Jon de Vos: Barbie – no, seriously, she’s a doll
March 5, 2009
“Hi, I’m Ken’s best friend, Alan. Nice to meet you. This is my date, Becky. Becky is best friends with Barbie. We’re heading up the Pacific Coast Highway toward the fabulous Costa Lotta Resort in Malibu to celebrate Barbie’s Fiftieth 17th birthday party. The Corvette we’re driving is a Mattel accessory, available at toy stores everywhere for only $89.99. Isn’t it a sweet ride? Gosh, it’ll be a swell party, the place will be loaded with swinging kids just like us, isn’t that right, Becky?”
“It sure is, Allan. Blaine hired the Plastic Ono Band and the Goo Goo Dolls and we’ll party until Barbie gets hammered and drives her Beemer into the pool again. Let’s see, I know for sure Kevin and Nikki are coming, Kira and Nia are both bringing dates, Jamal’s bringing Shani, of course, and . . . uh-oh, bad thought! What happens if Ken shows up drunk again? Remember that scene he made at her forty-sixth 17th?”
“Wow, Becky, that’s right! That was the night Ken and Barbie broke up. We were at Barbie’s house, only $129.99 at Target, and everybody was twisting by the pool, a fabulous upgrade for only $ 19.99. Well, lots of the guys had flasks and kept stepping outside for smokes. Barbie went out to get some air on the balcony and saw Ken in the bushes draped all over Tara Lynn. Barbie screamed and Ken came flying in the back door but he had lipstick on his collar. Barbie took one look at him and clocked him with her rhinestone-studded clutch, a new spring item from Mattel for only $9.99. Then she stormed off in her pink Volkswagen, on sale at Alco for $39.99, and we didn’t hear from her for a few months. She’d gone south and hooked up with Blaine, that Aussie Boogie Boarder, a great action figure that actually bends at the knees for only $ 79.99.”
“Right-o, Alan, Blaine’s a hunk! Last year at her 17th birthday bash, Ken was all drunk and boo-hooing, so I grabbed him by the ears and shouted, ‘Earth to Ken, it’s over!’ You two have been together for 43 years but Barbie’s with Blaine now. He’s a real man, with painted abs and silky nylon hair and he’s at least 3/8 inch taller than you! So grow up, loser!”
Barbie, the most popular doll in the world, celebrates her 50th anniversary this weekend. She’s a woman with a past, mired in her scandalous origins. The doll was the brainchild of a Denver woman, Ruth Handler, who with her husband, Elliot, started Mattel toys and named Barbie and Ken after their own two children. Sometime around 1955, Ruth was traveling in Switzerland and happened across a peculiar German doll, but not a child’s doll at all, rather a lifelike, anatomically correct, adult novelty sold in German smoke shops and bars. They were called Lilli Dolls and were themselves patterned after an adult German cartoon that ran in the best-selling newspaper in Europe. Lilli was an unabashed, sexually adventurous call girl, not so daring during a time in Germany when prostitution was legal. A sanitized Lilli was reborn as America’s favorite doll. With her equivalent of an 18-inch waist, Barbie has been accused of portraying an unrealistic ideal and focusing young girls on how they looked and dressed while setting shallow standards. Teen Talk Barbie, released by Mattel in 1993, spouted 270 phrases including, “Will we ever have enough clothes?” and, “Math is hard!”
Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue with a doll that racked up half a billion dollars in sales in her first eight years on the market.