Although retailers last year cut back on Barbie orders for the first time in a decade, the toy still reigns as queen of the Mattel lot in El Segundo, accounting for $2 billion of the company's $4.8 billion in annual sales. More than a billion Barbies have been sold in 150 countries, says Mattel, noting that the typical American girl between 3 and 11 now owns 10 Barbie dolls.
Her imitators--Tammy, Tressy, Dawn and the rest--just never measured up. And the Happy to Be Me doll, introduced in 1991 by High Self Esteem Toys in Minnesota as a more zaftig representation of womanhood, fizzled after three years. Girls just don't fantasize about being plump.
There are Barbie clubs, Barbie conventions, Barbie magazines and newsletters. As Barbara Rausch, who drew Barbie comics, once said: "Barbies are like potato chips. You can't have just one."
Of course, not only girls love Barbie. Joe Blitman, 49, an ex-screenwriter who says he "fled into Barbie's arms" when Hollywood wanted to murder one of his scripts, is now in the Barbie doll business with partner Kevin Mulligan in Los Feliz, where they claim to sell more vintage Barbies (1959-72) than anyone.
Like most boys, Blitman collected model cars, not Barbies, as a kid. "Men may have wanted Barbie," he says, "but they certainly didn't get it." They got GI Joe, a doll masquerading as an action figure. Today, Blitman estimates, 20% of Barbie collectors are men, predominantly gay men.
He dismisses the notion that Barbie has created body angst for two generations of women.
"Quite honestly, little girls don't think that Barbie is what women look like. . . . But adults have sort of fastened on the doll as the she-devil in vinyl."
Angel or devil, Barbie is a survivor. She's been skewered by feminists, imitated by drag queens, spoofed by writers and desecrated by artists. In December 1993, Barbies appeared on store shelves in 43 states bellowing "Eat lead, cobra!" while GI Joes chirped "Let's go shopping!" The Barbie Liberation Army, organized by a UC San Diego grad student, had switched voice boxes on hundreds of the dolls.
And not everything Barbie has touched has turned to gold. A Mattel publicist was baffled when asked what ever happened to Breakfast With Barbie, a cereal product in a Barbie pink box.
But Barbie knows what becomes a legend most--and it isn't just marabou, sequins and gold lame. It's success.
Should anyone dare to usurp Barbie's name without permission, Mattel lawyers pounce. Mark Napier of Los Angeles learned this the hard way when the Barbie patrol fixed its sights on his irreverent Web site, the Distorted Barbie. Napier, a 37-year-old who designs software for the finance industry, had to change the name of the site to $arbie.
"Mainly what I want to do with the site"--which presents Barbie with "digitally morphed improvements"--"is to show that this icon is such a powerful influence on us." In Napier's view, that influence has not been totally negative. "There was a time when Barbie had a very positive influence," he says. "Barbie presented this image of an independent young woman, employed."
But "in the end," he notes, "a doll is a doll. We have to remind ourselves of that."
Napier says he focused on Barbie because she is "the most ready symbol of how it all works"--advertising and marketing and "how images are presented to us and create beliefs in our culture, how these icons are so pervasive. Barbie's right up there with religious icons in terms of the recognition she has all over this planet."
Regrettably, Napier says, not everyone visiting his Web site gets the message. "I get people who are looking for collectible Barbies."
Of course, Barbie has an official Web site, where, for about $40, girls can create a customized Barbie with their choices of hair and eye color, skin tone, wardrobe and personality. And, for about $35 each, there are Barbie CD-ROMs such as Detective Barbie and the Barbie Adventure Riding Club.
Since stepping out in her high heels and zebra-striped swimsuit in 1959, Barbie has been exhibited at the Smithsonian, painted by Andy Warhol and dissected by scholars. She has had plastic surgery and breast reduction. She weathered the turbulent '60s, when young women wore granny dresses and peace symbols, and emerged triumphant as disco Barbie in the '70s and Holiday Barbie in the me-too '80s.
Always politically correct, Mattel has introduced black Barbies and Asian Barbies and Latina Barbies and, in Share a Smile Becky, a Barbie friend in a wheelchair. (Unfortunately, the chair didn't fit into the elevator of Barbie's $200 dream house, creating another stir.)
Barbie has a staff of hairdressers at Mattel who "root" her hair in just-so circles, making certain that each head of hair weighs precisely so many grams--before it gets the pull test (the first thing a young Barbie owner is apt to do with her doll is strip off her clothes and yank at her hair).