Barbie had 130 different professions: She was a doctor, a horse breeder, a vet, a stewardess, a pilot, a police officer and a fire fighter. She worked as a teacher, led large companies and even ran for president, but she also sang in pop groups. It was all effortless and she was always in a good mood. She never missed the chance to have a picnic with her friends; the picnic basket was always full. If the mood took her, she would jump into her red Ferrari and tear around, dressed in a tight jumpsuit—what woman could ever compare?
In the Netherlands, Barbie has turned 50. In the U.S., she is already 55. She was invented in 1959 by Ruth Handler, owner of the firm Mattel, for her young teenage daughter Barbara, who wanted to play with a grownup doll. Barbie's boyfriend Ken followed two years later, named after Handler's son. The rest is absurdly successful history. How many children today, even in the poorer parts of the world, don't know who Barbie is?
First-Generation Barbie Owner
I am a first-generation Barbie owner, and got my heart's desire when a Barbie exhibition opened at the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam—Barbie would never leave the house without her handbag. In truth, my coveted first Barbie was not actually a Barbie at all. I could barely disguise my disappointment when, for my ninth birthday, instead of the breathtaking woman with her firm pointy breasts and a swimsuit like the black and white movie stars used to wear, I was given good little Skipper. She was Barbie's little sister; she wore a red sailor-style swimsuit, a sensible private school uniform and had childish roller-skates. She didn't have mysterious, half-closed eyes with thick lashes, but innocent blue ones. My mother had decided that flat-chested Skipper was the more suitable choice, and certainly she was more like me. But although she may have been the good one, she was not somebody you would dream longingly of. For my next birthday, my dear mother accidentally bought me Midge, Barbie's best friend. She was also a stereotype—the not so pretty one: She had freckles, a snub nose and was less successful, but she was very nice and never got jealous of her best friend.
Ten years later, when I was a student and you couldn't be anything other than a feminist, Barbie was unmasked as a foul sexist, capitalist icon. If we ever had children, which didn't seem likely, we would never give them such a vile stupid doll. We spotted that Barbie had outrageously unrealistic proportions and was borderline anorexic. Her only purpose was to wear the commercial outfits churned out by the fashion houses. Another 15 years on, my own daughter got her first Barbie. She had changed, though, and her appeal had sunk to the level of kindergarten children; no longer was she expensive and chic, now she could be found at the local drugstore. It was, however, the only doll my daughter played with.
The Feminist Critique
Feminist criticism never stops. Just last year feminists went crazy when a life-size Barbie Dream House was opened. “Let your daughters dream of being smart, not sexy!” was scrawled angrily across their banner. What a misjudgment. I regret Barbie’s preference for bubble-gum pink, but those demonstrators forgot that Barbie had earned every cent of the money that paid for her Dream House with her own hard work. How many real women have managed this?
Sex—that is something in which Barbie barely shows any interest. Okay, so she has been engaged to Ken for 53 years, but what a sad case he is. The fact that he has a pathetic blob in place of his manhood is telling; he is just an accessory. He is either to be found wearing a tuxedo, zooming around on a skateboard or slurping cocktails on the beach. He is always wearing Bermuda shorts, and has a surfboard or a ghetto blaster under his arm. Apparently he doesn't have to pay for any of it. No, he leaves that to Barbie. What a loser.
I think that the larger-than-life figure of Barbie has done more for the emancipation of generations of girls than any number of educational programs. Barbie taught you that as a woman, you could do anything, that there was always a choice. Barbie never had children, we never see her in domestic drudgery and she isn't some exploited peasant or a prostitute or the victim of sexual violence. Barbie would never let anything like that happen to her.
What struck me most about that moving Barbie exhibition was how she has become more ordinary as time has gone by. She used to have such stylish outfits—even in jeans and a striped T-shirt, Barbie always looked amazing—but they've been exchanged for bland non-descript outfits, which might appeal to girls anywhere. Barbie's eyes have become larger and more surprised looking, more like a typical doll’s eyes. A concession to small children, perhaps?
We have established that you can become anything you want, though, so could a doll become a dumb blonde again?