Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie

The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll's History and Her Impact on UsThe Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll's History and Her Impact on Us by Tanya Lee Stone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You don't have to be an academic to enjoy this illustrated look at the history and cultural impact of that controversial fashion doll, Barbie.

Stone keeps her tone even-handed, though she personally seems to fall on the more positive side of Barbie, noting "There is not much middle-of-the-road when it comes to Barbie." The doll is supposed to be a toy, but there is nothing simple about the way we respond to Barbie. She is a polarizing icon, and "it is worth examining why she inspires such distress - and such devotion" (109).

Stone starts with a brief overview of Mattel founder and Barbie creator Ruth Handler's life before delving into Barbie herself, exploring the doll's impact on body image, racial politics, and art. Along the way Stone incorporates quotations from ordinary girls who love or hate the plastic bombshell, as well as the opinions of writers, artists, and fashion designers. Who knew there was so much to say about a child's doll?

Barbie started out as a blonde with cat eyes and a coy expression, and now has a seemingly infinite variety of incarnations - she's represented different cultures and ethnicities, had hundreds of different careers and hairstyles (many of the latter child-administered). She has inspired artists, from an Andy Warhol portrait to a jewelry designer who uses hundreds of Barbie bodies to make her creations. (The best part of this book are the plentiful illustrations, including several pages in full-color.)

For a palate-cleanser if you're a Barbie hater, check out a book the School Library Journal called one of the best of 2011: Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy. If you can't get enough Barbie and want a deeper look into the history of the famous doll and her creator, check out Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her by Robin Gerber.Or you can venture into Mattel's glitter-pink world online to see what's happening with Barbie today.

My perspective on Barbie? To most kids she's just a toy, albeit it one with really cool clothes. She's not meant to be realistic, but people believe in her reality anyway. I think the term "hyperreal" fits Barbie like a sparkly evening gown. I had a couple of Barbies as a kid (and a box of pretty clothes, plus cut-up socks we used to play shipwreck Barbie), but I mostly invested all my toy money on Legos, Playmobils, and Breyer Horses (and simply lusted after nifty miniatures or the pricey American Girl dolls, with their cool historical accessories).

"This realization reminded me of something my dad told me during my impressionable twenties, when I was upset by someone's (obviously misguided) opinion of me - that however many people there were out in the world who knew me, there would be that many different perspectives of who I am. We all impose our own ideas and perceptions on the world, and Barbie may just be the ultimate scapegoat." - 109

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