Tanya Lee Stone is known for her Siebert Medal winner Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream. Here she treats Barbie’s fans and foes to a fun and interesting portrait of America’s Dream Doll. She outlines the doll’s history and gives a short biography of her creator, Ruth Handler. Ruth and her husband, Elliot Handler originated the company Mattel, which was a diverse workplace from its beginning. Although Barbie’s image drives some people crazy, Handler intended her to be a doll that girls could relate to, filling the gap between baby dolls that needed mothering and stylish fashion paper dolls. She wanted girls to be able to use Barbie to act out their dreams, and felt that the first Barbie dolls were intentionally not too pretty. Mattel introduced her as a real girl, a “Teen Age Fashion Model.”
As styles changed throughout the decades, Barbie’s looks altered too. Her makeup and hair was modified; her body moved in different, more lifelike ways, such as “Twist ‘N Turn Barbie” and “Living Barbie.” Her clothes varied from chic suits and pearls to go-go boots and miniskirts, to world costumes and designer wear. She changed careers just as frequently, from 1960s approved “female” jobs like stewardess and student teacher to a wider variety such as NASCAR driver, Boot Camp inductee and United States Presidential Candidate.
Stone explains that reactions to the Barbie doll are passionate, and lead to diehard fans and Barbie haters. She provides quotes and anecdotes from kids and adults with various opinions about the 50+ year old doll. Much of the book tackles topics about Barbie’s effect on and reflection of our culture. Barbie and body image is one such volatile subject. Apparently Barbie was the first American doll with a figure, and people have tons to say about that. Is Barbie pushing unattainable standards on our children, or is she just an innocent piece of plastic? Does she promote sexism, in spite of Ruth Handler’s original dreams for her?
Stone also devotes a chapter to Barbie and the different cultures and races that she has represented, both successfully and dismally, including Mattel’s creation of Barbie’s friends and cousins of color ( one given the cringe worthy name of “Colored Francie”) to making the first African American Barbie in 1980. That same year, Mattel began to release International Dolls of the World Barbies, with varying degrees of successful representation.
A particularly fascinating chapter is about Barbie and the way that she figures in kid’s play related to their curiosity about nudity and sex and how kids commonly torture and mistreat Barbie and her friends. The stories shared here are hilarious, from playing nudist colony, and getting a black eye from an enraged neighbor defending Barbie’s honor, to acting out Marie Antoinette’s tragic end with a Barbie, a scaffold made of encyclopedias and some ketchup.
Finally, Stone talks about Barbie as art and the talented people who are inspired by her. Whether it is to present her in all her glory, such as Andy Warhol did in a portrait, or turn the typical Barbie stereotype on its head as Deborah Colotti does in her series “The Barbs,” (where our doll meets the real world and gets fat, gets acne and gets old) plenty of people like to use Barbie as a creative jumping off place. Artists have written stories about her, painted and sculpted her, and even fashioned her body parts into jewelry.
Boldly moving into older adulthood, Barbie continues to attract the attention due any American icon.