There was a big deal made in the media this week about Barbara Millicent Roberts’ 50th birthday. Ms. Roberts is popularly known as the ageless Barbie. To celebrate, Mattel issued a 50th anniversary Barbie doll on March 9 in the same iconic striped bathing suit and costing the same as it did fifty years ago, $3.00. To be sure, they are being snapped up as quickly as the toy Mars Rover that explored the planet for the first time. It’s taken for granted that this commemorative Barbie was also manufactured for girls and collectors of color, but it surely wasn’t in 1959.
It wasn’t until about 1979 or 1980—nearly twenty years—that Barbie was manufactured for African American (and Chicana-Latina) girls. I was too old to care very much, except to mark it as yet another racial barrier crossed, like Diahann Carroll appearing in Julia. Until then, there were Barbie’s first ‘ethnic’ friends, Christie, her boyfriend Steven, Francie (who first looked like Barbie in brown skin, which probably occasioned some hilarious whispering among parents that Francie was really Barbie’s ‘outside’ sister). All wore bright colors that marked them as ‘black.’ Other differently hued Afirican Americans and people of color in the Barbie realm, and their imitators, arrived within the last three decades. The earlier dolls were bought almost like consolation prizes, because everyone knew that the white Barbie reigned supreme over her little kingdom of palatial homes, stunning apparel, cars, vacations, attentive and perfect boyfriend—and friends.
I was among the first generation to experience Barbie. I never had a white Barbie—my mother must have felt that I had outgrown having dolls by age 9—but I played with them under the nervous glances of both white and black owners in East Palo Alto. They seemed made of cut glass to some of my playmates—fragile and special like newborns—but Barbie was a grown woman. She just could not get dirty.
Our play with Barbie seems in hindsight to have been a take-off on Louis XIV’s levees, (not to be confused with the levees in New Orleans) in which a courtier was allowed to help the king dress for the day by handing him his trousers, his stockings, or his doublet. Each of us had a turn putting on Barbie’s skirt, blouse, jacket or hat and purse. Barbie was going to get dressed up to go to a dance in town; other times, she was going to have lunch with the other dolls and stuffed animals who were cumbersome in comparison.
There were never enough outfits for Barbie. I remember flipping through the little catalog from one of them, and the tiny clothes were as expensive as an Easter dress for some of us. If there was a Ken, we would play what were clearly sex games with Barbie and Ken; we didn’t yet know everything about what constituted sex, but we did know that it involved kissing, hugging, and taking clothes off. When the Barbies became barefoot, and their clothes lost the tiny snaps and hooks and eyes that held them together, and their hair became more ratty from bad haircuts and rough shampooing, and ready for the Goodwills or St. Vincent de Pauls, they were the subject of cruel fights with the new Barbies gotten for Christmas or for birthdays. Trish Crawford in the Toronto Star went further with another dirty secret: that girls have also enjoyed mutilating their Barbies:
They’ve shaved her head, decapitated her, painted her with nail polish and ink, removed her limbs and put her into compromising positions with Ken and G.I. Joe.
While it may take a parent aback to see this doll carnage on the rec room floor, there’s nothing to worry about, says Marshall Korenblum, chief psychiatrist of the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre For Children.
“Girls want to explore toys the way boys would,” says Korenblum. “Both girls and boys play with toys in a variety of different ways.”
It’s only when the violence goes beyond the toy box that there should be any cause for worry, he says.
The most famous instance of using Barbie dolls for more than just child’s play was director Todd Haynes’ now banned 43-minute film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. I remember the intense interest that this independent film generated when it arrived in San Francisco, and I had been a fan of The Carpenters in high school. Haynes used modified Barbie and Ken dolls to illustrate important points in Karen’s life. To depict the Karen doll as anorexic, Haynes would pare down the doll’s arms, legs and body with a knife, achieving the rough look found on anorexics’ skin. In using the Barbie dolls, Haynes seemed in agreement with and in opposition to feminist claims that the Barbie doll encouraged girls and women to aspire to this unhealthy model of female perfection. However, Haynes also insinuated that Karen’s parents were manipulative and perfectionist, thus fueling the anorexia nervosa, and that her brother, Richard, was secretly gay and blamed her for ruining his career. The real Richard Carpenter won his lawsuit against Haynes for copyright infringement, and copies of the film were destroyed. One copy, though, resides with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and cannot be publicly exhibited, but numerous bootleg copies also survive, especially on sites like You Tube.
For serious collectors of black Barbie dolls, nothing as spectacular as the Carpenter film has ever occurred for them, and these days, eating disorders among black girls and women have been blamed on the prevalence of music videos, which have been denounced as emblematic of white values about body image seeping into the black community. (Until recently, black men usually preferred their women with some “back.”) Not necessarily Barbie, whose unlikely measurements have been growing larger over the years. Black girls and women who have been collecting and admiring black Barbie dolls were more stoked by their sense of beauty, of glamour, and of fantasy. They could see themselves. Or who they could be. The Barbies could be as high-yellow or as sable-colored as their owners. Black women have paid top dollar for collectable African American Barbie dolls. Some have dozens of Barbies, others have a baker’s dozen of favorite Barbies that they have bought or sewn clothes for, even fur and leather coats. Moreover, it gave them more than a peek into middle-class acquisition, though it was always confusing how and where Barbie got her money to afford everything. She didn’t come cheap and she’s not Everywoman. She could never make up her mind exactly what she was going to do. Barbie could be an astronaut, a Hindu, a business executive, a hip-hop artist, or a princess, but it was fun to watch her in all her sometimes dizzying transformations. Besides, she could certainly do without a guy.