A Living Doll Turns Forty

Edited by Yona Zeldis McDonough

Touchstone. 240 pp. Paperback, $13

Reviewed by Liza Goodwin

She's a dentist, she's a pilot, a ballerina and a beauty queen. She's black, she's white, and she frequently wears pink. She's Barbie, and, as she turns 40, she's finally being taken seriously. The Barbie Chronicles features 20 essays and five poems -- a few reprinted, the rest original -- by such writers and scholars as novelist Jane Smiley, journalist M.G. Lord and sociologist Stephen C. Dubin. Some gimlet-eyed, some earnest, the writers take the doll -- or rather their own particular notion of the doll -- and run with it.

Ann du Cille, a professor of African-American Literature at U.C. San Diego, writes about how the Barbie line, manufactured by Mattel, interprets what it means to be black (in her blunt opinion, big bottoms, larger hips). Carol Ockman, an art historian at Williams, places Barbie in a long of line of famous bodies depicted in art, from Michelangelo's David to Bouguereau's Venus. She then explains why those two are successful "nudes," while Barbie, with her nipple-less breasts and uncomfortably prominent joints, is merely naked. These pieces may be plush with cogent arguments, but they also include phrases that I haven't heard (or missed) since college: "commodity fetishism," "the problematic of relativity."

Other essays, written in plainer language, are no less forceful in their arguments. Former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, for instance, argues that Barbie is a bad role model because she teaches girls to covet "big breasts and expensive clothes" and should be skewered through the heart with a "silver lame stake." Sherri A. Inness, who teaches English at Miami University, describes a trip through her local Toys `R' Us, during which she is surprised to find that Barbie may be the most realistic role model in the shop. After all, she holds down jobs, drives, gardens, and is a "travel junkie who seems to go on vacation every week." Okay, so maybe that's not absolutely true to life, but consider, writes Inness, that the rest of the aisles are teeming with baby dolls, which seem to convey the message that "babies are all a woman (or girl) needs for complete bliss." As if.

Perhaps most enjoyable, for those of us who may be knee-jerk ironists, are the trivial Barbie facts that many of the pieces unearth. We learn, for instance, that Barbie is based on an erotic novelty doll from Germany, called Bild Lilli. Lilli was blonde, lithe and frequently wore skintight pants; she was based on a comic strip character whose goal in life appeared to be to extract money from rich men. In 1959, the first Barbie, named after Barbara, the daughter of the dolls' creators, was introduced to America. (Ken, introduced in 1961, was named after their son.). We learn that Paleontologist Barbie wears hot pants, Dentist Barbie a miniskirt and Pilot Barbie a low-cut dress, piped in pink. Barbie has 100-percent name recognition among mothers with girls ages 3 to 10. (As one writer puts it: "If you fail to recognize her, you're hardly of this world.") Another factoid: The measurements of the curvaceous blonde would be 40-18-32 if she were life-size instead of only 11 1/2 inches tall.

Amid all this information, however, I found myself wondering what the point of the whole exercise was. This isn't a kitsch romp, nor is it as comprehensive as M.G. Lord's effervescent 1994 cultural history, Forever Barbie. The writing is at times beautiful, as when Rabbi Susan Schnur gracefully explains the "dust-motey" and primeval calm of a Yom Kippur and how Barbie disrupted it. Often, though, it turns herky-jerky or simply prosaic. In a few cases, such as Molly Jong-Faust's "Barbie, Twelve-Step Toy" ("I was the kind of kid who felt entitled . . .") the prose threatens to reveal more of the writer's essence than of Barbie's. But on second read, one clue as to who and what this book is for is suggested in a sentence of Ann du Cille's. "Deconstructing Barbie," she writes, "may be our only release from the doll's impenetrable plastic jaws." If we can make our way toward understanding Barbie, du Cille seems to be saying, we may then start to forget her.

Liza Goodwin is an associate editor at Mirabella magazine.