Everything You Wanted to Know About Barbie But Were Afraid to Ask

Dolls.  These real-life avatars can charm, creep, and fascinated.  Perhaps no more so than Barbie. Born in the 60s, reviled by many in the 70s, this toy with the permanent tiptoe feet seems to bounce back appealing to one generation after another.  While plenty of ink has been spilled about this doll for adults perhaps not so much for those who are just done playing with her — young people, that is.  And so how terrific that Tanya Lee Stone has filled this gap with The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie, giving readers a clear-headed view of the life of her creator, Ruth Handler (and thus also her company Mattel); her unique appeal to young people; how she fits into social and cultural history of her time; the art (yes, there is quite a bit of Barbie-inspired art it seems); and more. Filled with color and black and white images, plenty of them of Barbie and her pals, and loads of firsthand comments from those who both loved and hated her as children and later, the book is a fascinating look at a unique piece of recent American history.

Wanting to know more about how she went about researching and writing about this icon, I went to Tanya Lee Stone herself and posed a few questions.

As you note in the author’s note, “I don’t recall having strong feelings about her one way or the other…”  So what then got you so interested in writing a book about Barbie?  Was there a triggering event or situation?

I started thinking about icons one day–what they mean to us and why, and how they come to be icons in the first place. In terms of pop culture, Barbie is at the top of that list and I found that fascinating. I knew there had to be more to the story than the often-quipped remarks of Barbie being some evil corporate plot to make girls feel bad about themselves. I wanted to find out the origin of the idea to create Barbie in the first place. I wanted to know the back story of the person who invented her. What I found was remarkably different than the pre-conceived notions I had heard in the past.

I loved the way you showed how Barbie and everything around the doll reflected the cultural and social history of our times.  Was that in your mind from the start?

Yes, absolutely. I’m a big fan of context. I think it’s imperative to understand what is going on at any given time in our social history in order to fully discuss one aspect of that culture. You have to know what the societal ideas and norms of the day are to understand how a product of that culture’s time fits.

You certainly have a lot of balls in the air — Ruth Handler’s biography, the development of Mattel, the doll’s evolution, history, play, and so much more — how did you manage to balance them all?  Did you start out featuring one more than the other?  Or had you in mind to do it all from the start?  It is a feat that you managed to get it all in effectively in a relatively short book!

I definitely had two main goals–one was to provide the history of the inventor and the invention to put Barbie in context for the reader. And the other was to really examine some of the themes I wanted to get into–body image, racial diversity, role-playing and development. I also had a strong desire to “let the people speak,” as you only need to mention the word Barbie to get fast and furious opinions on both sides of the table! Of course, there are things that wouldn’t fit and tangents I found fascinating that I had to make decisions about–but that’s par for the course. Eventually, the task is to assimilate all of that information for myself and choose a focus that stays true to the story I’m telling. I hope I did that.

As I read the book I was struck by an interesting conundrum — on the one hand Barbie from the start was an idealized doll and the early concern was that girls not see her as something to emulate.  Handler created her as a fashion doll — one for girls who were playing with paper dolls with a focus on clothes.  And so with the rise of feminism there was concern that girls not see her body and looks as something to wish to be.  At the same time you write about efforts to diversify Barbie — ethnic Barbies, African-American Barbies, etc — and quote those who felt they were not represented in these dolls.  And so I’m fascinated by this doll being something you both want to see yourself in and never see yourself in. Do you have any thoughts about this dichotomy?

I would modify that conundrum just a bit to say that Ruth Handler absolutely wanted little girls to see her as something to emulate–but what she wanted them to emulate had little to do with body type. She wanted girls to believe they could put themselves in any shoes at all–be anything they wanted. It was about clothes, yes, but what those clothes represented, also. Independence, in many cases. Ruth was a fiercely independent woman. So I think really, at least for me, the form she happened to embody–which was in part a product of Ruth’s time and place; Hollywood in the 50s– Let’s not forget to also factor in that Barbie taking off like it did had something to do with the body type not changing. Who’s going to mess with that kind of success? But one of the most interesting comments I came across was from Ruth’s granddaughter Stacey Handler, who suggested that if Ruth had stayed in a role of power longer, she may indeed have made some changes to the body type as time changed and societal norms shifted.

In regards to the diversity issue, I think it is nearly impossible to please everyone. I see all sides to the arguments and think, in the end, it’s a toy and a toy company we’re talking about. It’s not a self-esteem organization or a nonprofit organization. Ultimately, a toy company has its own mission to fulfill. Their attempts to address issues are appreciated, and can never fully satisfy. That is its own conundrum.

You describe a range of Barbie play in the book.  As a teacher I’ve done a lot of observing of kids’ play over the years and am very intrigued by the changes.  For example,  I bought my own Barbie (as my parents like many refused to buy me one) when I was around nine in the 60s yet she now seems to be more appealing to much younger children.  And while my friends and I had one Barbie and were eager to acquire clothes and objects for her, for some time now it seems more common for children to have many Barbies. In your research for the book did you notice any of these sorts of changes or others related to changing play patterns?

Anecdotally, I would venture a guess that the change has less to do with play patterns and more to do with societal changes regarding things like consumerism and materialism. I think earlier generations simply had less and that was the norm. Expectations can be quite different these days.

I’m curious about how you attracted the many young people you quoted in the book. How did you find them? How broad a demographic is it? Particularly the boys!

As I said, mention Barbie and people start talking! The response to my invitation to participate in the research for the book was overwhelming. Social media and email played a huge part in the success of the effort to reach out to people. I sent emails to teachers, librarians, writers, parents–and it went viral very quickly. I pored over hundreds of emails and started sorting responses into the natural categories that developed. The boys, almost entirely, were the result of teachers asking students if they wanted to respond. It was extremely interesting stuff!

Is there anything you found in your research that you were dying to include and then had to sadly leave out?

No, not really. I mean, I found many aspects of the family’s history fascinating, but as you know there are choices to be made and a focus to be kept for juvenile nonfiction, so I’m happy with where I ended.

Also at the Huffington Post.

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1 Comment

Filed under History, Huffington Post, Nonfiction

One response to “Everything You Wanted to Know About Barbie But Were Afraid to Ask

  1. P. Vreeland

    Barbie–so many things have been projected on this doll! I was so upset with my nieces when they gave my daughter her first Barbie when she was hardly two. She immediately undressed her and put her in a diaper. A month or so later she came running to me crying, “Mommy, Barbie has boobies!” Now that she is four she so thoroughly enjoys the dressing aspect. We search second hand stores for vintage Barbie gowns–so much more beautiful than the crotch skirts and midriff bearing tops at Toys R Us. Although, i was at a loss to explain what the straight jacket was when we came across one! Barbie is a classic doll that I have grown to love and am relieved to be over my fear of her! I look forward to reading the book.

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