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The World According To Barbie

Has she noticed, she is asked, that in the illustrations Barbie and her friend are a bit hard to tell apart?

She has not.

In "Peace, Love, and Rock 'n' Roll" -- one of the first books in a series aimed to offer, as one of its creators puts it, "history through the Barbie filter" -- Barbie and her African American friend Christie are both illustrated with pink skin and long, straight hair, above. "There's nothing in the art that Mattel doesn't want there," says the book's publisher.

She turns to one of the pages on which they appear together, hair equally long and straight, skins an identical shade of pink.

"Is this Christie?" Lowery says.

'A Piece of Merchandise'

Like it or not, as her leading biographer puts it, "Barbie is us." As such, in the 46 years since Mattel put her on the market, she's been a lightning rod for cultural contention about sexuality, commercialism, the nature of childhood, gender roles, race.

Why should it be any different when America's favorite 11 1/2-inch plastic princess starts giving history lessons?

"I'm sure it's going to be the theme park version," says M.G. Lord, author of "Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll," when informed of Barbie's new vocation. Yet Lord also notes that Barbie can be resistant to stereotyping -- as a look at the doll's own history confirms.

Barbie was the brainchild of Ruth Handler, whose husband co-founded Mattel. She'd noticed that when her daughter played with paper dolls, she used them to imagine her life as a grown-up. Happening on a full-figured German doll called Lilli -- described by Lord as "a pornographic caricature, a gag gift for men" -- Handler had her copied. By 1959, Barbie was being mass-produced in Japan.

Her universe in those days was exclusively white. She acquired her first minority friend in 1967, a short-lived doll with the unfortunate name "Colored Francie" who was quickly replaced by Christie. In 1980, Mattel introduced a black version of Barbie herself, along with a Hispanic one.

Over the years, Barbie has had innumerable careers, starting with the kind women were routinely funneled into (nurse, stewardess) and moving on to the kind the women's movement made it realistic for them to aspire to (physician, executive, astronaut). In 1961 she acquired an insipid boyfriend, Ken, whom she finally ditched in 2004 after they'd gone steady for 43 years.

Despite such evident progress, however, Barbiephobes still accuse her of teaching little girls to see women primarily as sex objects and shoppers. Exhibit A might be a board game called "Barbie's Dream Date." It's a timed competition in which, Lord writes, "each player's mission is to make Ken spend as much money as possible on her before the clock strikes twelve."

Yet Barbie has also starred in a game called "We Girls Can Do Anything." And in her original fictional incarnation, a series of long-forgotten Barbie novels published in the early '60s, she behaves in what Lord calls an "exceedingly subversive" way.

This Barbie rejects the role model she finds at home ("Mother, don't you ever want anything for yourself?") and seeks out female professional mentors instead. Even when working as a fashion model, she displays a raised consciousness:

The job makes her feel "like a piece of merchandise," she complains.

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