our vintage Barbies, whose heavy-lidded, haughty gaze--so different from today's saucer-eyed stare--had first opened upon the world just one year before. I started to undo the strand of hair that held her blonde ponytail permanently in place. "Don't do that!" cuz warned, "We'll get in trouble!" But with the thrill of defying a power so big that it would know of my grooming felony, I undid it. Transgression turned into revelation: Miss Perfect Person's crowning glory was stitched around an empty circle. Barbie was as bald behind as Nikita Krushchev.

"Put it back, put it back," Jackie whispered, but I was so excited I was practically doing a St. Vitus' dance: We were the first girls ever, I was sure, to discover that the doll that so mesmerized us with her sexy sophistication, her long-limbed elegance, her astounding wardrobe--a perfection that always eluded us--was a lie. (I grew up to make a living writing advertising criticism.)

M. G. Lord, author of "Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll" and a former New York Newsday columnist, has a different primal Barbie memory: cross-dressing Ken and Midge. But instead of running off with the Barbie Liberation Organization and switching the voice boxes of talking G.I. Joes and Barbies (He whines, "Will we ever have enough clothes?"; she grunts, "Vengeance is mine!"), she wrote this book. Itsmix of social history, psychoanalytical insights and the Mattel marketing schemes that invoke them, is told with wit, curiosity and wry photos by Sylvia Plachy.

No doubt Ms. B. wields enough social clout to warrant yet another book: according to Mattel, American girls own an average of eight each and worldwide two Barbies are sold every second. Even if these numbers were only half true, the doll's impact would still be stunning. For many girls, "Barbie, with her shocking torpedo orbs, and Ken with his mysterious genital bulge," Lord writes, "were the extent of our exposure to the secrets of adulthood."

But the conclusion Lord draws from Ms. B. are quite different from, say, last year's "Mondo Barbie," an anthology of fiction and poetry inspired by more ambivalent, angrier memories of the doll. Coming on Barbie's 35th birthday, "Forever" is part of a larger appreciation, a revisionist effort to clear Barbie on charges of aiding and abetting "bimboism," consumerism and skeletal "supermodelism." Lord is saying that Barbie is more complex than that, and if you're still blaming Barbie for your problems--or your daughter's--you gotta problem, girl.

However, so does the book. But before revealing "Forever Barbie's" rather sizable bald spot, let's play with the lush mane of story--the Mattel history that Lord doesn't even have to tease into fullness.

Much like the Hollywood studio system discussed in Neal Gabler's 1988 history "An Empire of Their Own," Mattel was founded by outsiders who forged idealized images of Americans more American than most people could ever hope to be. Barbie was created by Ruth Handler, daughter of a Polish Jewish immigrant, who co-founded Mattel with her husband Elliot in 1945. Her seemingly all-American offspring was actually a direct steal from a postwar German doll named Lilli, a pornographic play-toy for men which itself was based on a gold-digging cartoon character that ran in the "Bild Zeitung." Lilli's hard-bitten, sluttish look shines through in the original, cat-eyed, unsmiling Barbie. Their 11 1/2-inch bodies are almost identical.

"Forever Barbie" moves from the marketing techniques that Mattel helped pioneer in order to sell a doll that most mothers sensed once walked the streets to Ruth's 1974 plea of no contest to falsifying SEC information (she went on to found a company that made mastectomy prostheses). Lord traces Barbie's many face-lifts--from Malibu Barbie to Madison Avenue Barbie--to today's smiley, vacuous girl. Multicultural Barbies did not appear until after the Watts riots, when Mattel funded a black-run company that produced the Sindana doll. Later came Barbie's black friends Christie and Julie, a black Barbie herself, and finally Shani, a doll with more authentic black features.

Lord also dives into the art world's use and abuse of B (Barbie mutilation is nearly as common among artists as among children): Barbie fetishes among gay and straight men; the obsessive collectors; and the woman who's endured more than 20 plastic surgery operations to model herself after the doll.

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