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Over the course of 25 textual assessments of the immortal Barbie, including essays, fantasies, reminiscences, modest proposals, and poems by such writers as Jane Smiley, Erica Jong, Anna Quindlen, and Carol Shields (“and many more!” reads the cover), Miss Plastic of 1959 is examined from every angle, taken apart, undressed and redressed, honored, scorned, and—oh, indubitably—semiotically deconstructed in terms of her world’s “disturbing paradigm of contemporary female adolescence.” Never once in 240 pages including index (“Chatty Cathy; Christie; Cisneros, Sandra; Clark, Kenneth…”) and notes do any of the writers of The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty mention that Barbie and the toy-and-doll world over which she reigns is fundamentally a source of pleasure, a lovely plaything.
That would mean acknowledging that Barbie and her compatriots are children’s toys, and she was long ago wrestled out of the hands of tots and placed on the unreachable “Discourse” shelf by insecure feminists and overprotective mommy scribes. The just-a-toy argument cuts no ice with such commentators, and very little even with the most sensible of the Barbie Chronicles lot, including Barbie biographer M.G. Lord. Of course, Barbie is not “just a toy,” but her function as a source of play and pleasure for children is one important aspect of her existence, and for 23 writers to overlook it seems to indicate that no thinking grown-up is willing to overpower a sexy and politically charged hypothesis with the mundane truth that a thing can sometimes mean itself.
Barbie’s toy role is arguably more important, for example, than her role as the embodiment of the sexual unease of the postwar social evolution, as in Stephanie Coontz’s blazingly obvious discovery that Barbie was born in the ’50s (“Golden Oldie”), a finding whose ramifications Coontz explores by posing Barbie in a lineup with all the usual suspects—Gidget, Tammy, Donna Reed, Marilyn Monroe, Margaret Mead (and many more!). The virgin-whore fool’s gold Coontz digs out of the revisionist sociological rubble is symptomatic of the book’s chief logical fallacy, a penchant for either/or-ing Barbie’s meaning that precludes any claims she might make for a middle ground.
Although the more evenhanded critics raise others’ deck-stacked findings only to hedge the reliability of their own more reliable conclusions, Barbie-orchestrated cause-and-effect rhetoric mars the logical flow. In his admirably wide-ranging and middle-ground-accepting introductory essay, “Who’s That Girl?,” Steven C. Dubin cites psychiatrist Richard Green’s study (The “Sissy Boy Syndrome” and the Development of Homosexuality), in which all “feminine boys” studied played with Barbie as youths. So did four out of 10 so-called masculine boys, but, the study argues without using the words, let’s just say….Mariflo Stevens recalls puberty as a time during which she “waited for my body to fill out, Barbie-style,” lamenting the fact that boys saw in her “only what was missing—what Barbie had that I didn’t.” (Perhaps those Barbie-familiar boys didn’t want to play with her; cf. Green’s statistics.) Jane Smiley flatly states, “[I]f my daughters were to learn certain Hollywood-inspired essentials of American womanhood, it wasn’t going to be from me, it was going to be from Barbie,” thereby letting Hollywood itself off the straw-man hook. The writers conclude over and over, spuriously, that it’s Barbie’s way or the highway.
If Barbie creates anxiety in the contemporary gender discourse, that anxiety is bountifully on display in the peculiar choices of many of the essays’ authors. Two women assure the reader that they themselves are not writing from jealousy of the 40DD Chanel-wearing astronaut tramp—they include their own measurements. Lord’s wonderful, personal essay, reprinted from her authoritative book, Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, marches out the stats up front: 5-foot-6, 123 pounds—not bad for a 37-year-old. In her otherwise excellent piece on Barbie as adolescent paradigm (“Barbie’s Body Project”), Wendy Singer Jones repeatedly insists she’s not anti-Barbie per se—and for the most part, she isn’t—but she does wrap up by mentioning that she felt fat in her teenage body, at, ahem, 5-foot-7, 100 pounds. Pamela Brandt recalls with an anguish truly remarkable in its freshness the misery of buying her first bra; she relates the experience through the eyes of a youngster who cannot distinguish her flesh-and-blood self from Barbie’s molded, nipple-free form, despairing that the doll doesn’t need a bra and if she did, it would be prettier than the ones Mom bought.
The personal slant many of the women essayists utilize is suspect and feels received—are these Judy Blume’s memories or your own?—bristling with pat, vague contentions that Barbie is “a rite of passage” along with the first Tampax and bra. Anna Quindlen lost her temper at Barbie five years ago with “Barbie at Thirty-Five,” calling for the doll’s demise by indulging in skanky journalism. “Has [Barbie] been single-handedly responsible for the popularity of the silicone implant?” she writes, bizarrely, and she cites the monotonous statistics that appear on every other page in this book, as if “Two Barbies are sold every second” can help us understand her meaning. If “her resume is more extensive than that of Hillary Rodham Clinton,” maybe that’s because Hillary hasn’t played basketball, danced The Nutcracker, earned her DDS or—sorry, flower—run for president.
Individual readers’ remembrances are rendered moot by the authors’ specifics. Jones slips in asides that muddy the waters of her wide-ranging exploration of Barbie’s many moods: “All the bedrooms for the Folding Pretty House contain vanities, as if such an item were de rigueur for everyday dressing.” (It’s not?) Barbie shops at clothing stores and supermarkets, the latter an example of “bodily consumption”—which raises the question of what shopping is not consumption. Most of the essayists confess their own childhood methods of Barbie play and then rewrite female social history backward from there, extrapolating wildly in the direction of the reader, who did not necessarily experience Barbie in the same way.
Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough, although she is the one responsible for bringing this volume together, writes sensibly and lets her childhood stand as hers alone. In “Sex and the Single Doll,” she asks, “Is there such widespread contempt for the intelligence of children that we really imagine they are stupid enough to be shaped by a doll?” She slams Really Rad Barbie, Mattel’s small-bosomed, thick-waisted “realistic” Barbie, by snapping, “[A]s if children wanted their toys to be real.” They don’t, but apparently grown-ups do.
If it was McDonough’s purpose to bring together a wide range of thoughts, impressions, and conclusions about the blond icon, she has succeeded, although the relentless probing of Barbie’s prismatic properties is more grueling and dubious taken whole than each essay on its own. There are sublime pieces—Lord’s rediscovered box of very oddly dressed Barbie, Midge, and Ken playing out her terrors of puberty during her mother’s struggle with breast cancer; Susan Shapiro’s jolly defense of the doll, which reads as random and festive as playing with Barbie feels; Melissa Hook’s elegant “Material Girl,” which recalls the bonds of taste and clothes-consciousness fostered via Barbie’s wardrobe between her childhood self and her stylish, remote grandmother; Rabbi Susan Schnur’s honest, open-minded attempt to make Barbie a place in her synagogue.
For the record, I am Barbie-biased. A longtime loather of baby dolls, I had a number of Mattel and generic plastic teenage sirens (my favorite was Gibson Girl Jody, with spectacular red hair) who acted out various “bevy of beauties” fantasies: brothel, beauty pageant, warriors of Amazonia—the last of which I created by undressing the girls and wrapping their essential bits in tiny strips of metallic gold and silver tape which my stagehand father swiped from ABC Studios. To me, Barbies in their sleazy store-bought clothes were not sexy enough. Those dolls are now lost between the couch cushions of time, but as an adult I cherish my select display of special-edition girls—Silver Screen; Scarlett O’Hara in the scandalous red dress; Rajasthani Barbie, bought in a Madras hotel; the Concert Edition Ginger Spice.
On a trip to Paris, I stopped in for a campy pilgrimage at the department store Au Bon Marche’s special exhibit of notre petite ange americaine. In aquarium-lit rooms, Barbies in designer gear and original outfits occupied one bubble in the wall each, necessitating a leaning forward and peering action not unlike that called for by a small Vermeer. All the hype, the deconstruction, the body anxiety associated with Barbie melted away in the serene blue darkness, and I remembered why she’s immortal, why 40 years are but a nanosecond in what will become her history. Barbie is so beautiful. CP