AS I SEE IT
Whatever you say about Barbie, you have got to admit that the impossibly curvaceous doll has got pulling power. Greta Gerwig’s film Barbie is expected to attract an €80 million opening audience, double that of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. The blonde bombshell wins over bomb-maker hands-down.
The explanation may have something to do with what Barbie means to generations of little girls who could play at being grown up with their adult dolly. I was a PB (pre-Barbie) child. When I was young, baby dolls were the thing and they were an unexciting lot but the most they could manage was peeing and crying. I had one called Wetsy Betsy who developed terrible halitosis because I thought it was better to give her bottles of nutritious milk rather than water. I also had a toddler doll, whose blue eyes opened and closed until they fell into her interior where they rattled about eerily.
It’s no joke being trapped into premature motherhood from the tender age of five or six. These celluloid infants were a big responsibility: their kit only ran to prams or cradles and their sartorial possibilities were boringly limited. I had to make my own painted cardboard version of Barbie and dressed her in cut-out paper dresses.
Then in 1958 Ruth Handler, partner with her husband Elliot in US based Mattel Toys, had a stroke of genius and hit on the idea of a grown-up doll (admittedly inspired by a German doll called Bild Lilli). Ruth had realised that girls just want to have fun. Barbie was a prelude to all the things they could do when they grew up: being glamorous, having gorgeous clothes galore, a dream home, a career and a boyfriend – although Ken was always seemed more like an accessory.
Barbie, named after the Elliots’ daughter Barbara, was born in 1959 and spawned a merchandising empire. Laid end to end the 1.35 billion Barbies sold would probably stretch half way from here to America. In 2006 Barbie sales reached the rate of three sold every second around the world. Her 200 careers, her dream homes, her pets, all 40 of them, her cars, her films and her love life would merit an entire edition of Hello magazine sweeping all those minor celebs I have never heard of from its pages.
Barbie has had a whole host of different incarnations including an astronaut, before Buzz Aldrin even go to the moon, a US Presidential candidate, a judge and a pilot. Ken arrived in her life in 1961, their relationship broke up when Barbie took up with Ozzie surfer Blaine for a while until Ken won her back in 2011.
Not surprisingly Barbie, an influencer way ahead her time, stirred up controversy, arousing the ire of feminists for being what Gloria Steinem saw as “being everything we didn’t want to be and were told to be”. With her impossible figure – which would translate in human size into a 39 inch bust combined with an 18 inch waist – Barbie was accused of prompting body dissatisfaction in young girls. I don’t buy that one, Barbie is both a fantasy celebration and a parody of femininity, as exaggerated and incomplete in its way as a drag queen’s glittery, false eye-lashed version of a female. All kids love to play along with make-believe so they get fantasy.
I do have a couple of issues with Barbie though, I suspect her of trying to bump off Sindy, her UK rival with the girl-next-door looks, manufactured by Pedigree from 1963 and who suffered several relaunches in her attempts to keep up with Barbie.
The other thing is her covetousness. Barbie is an arch consumer who wants to have it all from clothes to cars. Could it be that Barbie’s bad example is partly responsible for influencing our grown-up buying patterns where we now purchase 60% more clothes than we did in the year 2,000 and that we wear outfits on average for seven times only? And this at a time when we know that the clothing industry is responsible for 10% of carbon emissions?
The trendy doll’s habits don’t sit well with the circular economy but, hey, she has responded to criticism in the past and we may yet see charity shop Barbie.
Meantime I am off to see the movie in my frequently worn Barbie-core outfit to enjoy some pink, fun and fantasy.