If you self-identify as a nerd, your favorite childhood toys may have included chemistry sets, board games, and the ever-popular action figures. I was obsessed with my superhero action figures and some of them (including my beloved Catwoman doll) even managed to survive my childhood. But since I’ve always loved fashion, I liked Barbie dolls a lot as well. Barbie played a big part in the formative years of hundreds of kids: say what you will, she’s a true cultural voice.
Writer M.G. Lord explores the many aspects of the toy in her book, Forever Barbie (1994, updated 2004). Though it’s been out for a while, it remains an interesting and well-researched look at the archetypal Mattel doll. With Barbie’s recent 50th anniversary (2009), there’s no better time to examine her complex legacy.
After a brief overview of a Barbie convention, Lord devotes several chapters to the story of her creator, Ruth Handler. During the 1940’s , Handler and her husband Elliott progressed from selling Plexiglas furniture to plastic toys, finally forming Mattel in 1945. She got the idea for Barbie from watching her daughter and friends play with paper dolls, noting that they would have the dolls “reflect the adult world around them”. She wanted to “take this play pattern and three-dimensionalize it,” producing a doll geared toward children envisioning themselves as adults.
Handler finally saw the type of figure she wanted on a 1955 vacation to Switzerland- the long-legged and voluptuous Lilli doll, basically Barbie with “racy” clothes and black pumps for feet. Lord provides a detailed account of how Mattel’s artists and manufacturers adapted the Lilli features for the first Barbies, and how ad agency Carson/Roberts crafted her role as a fashion model. Early market research showed that girls were wildly enthused about Babs. Some moms were not, complaining that she had “too much of a figure” and could be a “cute decoration for a man’s bar.” Nonetheless, Barbie was a hit. Her success made the Handlers and Mattel the leaders of a toy empire for years to come.
Forever Barbie is extremely readable because the author skillfully blends facts to delight the average toy geek with a variety of cultural ways to view Barbie. There are chapters on the doll`s status as a “transitional object” to help the child recognize the boundaries of self, her relationship to class issues, and a great analysis of the 1960’s Barbie novels. One of the best chapters- “Our Barbies, Our Selves”- is all about the Barbie/body image controversy. Lord gives the problem an objective look, citing commentary from eating disorder sufferers and therapists, while noting that most eating disorders probably spring from a combination of family and cultural disorders. She also acknowledges the importance of Todd Haynes’ 1987 short film Superstar, a chilling look at Karen Carpenter’s anorexia made entirely with Barbie and Ken dolls.
My only real caveat about this book is that not a whole lot of space is devoted to how kids actually play with the famous doll. There are isolated anecdotes, such as the one in the preface in which Barbie is summoned as doctor to an ailing Bratz doll. And RuPaul is quoted on her childhood play with Barbie. It would have been fun to hear from more of the toy’s gay fans. I’m sure many of us will suddenly recall their long-ago play patterns as they read. I certainly did as I was reminded of how my Barbies fought battles, dated superheroes and GI Joes, and played jungle explorer. Forever Barbie is also chock-full of photos of vintage dolls and Barbie art, though regrettably none are in color. In summation, it’s rare to find a fun and intelligent read about a favorite toy, and Lord’s opus certainly fits the bill.
Guest post written by T. Johnson. T. Johnson is a blogger, au pair, and part-time tutor who has been obsessed with science fiction and comics since roughly first grade. One of her life`s big revelations was discovering Wonder Woman comics-another milestone was starting to read the works of Heinlein and Aldous Huxley. She has always been convinced that girls can be as truly nerdy as any fanboy.