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My Brilliant Career

Barbie makeovers
Robert Scheer

Beyond the Valley of the Barbie Dolls: Magi Bollock (left), Florie Saiger and Cyndi Chambers stray from the Barbie norm with their own interpretations of the childhood plaything, "Sculptor Barbie," "Pregnant Wild Woman" and "Rubenesque Barbie and Friend."

Feminists and fans both ask, 'Will the real Barbie step forward?'

By Sarah Phelan

SHE'S 37, MEASURES 36-18-33 and is a cosmetic surgeon's nightmare--she'll never sag, wrinkle or bulge. Hoping for a date? Then check out Toys R Us, where she dominates seven aisles and can be had for under 10 bucks.

Who is she? Barbie, America's number one plastic sweetheart. Since her debut in 1959, 800 million Barbies have been sold, and the market shows no sign of bottoming out. According to her mother company, Mattel, "every two seconds, someone somewhere buys a Barbie." Though permanently poised on ballerina toes, this doll with more shoes than Imelda Marcos is not just a glamour puss but also a global power brand, about to teeter into the third millennium to the tune of a cool $1 billion in annual sales.

Although Barbie's been everything from a pompom-waving cheerleader to a moon-walking astronaut in her brief but bright career, she began life as a fashion designer and model. And as such, she's always done things with style.

Never mind if she was conquering space, what really mattered was her spacesuit. Her style-driven vantage point didn't just mirror the changing fashions, it reflected the contradictory expectations facing American women over the last four decades. And so, with the fabric of mainstream America intimately woven into her wardrobe, Barbie has become our most potent and long-lasting icon of pop culture.

But her omnipresent and enduring popularity is a thorn in the side for feminists who claim that everything about Barbie--from her preoccupation with her appearance down to her ludicrously shaped feet--dangerously narrows young girls' horizons, programming them to be bimbos. And with eating disorders and silicon implants on the rise, it seems as if Barbie's waists and boobs really are to die for.

Yet for every Barbie-basher, there's a bevy of Barbie fans waiting to defend their skimpily dressed, overpackaged heroine. To collectors she represents a cash cow (rare editions can fetch as much as $7,000). For this year's crop of young, impressionable girls, she's a chance to try on femininity for size. For baby boomers, she was a pioneer with a radical message about becoming your own woman--or drag queen, as in the case of Ru Paul, who admits that Barbie inspired him.

Small wonder, given that Barbie is hardly the stuff most women are made of--fleshed out to size, she'd stand six feet tall, a broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped giantess with bazooka breasts.

M.G. Lord, author of Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, believes that "the doll functions like a Rorschach test--people project wildly dissimilar and often opposing fantasies on it. Barbie may be a universally recognized image, but what she represents in a child's inner life can be as personal as a fingerprint." According to Lord's theory, Barbie is your outer child--what you see in her vacant blue eyes reflects your own hopes and fears.

In Lord's personal opinion, "Barbie is us." But which "us"? There are no "Single Mom," "Three-Job" or "Battered" Barbies in Mattel's world view, but only strictly sanitized versions of womanhood, both defining and reflecting popular fantasies about femininity.

But the truth is this pint-sized dominatrix owes her gigantic success to both savvy marketing techniques and the contradictions inherent in her image. Neither a one-dimensional figure nor a two-faced bitch, she's a reactionary revolutionary with a sordid past.

And therein lies her power.

Splint Personality

KIDS, OF COURSE, always suspected that Barbie was about sex. Must have been her high-kicking legs and swelling breasts that tipped them off, because what they didn't know was that Barbie, like many an immigrant to the U.S., had a sleazy European skeleton in her otherwise impeccably ordered closet.

For though Mattel never advertised it, Barbie was ripped off from an Aryan porn doll named Lilli, sold to adult men in postwar Germany.

Based on a comic character in the Bild Zeitung, Deutschland's equivalent of our National Enquirer, Lilli was a flaxen-haired floozy with a tendency toward exhibitionism and gold-digging--hardly the qualities that tight-buttoned American moms and dads wanted in their darling little daughters.

But Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler had a daughter, too, and recognizing an untapped market for an adult-looking doll, she delicately disguised Lilli's hooker look behind downcast eyes and a wholesome demeanor.

The strategy worked, winning over legions of moms who, though disturbed by her sexiness, secretly hoped that Barbie's polished image would make marriageable diamonds of their rough-edged daughters.

And so Barbie was born. Single, successful and self-supporting, she was way ahead of her time.

As Lord puts it, "Barbie was first in her cosmos. She was not the second sex. Ken was merely an accessory, and in contrast to the early '60s--when everything was defined by the nuclear family--this doll had no navel and, therefore, no parents. She did not define herself by relationships to men or to her family."

What did characterize her was an unadulterated passion for consumerism at its glitziest, as witnessed by her gold lamé gowns, flashy pink Corvettes and ostentatious dreamhouses. Sure, her changing outfits paralleled societal shifts, but as viewed from Mattel's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. (birthplace of Marilyn Monroe), that meant a distinctly Hollywoodesque vision.

From the with-it mod in the Summer of Love era to the Golden Girl with a fur and jewel safe in the Reagan years, Barbie never burned her bra or publicly protested Vietnam.

And although she appeared flatfooted in 1971, along with a very sexually liberated in-your-face stare, she was back on her toes by year's end.

Inasmuch as her life didn't involve selfless martyrdom, Barbie was a feminist pioneer. But her obsession with how she looked in the eyes of others permanently disqualified her from membership in the feminist fold.

In 1985 Day-to-Night Barbie appeared, wearing a well-tailored power suit that transformed into a flouncy party frock after dark.

As a perfect example of homeovestism--the strategy of "camouflaging one's cross-gender strivings by disguising oneself as a parody of one's own sex"--this Barbie made a perversely cynical statement, albeit unintentional, about women in the business world.

Barbie's reincarnation this year as an angel reflects Mattel's hawk-eyed interest in exploiting high-flying commercial trends rather than promoting positive female figures.

Ban the Barbie

SO SHOULD WE BAN her as a repressive stereotype? Frank Kaehler, co-owner of Game-Alot Toys, doesn't carry Barbie, he says, "because my wife and store co-owner, Stephanie, thinks Barbie represents artificial expectations and disappointment. But if no one else carried her, I'd consider it. People have enjoyed this doll because they could dominate her life. It's true that with every new wave of young girls, Mattel can sell the same old merchandise to what is still an unsophisticated market, but it's important for children to learn about advertising and about making buying choices--good and bad."

Prohibition doesn't teach kids anything--except to rebel later on--whereas exposure can be unexpectedly educational.

Many kids will retrofit Barbie, detoxifying her by shaving off fussy hairdos and tearing off hard-to-manipulate arms, reinventing her in their own image. They'll also crossdress Ken in frilly clothes, given half a chance. It's a lesson fringe groups and artists have been quick to learn, subversively using Barbie and Ken to publicize everything from eating disorders to queer subculture.

Here in Santa Cruz, the Monterey Bay Women's Caucus for Art invites locals to participate in "The Great Barbie Makeover--Transforming the Image of the Image of Women."

Organized by Magi Bollock, Florie Saiger and Cyndi Chambers as part of Women's History Month, the makeover, explains Bullock, is an opportunity to "create a Barbie garden in the image of your face."

Bollock is asking people to bring a Barbie--or any Barbie paraphernalia--and create "a symbol that represents the true beauty of women's lives."

She suggests "taking the dolls, giving them hips, flat feet and transforming Barbie from a plastic stereotype to a personal representation"--which could mean anything from a biker to a brain surgeon.

Each piece will be mounted and planted in the Barbie dream garden, and the installation will remain in place for the duration of the Women's Issues Women's Culture exhibition, which runs through March 28.

And if you're having difficulty reconciling yourself to Barbie's impossibly narrow tootsies because they resonate of crippling footbinding rituals, then consider this: Though made out of plastic, these pointy appendages echo the form of tapered prongs found on Stone Age goddesses and symbolically plunged back into Mother Earth during fertility rites.

Maybe our daughters aren't exactly connecting with ancient matriarchies as they pogo stiff-limbed dolls across the living room--but you could reclaim that territory by plunging your made-over Barbie feet first into the ground at the Women's Center at UCSC's Cardiff House on Saturday (1­4pm). Call 459-2072 for details.

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From the March 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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