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[whitespace] Barbie Fair Game: With the Right Accessories, Barbie can be transformed into a millennial play set.


Barbigeddon

The new millennium calls for creative play. How about: 'Barbie Bags Her First Wildebeest'?

By Traci Hukill

What is an ending but a new beginning? The whole notion of a Y2K meltdown has made me happier than I've been in a long time. The threat of having to do without electricity and grocery stores might frighten some people, but for me it's a childhood Barbie dream come true. Plus it's given rise to the first marketing scheme I've ever conceived. True, it probably won't be picked up by Mattel anytime soon, since there's no room for velvet or lamé in this concept, but it's educational, it's socially responsible and it's just good clean fun.

The Y2K Survivalist Barbie Gift Set is something any parent can assemble from any toy store. All that's necessary are some imagination and a little familiarity with the original Survivalist Barbie game, as played by me, with occasional bossy input from my sister Gretchen.

Here's how it went: My Barbies, who bore the genteel surname Tremaine (Gretchen was a budding Francophile), lived in a peaceful alpine clearing of gold and green shag carpeting in a rambling two-story log cabin hewn by their very own Barbie hands. With no modern conveniences and nothing save hard work standing between them and starvation, the cheerful Tremaines embodied the spirit of self-sufficiency, making do with whatever meager materials were available to them. They grew wheat and corn and ground them to make cakes baked on hot rocks, picked berries for jam and hunted deer (only what they required for sustenance, naturally) from the bare backs of their trusty horses. Capable frontierswomen all, Tina and Adrienne Tremaine, along with their younger sister, Tatiana (in addition to the French thing, Gretchen took an early liking to Russian literature), forged a bucolic but gracious existence in spite of tornados, forest fires and blizzards. No catastrophe was too much for the Tremaines, and they always had time for leisure rides besides.

That's the gist of Survivalist Barbie. Since Mattel has not embraced this concept (how could they miss such an opportunity?), this is a package that will require creativity on the part of the shopper. It will entail some hopscotching through stereotypes: a leap from the pink and sparkle-strewn aisles of the Barbie kingdom to the camouflaged stacks of toy guns and war accessories, and it's easy to get lost on either side of the store. So let's take a little tour of a typically well-stocked toy store, in this case Toys R Us on Winchester Boulevard, and see what we can glean in the way of Survivalist Barbie action figures and props.

First I'd like to dispense with the notion that the superhero and wrestling action figures found in such plentiful numbers these days are going to be useful. They're not. They're all embarrassingly pinheaded, and they don't have any good accessories. Likewise, the Phantom Menace figures--which hog about an aisle and a half--are of little use, since the idea behind Survivalist Barbie is coping with reality.

But in another aisle is a faithful and very useful standby. This year marks GI Joe's 35th birthday, and Hasbro is commemorating the occasion with a Real Life Spirit of GI Joe contest (results to be announced next year) and a particularly vigorous product cycle.

The GI Joe "Classic Collection" features baseball-star-turned-army-man Ted Williams as Korean War Fighter Pilot with baseball bat; a Teddy Roosevelt doll complete with monocle, square-toothed grin and neckerchief; and a German infantryman, whose role in the Classic Collection is a bit of a mystery. There's also a "Save the Tiger" GI Joe, and since we know GI Joe can't help but shoot that which he sees, we're happy to note that the largish weapon in question is a Firing Stun Gun. A cowering white-flocked Siberian tiger accompanies Joe, who's tastefully outfitted in Banana Republicesque khakis and denim. All of these packages can be used in a pinch, but they're really not ideal.

The GI Joe dolls themselves are a fine idea, if a slight aberration from the Barbie game. But the dolls' real value is in their accessories, and the best ones for our purposes are those of the wartime GI Joes. I admire the simplicity of the Korean Soldier set--shovel, pistol, rifle, hat, three grenades and binoculars. There's something elegant in such pared-down accoutrements. But the Vietnam Soldier kit is simply more practical. It comes with cutlery and a canteen, and a very cool set of dark sunglasses. I also like the tropical feel of the mosquito repellent and the net-covered helmet in this package; they lend a touch of exoticism to the survivalist experience and could come in handy in the event of another global climatic upset. The M-16 gun is surely useful for taking down game, but what really seals this one for me is the machete. The entire world bows before the power of a machete. With one of these, Barbie's universe, even post-Y2K, is her very own butter-soft oyster.

And now for the action figures themselves. First, though, a word about joints.

Essentially, GI Joe has them and Barbie doesn't. The WNBA and soccer-playing Barbies have bending knees and elbows, but nowhere in the Barbie aisle did I find a doll with wrist action. And a parent's got to think about this. Try gutting and skinning a deer without moving your wrists while standing on tiptoe and you'll see why the choice of Barbie as a Y2K toy is inherently problematic.

"It just has to do with the playline of the doll," explains Danny Palumbo, assistant to the public relations director at Mattel. "Some dolls are more fantasy play, some are more hair play, and some are activity oriented. We have outdoor dolls every year," he points out. "Like every year we have the bathing suit Barbie."

Palumbo notes that in 1994, Gymnast Barbie's flat feet and moving wrists hit the market. Camp Barbie appeared on the scene that year as well, though she didn't get the athletic anatomy of her sporty sister. Sadly, both are off the market now, leaving us with slim resources indeed in the Mattel line of dolls.

There is an alternative, however. Hasbro, the maker of GI Joe, just released two Vietnam nurse dolls, in chocolate and vanilla, with flat feet and bending wrists. They don't have any of the voluptuous fertility goddess associations lately ascribed to Barbie by forgiving post-feminists, but they do look like they can take care of business--even the business of blood and dying.

Parents have to make a choice here: Will they adhere to the historically accurate version of Survivalist Barbie and try to make do with the rigor mortis wrists and tippy-toe feet, praying that their impressionable daughters will land on the right side of the razor-thin line dividing the sexually empowered and the unwittingly complicit? Does handling a Barbie even affect a child's sexual self-image as an adult? Is it just safer to buy an angel of mercy in fatigues with bending wrists and flat feet and be done with it?

This is a personal decision, of course. I end up grabbing the honey-haired Barbie with minimal accessories. She's the one who looks most like the Malibu Barbies of yesteryear, and the presence of a childhood toy lowers my anxiety levels. Meanwhile, an adequate mount and prey must be found.

Part of Barbie's postmillennial experience will, unavoidably, be the hunt for sustenance. And as everyone knows, part of the agrarian way of life is a good honest plow horse.

So to the Breyer model horse aisles we repair. Tina, Adrienne and Tatiana Tremaine had a full stable of horses to choose from, one for every fancy. There was a beribboned Tennessee Walker for comfortable strolls through the wheat fields, a big-butt quarter horse for working the ranch, a prancing palomino Arab for gracefully leaping over fences on those leisurely afternoons after the harvest was in, and many more.

Such plenitude will not be the case for most Survivalist Barbie Gift Sets today. Parents might suffer some sticker shock at today's Breyers, but a good horse has never been cheap. The Dapple Grey Shire is $39.99 and would no doubt make a placid companion in the fields, but could prove ponderous in a buffalo stampede. There's Cigar, the horse who tied Citation's record for consecutive wins. He's fleet of foot--that's been proven--but I doubt he'd be worth much under harness. In the end I opt for Sundance, who looks to be a small, hardy mustang. It's also possible to go to the Breyer website (www.maneattraction.com) and order a suitable breed.

That was where I hoped to find one of the old Breyer pronghorn antelopes or Brahma bulls--anything to keep Barbie fed this winter and next. After some searching I found them, but they were a little too spendy. It's one thing to drop $30 on a good mount. It's another thing to spend that kind of money on a meal on hooves.

But Toys R Us is a wonderful place. It is possible to find, among the brontosauri and killer whales and Beanie Babies, real plastic animals, the kind that roam the Serengeti. I'm talking about wildebeest. I found a Barbie-sized one, with a lug-heavy head and curving horns and glowing orange eyes, a poor homely overgrown goat with jutting ribs and pelvic bones, the kind of animal it's hard to feel sorry for even when it's being chased by the lions on National Geographic specials. The wildebeest, which doesn't even have a brand that I could find, is only $3. It's not geographically correct, of course, but this is make-believe.

So there it is: the New World Warrior with her machete and sunglasses and mosquito repellent, facing the dawn of a new era astride an expensive horse, having just bagged her first wildebeest. It's the perfect set of toys to ease childish fears and keep the little ones busy and content when the apocalypse hits.

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From the November 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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