A Doll’s Biography

The Good, The Bad, and The Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us
By Tanya Lee Stone
(Viking,New York, 2010, $19.99)

Perhaps no plaything has inspired so much controversy as Barbie. Some attribute women’s eating disorders and low self-esteem to the doll’s thin, yet voluptuous form. However, others believe that Barbie is a liberating force, a symbol of the modern woman’s freedom to combine a successful career with traditional femininity. (Over the years, Barbie has held a variety of jobs, including nurse, astronaut, surgeon, and Marine.) “Barbie has always represented the fact that a woman has choices,” said her creator, Mattel founder Ruth Handler. Still others refuse to politicize the doll, instead recalling the fun they had dressing Barbie and acting out innocent – and not so innocent – scenarios with her.

In The Good, The Bad, and The Barbie, Tanya Lee Stone chronicles Barbie’s trajectory from her debut in 1959 to her reincarnation as a cultural institution and muse. (Barbie has inspired artists from Andy Warhol to contemporary jewelry designer Margaux Lange.) Along the way, she describes how Barbie’s creators constantly refashioned the doll to reflect a changing world. Barbie’s gaze, skin tone, makeup, and apparel changed with each decade, and in 1980, Mattel premiered the first African-American Barbie. Her horizons expanded, too. In the 1960s, Barbie had a flight attendant costume; in 1989, she became a pilot with the introduction of Flight Time Barbie – in a pink flight suit.

Interwoven with Barbie’s story is that of her creator, Ruth Handler. A tomboyish child and a driven, determined woman, Handler never liked dolls. But her daughter Barbara did, and Handler saw a market for a fashion doll sturdier and more lifelike than the paper dolls Barbara and her friends loved. Thus, Barbie, named for Handler’s daughter, was born.

Because Barbie is not a real person – a fact her critics often forget – her biography includes the collective memories of children and former children. Hundreds of people shared their Barbie stories with Stone while she researched the book. Not all of the memories were wholesome: some recalled acting out love scenes with Barbie and Ken, while others remembering torturing their dolls. Some girls reveled in Barbie’s outfits and accessories; others compared themselves adversely with the eleven-inch blonde bombshell. And some had absolutely no interest in her clothing or appearance: they were more interested in imaginative play.

Although Stone is more interested in telling Barbie’s stories than in philosophizing about the doll, she doesn’t conceal her own conclusions about the toy. “Girls are strong, and no plastic, eleven-and-half-inch doll could ever change that,” she writes. By exploring Barbie’s many avatars and adventures, Stone invites young adults to reflect on their own experiences with the doll and to develop their own hypotheses about femininity, body image, and popular culture.

Dorothy A. Dahm

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