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Barbie on the Bus

“Barbie on the Bus”
The Vote Is Just In

The Daily Beast, January 2010

As a writer, of course I’d dismissed that old adage, “One picture is worth a thousand words.” But I surprised myself. There was the poster stretched the entire length of a city bus—four Barbie dolls—nurse, racecar driver, naval petty officer, rock star—pale white skin, sparkling blue eyes, and blonde (oh so blonde) hair. It was the second bus ad I’d seen in two days, the other also featured four Barbies—army medic, olympic athlete, flight attendant, business executive—one had dark hair (the 1961 Flight Attendant) but the rest were exactly the same as the first group. The text read, “Vote Barbie’s Next Career on” Something about these glistening Barbies profoundly disturbed me.

In a definitive book on every aspect (social, commercial, psychological etc.) of the Barbie doll, M.G. Lord the author of “Forever Barbie” wrote, “The doll functions as a Rorschach test; people project widely dissimilar and often opposing fantasies on it. Barbie may be a universally recognized image but what she represents in a child’s inner life can be as personal as a fingerprint.” Technically, Barbie is 51 years old, having entered the market in 1959. The most popular doll ever, in its lifespan over a billion Barbies have been sold in 150 countries. Mattel estimates that three Barbies are sold every second.

For me those white, blue-eyed, blonde dolls suddenly transported me back to another set of dolls—the ones Dr. Kenneth Clark used in his famous experiment that played a pivotal role in Brown v. Board of Education, the lawsuit that shattered the concept of “separate but equal” schools in public education and dealt a legal death blow to segregation. Anyone who remembers this landmark case of 1954 knows that Dr. Clark showed 300 black children (then called “negro” or “coloured”) from different parts of America, who went to segregated schools, two dolls exactly alike, except that one was white and one black. They were asked questions including, “Show me the doll that is the nice doll?” “Show me the doll that looks bad?” The children picked the white doll as “nice” and the black doll as the “bad” doll. When they were asked the final question, “Give me the doll that looks like you,” the majority either refused to answer or started crying or ran away.

Dolls tell you a lot about the culture that produced them. Barbie was introduced in March 1959 and in fact was based on a German pornographic doll in high-heeled black stilettos that Lord terms a “lascivious play thing.” She was named Bild Lilli. While in Europe, Ruth Handler, a founder of Mattel, discovered this “anatomically correct” doll (Barbie is one-sixth human scale which transposes to a 36” chest, 18” waist, 33” hips and not enough body fat to menstruate). Mattel executive Jack Ryan recast what he called “ this hooker” as an all American girl in a striped black and white bathing suit. In its first year 350,000 Barbies were sold at $3.00. Within two years, Mattel bought the Bild Lilli company and production of the pornographic doll with the same body as Barbie was stopped forever.

For me, the Barbies on the bus obviously hit a nerve, but when I began to research the history of this Mattel doll, things were not exactly as they appeared. Perhaps I was kidding myself about what had triggered this strong reaction. I found that in many ways, Mattel had in fact been in the forefront of trying to create a rainbow coalition. Since its inception, Barbie has followed cultural trends in this country with ever-expanding careers, Barbies of various ethnicities, and recently even Barbie’s shape (she now has a navel, wider hips, legs that bend) to conform with today’s norms. Though driven by commerce (Mattel spends approximate $200 million on advertising each year) in 1965, it subsidized Shindana Toys in the response to the Watts riots. This African-American run company produced ethnically diverse play things long before they were fashionable. In 1968, came “Christie” the first African-American doll and by 1983 Mattel already had a multicultural spectrum with a Hispanic and African-American Barbie. With the election of Obama in 2009 came a stunning collection of “So In style” black Barbies (albeit without careers) with more authentic features and realistic skin.

In addition to Barbie’s upscale clothes and her billion pairs of shoes, the “I Can Be . . .” career Barbies have both realistic and fantasy elements. Their careers include such realistic aspirations as surgeon, teacher, doctor, chef, police officer, veterinarian, business executive but perhaps stretching into fantasy a formula one driver, rock star and space camp instructor (which may not be such a fantasy because this Barbie profession came about four years before a man walked on the moon). The point was to make girls feel they could be anything they aspired to be. Mattel is the lead sponsor in several philanthropic projects including Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Foundation, a global event where millions of kids visit workplaces where they can envision a future of achievement.

Along the way the written and vocal interpretations of Barbie have piled up. Thousands of words and speculation. There is even astrological interpretation and Freudian analysis. Barbie has also run into a fair amount of controversy from 1968’s criticism of the African-American Christie to the dolls known as “the Oreo” produced in both black and white (like the cookie), and after much protest the withdrawal of a Barbie that proclaimed, “Math class is tough.” Barbie has been banned in Saudi Arabia since September of 2003 for showing a woman of independent means who drives a car and dresses in a “sexual” manner.

There is little doubt that dolls and a child’s inner life are inextricably intertwined. Ms. Lord was right, every observation becomes a personal “fingerprint.” My initial reaction must have come from something more primal. I’m wondering if all the commercial efforts to keep up with the times and all the do-gooding, and the “I Can Be . . .” for kids makes up for those eight faces I saw on the two buses. You know there are many kinds of beauty and Lord quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation, “The test of a first rate intelligence is being able to hold seemingly contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time.”

On my way home, a poem from my early childhood kept running through my head. It was from “The White Cliffs of Dover,” and it described the hero, “Eyes as blue as the British sea, bluer than eyes should ever be.” Those were the Barbie eyes, not mine. Mine were dark brown. I thought of the movie, the first I ever saw, Snow White with “skin white as snow,” mine was olive and my favorite fairy tale Rapunzel, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair.” (The best-selling Barbie ever had a golden cascade of hair from head to foot.) I thought of my own dark brown hair. I, too, was a Barbara but my dad’s nickname for me was Blackhawk. My parents with little psychological understanding referred to my sister and me as, “Ann is the pretty one, Barbara is the smart one.” Ann had light hair and bright green-blue eyes. I like to exaggerate and say that I never looked in a mirror until I was eighteen. It’s a complicated issue and those perceptions and scars stay with you.
Last year after Obama became President, “Good Morning America” repeated Kenneth Clark’s experiment with a small sampling of 19 black children from Norfolk, Virginia. When they asked the question which doll looked most like them, these children did not run away crying but picked the black doll. But ABC then added the question, “Which doll is pretty?” The boys said both were pretty but 47% of the black girls said the white doll was the pretty one.

Barbie has entered the computer age big time. For the 125th and 126th careers of Barbie the vote was conducted on, Facebook (Barbie’s was the fastest growing base with 80,000 fans in the first six weeks) and Twitter. Barbie has appeared on YouTube in over 1,400 videos and there is now a Barbie Blog. There are 74.5 million results for Barbie on Google. Over 500,000 people voted online for the “I Can Be . . .” careers. The results are just in, and the winners are News Anchor Barbie, who wears a pink outfit and carries a news folder, camera, microphone and a B-News logo. Computer Engineer Barbie sports a binary code patterned T-shirt, smart phone, Bluetooth headset, and laptop travel bag. Although the Barbie line includes Black, Hispanic and Asian dolls, both winners, by popular vote, were pretty Barbies with pale white skin, bright blue eyes, and blonde hair.