What Is it About Barbie?

July 28, 2002

Welcome to Wyndspirit Dreams! When I was in second grade, we were supposed to draw a picture of what we would wish for if we wished upon a star. I drew a picture of Living Skipper, complete with curly ponytails and mesh beach jacket. I dreamed over her every time we went to the store. I saved my dime a week allowance for a year, and finally purchased her. I adored that doll—until I got a Barbie. Skipper was still played with and well-loved, but now she was relegated to the role of little sister, second banana behind Barbie. After all, she was a little girl, I was a little girl. Where was the novelty? What kind of adventures could little girls have, unless they were tagging along with grown-up big sisters?

I realize my age is showing, but my parents’ generation didn’t have Barbie when they were children, and I suspect most of them never did figure out what little girls saw in an adult fashion doll with an exaggerated hourglass figure. I, on the other hand, can’t figure out how they ever played without Barbies. What kind of adventures can you have with baby and child dolls? Maybe it was the generation. Back then, little girls expected to be wives and mothers when they grew up, so that is what they role-played. But once women entered the work force and discovered they had some value in themselves alone, not just in supporting roles as wives and mothers to other people, there was no turning back, and I think Barbie reflected that changing mindset. Now, I am not knocking marriage and motherhood, and the fact that Mattel keeps coming out with “little sisters” and “baby sisters” for Barbie proves that even Barbie lovers like to be “nurturers.” I am simply trying to explain the appeal of Barbie.

I know my mom did not like Barbie’s figure, even though I doubt she worried the way some parents did that we would feel insecure about our bodies because we would never be able to attain that “ideal.” Come on, kids don’t care about things like that! Little girls just want something to dress in bright, pretty clothes. Older girls just want to have adventures. My favorite Barbies were not the beautiful ones, but the ones I felt were more realistic. I loved my Sweet Sixteen because she had a neutral expression, not a cheesy “model” grin. After all—she was everything from an airline stewardess to a doctor to a cop. Not every situation she encountered called for a smile! I had two Barbies, a Francie, and a Skipper. My sister had two Barbies and a Skipper. We both had assorted non-Barbie fashion dolls. Each had a name and personality that never changed. Even when we swapped dolls on occasion, they remained in character, just operated by a different person. Even last week when I was home I was telling Mom about the dolls, reciting their names and lineage to her. Sadly, although the dolls were well cared for and well loved, they were also much played with, and the wear and tear eventually caught up with them. I played with them with my sister till I was old enough to start feeling foolish. Then I set them up and wrote plays about them till their bodies finally gave out, and I regretfully packed them away.

Then I left home and got a job and actually had money to buy Barbies! I bought collector Barbies looking for beauty, and play line Barbies looking for personality. And I continued to write stories and plays about my Barbies. Now I have been a collector for so many years that I can look at my dolls and see how culture has affected Barbie over the years. I have always thought the very first Barbies of the late ‘50s were ugly, with tightly-styled hair and “harsh” makeup, but obviously people felt they were beautiful at the time. My generation is the ‘70s and ‘80s. I still love the natural look of the long, straight hair and minimal makeup of the “hippie” era. Then there were the exaggerated ‘80s, with “big hair,” deep tans, big eyes, and tons of eye shadow. Hey, I thought they were beautiful at the time! One of those dolls is still my favorite. Golden Dreams Barbie has weird “golden-tan” skin and icky-textured but pretty Quick Curl hair and a quirky grin that (to me) always looks like she’s teasing somebody. Then there were the ‘90s, with more moderate hairstyles and less makeup. Now Barbie has straight hair (although sometimes with streaks of color), minimal makeup, and Mattel has given in to pressure and created a new, more realistic Barbie body. I still don’t think children care one way or the other, but we adult collectors love it.
I’ve long since grown up and given up adventuring with Barbie. So why do I still love Barbie dolls? Partly because I’m intrigued by the way they reflect our culture. Partly because I love anything that’s tiny and exquisitely detailed. Mostly because I can fix their hair and put them in beautiful clothes, and they will look beautiful, which is something I can’t do to myself. Through them I can show off trendy clothes on a slim figure. I can buy something pretty and know that when I come home and put it on a Barbie, it will still look nice. In some small way, it gives me an escape from the homely person I am in real life who looks dumpy no matter what she wears and who can’t fix her hair to save her life. Hmm… I guess in a way I do still play with Barbie!

Wyndspirit Dreams