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Iconic B: Barbie

The Barbie doll was introduced in 1959 as an adult doll to serve as a role model for little girls.  Up until that time girls primarily played with baby dolls as their staple toys.
Later-born baby boomers grew up with Barbie as the doll used to act out adult female roles in their play.  This generation imprinted on Barbie and grew up thinking of Barbie as a normal adult female shape.
Concerns about Barbie were commonplace at first, mainly about her breasts, but sales boomed and the line of playscale teen fashion model(1/6th scale model) dolls was a winner.

I was always uncertain about the folktales surrounding Barbie.  But a colleague of my husband grew up down the street from Barbara and Kenneth Handler who were the kids of Ruth and Elliot Handler and she confirmed much of what I had been told about the beginning of this doll that has become a feminine icon.  Ruth created the prototype and Elliot was the cofounder of Mattel.
Barbie is so American.  She came from Europe just like the first white settlers.  She was sued and capitalism won out when the manufacturer of the doll that was the European inspiration for the American Barbie settled out of court and was then purchased by Mattel.  Such an American story.
Whether the influence of Barbie’s appearance on the children who play with the doll was, and continues to be, good or bad is a matter of opinion.  Barbie’s measurements would translate into an absurdly proportioned woman along the lines of Stormy Daniels but with a much smaller waist, probably under 20 inches.  It has been said that Barbie would have less than a 16.5% body fat index which would probably cause from amenorrhea.
I understand all this.  I have opinions on the topic of representational Barbie, but I would like to share how I played with Barbie.  I used Barbie just like Ruth Handler hoped little girls would.  She was my imaginary playmate with who I engaged in role model play.  I was a weird kid though, and my imaginary play with the Mattel dolls as role models was probably very different than what the originator had anticipated.

Barbie in the Jungle

I grew up on a small farm where disposable income for Barbie accoutrements was nonexistent.  But I had a vivid and wide ranging imagination.  To set up my jungle scene I would move potted plants to the floor and arrange a deep jungle.  Then Barbie and Ken and Skipper would be dressed in loincloths and beads.  I loved making clothes and adornments from scraps from my mother’s sewing box.  I would make treehouses from shoe boxes placed on end tables above the potted plant forest.
I was quite happy having my semi-naked Barbies live in the  living room jungle until my mother put the kibosh on such play.  Nakedness above the waist, my chosen attire for my Tribe Tarzan of Mattel,  was then verboten.  I was outraged but I did not want to lose access to my playmates , so I complied.
Fortunately I had other options.

Space Station Barbie

Reinforced boxes had these great “angle iron” shaped corner supports which I stripped out of the boxes and used as aerial walkstations between spaceport chair, spaceport couch, and lamp table space transfer point.  The Mattel space travelers were  clad in form fitting aluminum foil space suits.
I suspect that the Barbie’s Dream House, from the Sears Catalog that cost a whopping $9.99 in 1964 dollars only arrived under the Christmas tree because my mom was worried about the atypical play in which I engaged and wanted to channel my play into appropriate household fantasies.

It did not work.  I equate my Barbie play with my love of Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler, not to mention Margaret Atwood.

Role Model

Ruth Handler wanted to encourage little girls to play with dolls and put them into forward looking imaginary scenarios,  not just feed and dress baby dolls.  This certainly worked with me.  I ended up being and anthropologist and a writer.  Of course, I did go through an anorexic period, but that had more to do with the a-hole I lived with than with imprinting on Barbie.

A to Z of Iconic Femininity
A to Z Blogging Challenge – April 2018

Further reading:

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  1. I had Barbies when I was a child – I loved dressing them up – and all the little shoes and handbags. She never influenced me though – I’m not a fashion plate and I never aspired to having her figure (I don’t think I even noticed her figure when I was young enough to play with her). By the time I was a teenager they had been given to my friend’s little sister and I’d moved on to other interests – so I’m unscarred by the Barbie myth 🙂
    Leanne | http://www.crestingthehill.com.au
    B for Believe in Yourself

    1. They were fun to play with. I wonder if the marketing was different in Australia? We were slammed here. I had no siblings at home so that probably impacted my play and imprinting.

    1. You sound like my daughter. She really did not care for Barbie and would much rather be outside playing with friends. And that is a good thing!

    1. I am such a feminist. Always have been. I guess I just layered that over my play and dolls. Women writers are the best! I loved Madeleine too! I hadn’t heard of Sindy. I had a Twiggy doll though, the first of the “branded” Barbies.

  2. Loved Barbie as a young girl and still treasure my Barbies today. I recently let my granddaughter play with mine, but it wasn’t long before I packed them away…. I couldn’t watch the way she played. I’ll buy her new Barbies while mine stay safely packed away in their blue case. I just picked up some Barbies that I plan to dress as Nancy Drew and her friends… I’m writing my A to Z on my childhood favorite books – Nancy Drew. Hope you’ll stop by at… https://everyonehasafamilystorytotell.wordpress.com/category/2018-a-to-z-all-about-nancy-drew/

    1. I adored the Nancy Drew series, not just because my name is Nancy either. Maybe there is an N post in there somewhere!

  3. I was never much of a doll kid, and preferred stuffed animals and active games like marbles. I was that odd girl who never had a Barbie and didn’t want one. The kinds of dolls I did like were the porcelain collectibles, or dolls big enough to fit in one’s arms.

  4. I loved my barbie dream house and have fond memories of playing with barbie dolls. My girls loved them too although I enjoyed them far less as an adult when much of my time was spent cleaning up when the girls were done playing. Picking up all the little accessories and clothing pieces was not fun.

  5. What a story!
    Barbie was never a favourite of mine. When I was a little kid a prefered to play with animal figures. But I find the story of Barbie and her reppresentational role very interesting. And I wonder whether we are maybe giving it more importance than it actually has. We adults often forget that a child’s mind work in a different way.

  6. I blame Barbie for my obsession with The Sims, the best electronic doll house ever! Forget dressing Barbie and the gang up. My sister and I would send them on vacation in their stylin’ 1970s motor home. Then we’d re-decorate Barbie’s home. We’d sew little pillows, use card board boxes of all sizes to create furniture, and constantly scope out anything “mini” that might be added to Barbie’s world. We even made Barbie a bathroom because the Mattel town house didn’t have one! Thankfully, my obsession with blogging about my dogs keeps me too busy to play The Sims much. However, when I go down that rabbit hole, I am keenly aware that my decorating fancies stemmed from Barbie.

    1. OMG. You are the first person who might understand why I loved Second Life. The first thing I did when I figured out how to build 3D objects in SL was to build my dream home on a sloping hill between forest and ocean. Remind me to show you some of the stuff I build and the stuff I sold in my store Casita Gaia. Virtual World stuff never gets dusty.

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