Barbie's New Look

Poor Barbie. The perky, plastic plaything is taking a beating. According to industry experts, Barbie's hold on today's girls is perilous at best, and a recent NYT article reported that her sales "have been declining by double digits."

This is not the first time the 57-year-old doll has stumbled. There was a moment back in the 1970s when her relevance was questioned, and she was accused of being retrograde and sexist. But she bounced, back, stronger than ever, in the 1980s. She's had every career imaginable, including astronaut, rock star, and president to name just a few, and while she's been a bride, she's never been a wife or mother. Ken is mere arm candy, her strong-jawed boy toy, meant to amuse, not to dominate. Barbie has always been at the top of the pyramid, a lofty place she's occupied all by her own sweet self. But the latest misstep is a tough one, and in response, Mattel decided to transform her by now iconic shape and offer her in a new range of guises--reedy, zaftig, dainty--with a corresponding array of skin/hair/eye colors. This, I can assure you, is a big mistake.

As an avowed Barbie fan since 1963, when I was given my very first doll, (blonde bubble cut, heavy lidded eyes, covert, slightly elusive expression) I was in love. Not just with her, but also with the wild projection she allowed and encouraged. I did not think I was supposed to look like her, and I did not think my mother, whose thick mane of black hair never saw the inside of a beauty parlor, was supposed to look like her either. Even at six, I was more sophisticated than that.

Yes, today's culture is rife with body anxiety and body loathing. Girls are made to feel that their bodies aren't enough--or that they are way, way too much. But that isn't Barbie's fault. She's a doll, people. A totem, a talisman, a fetish even. Stop acting as if she is human, and should be held to a human standard; it's just ridiculous and insults the intelligence of the girls who flocked to her.

Back in the day, Barbie was the ultimate feminist tool posing as a harmless toy. She did nothing, and said nothing; it was the imagination of the child who brought her fully and magnificently to life. How easily my friends and I were drawn into the vortex of our self-created Barbie dramas--the intricate plots, the surprise twists. I swear, I became a novelist on the floor of my best friend Nancy Mace's bedroom, all the dolls, clothes and accoutrements spread out before us, narrative embellishments we could call upon and press into service at a moment's notice.

Mattel's panicked response is understandable, if wrong headed. The doll is rapidly losing ground, and they are desperate to reverse the trend. But if Barbie needs some help as she approaches the big 6-0, Mattel needs to get back to basics, not eviscerate Barbie's very essence.

Barbie was the brainchild of Ruth Handler, a visionary woman who got the idea while watching her daughter play with paper dolls. Ruth saw that being able to change her clothes was essential to the doll's appeal, and she was determined to create a three-dimensional equivalent. She later said Barbie's proportions were in part dictated by the need to facilitate dressing and undressing her. Shrewd and observant, Ruth understood something essential about the way girls played, and she sought to fill the need. Once Barbie was separated from her myriad outfits, she could be reborn, over and over again, each time in a fresh new incarnation. There was a bit of genius in this, and the marketplace proved Handler right.

But now, Mattel has chosen to dilute the brand, watering it down until, like the dregs of a glass of iced tea left out in the noonday sun, it has no punch, no savor. Because if Barbie becomes all things, she will soon become nothing, her once paradigmatic image grower fainter and duller until it ceases to exist. And that will be a sad day for those of us who ever loved her--and for those who have yet to fall under her spell.