Barbie at Middle Age

On March 9, 2009, she will turn 50, with no escaping from middle-age, all the while maintaining a youthful appearance and fierce independence as a working woman. And even though, technically, she isn’t a living and breathing person; Barbie has led an interesting and exciting life.

Introduced at the 1959 Toy Fair, Barbie was a far cry from the dolls typically offered to girls of the era. Although exceedingly mature in appearance, the doll was meant to represent a seventeen-year old “fashion model.” For those of us who remember the debut, it was as if a door had been opened, allowing us to do more with a doll than change pretend-diapers and feed pretend-bottles.

It was a daring departure, and a point that is often missed by latter-day critics. Over the years, the doll has been blamed for low self-esteem in girls, eating disorders and a host of other problems. Her impossible-to-achieve figure and perfect plastic features seem to represent an ideal that can never be achieved. Yet, if not thought by all to be a barrier-breaking role model, the doll has represented accurately some of the cultural trends happening in society.

For me, Barbie was a fascinating toy – an adult doll breaking into the world of Betsy-Wetsy and Thumbelina. Although promoted as a teenage fashion model, I always thought of her as grown up. In 1964, Mattel introduced a younger doll, Barbie’s little sister, Skipper. In my dollhouse, Barbie was Skipper’s mother, and it was Skipper who had the best adventures while Barbie sat home with Ken. In 1965, Skipper was given friends of her own, Ricky and Scooter. All my dolls were well loved, and played with intensely. They swam in chlorinated swimming pools, were buried to their necks at the beach and dangled from backyard swingsets and trees. They were also the subject of evil scientist parodies as my sisters and I switched their heads around and jumbled up their wardrobes. If nothing else, these toys were well engineered, because through it all they have survived and are now enjoying a quiet retirement in a glass cabinet.

Years ago Barbie graduated from childhood toy to hot collectible. Little girls who received Holiday Barbie in 1982 had no idea that the doll left on the basement floor or in the sandbox would one day be worth over $700. There’s a catch, of course. To demand such a high price, the doll needs to be in mint condition, never removed from the box.

According to M.G. Lord, author of “Forever Barbie, the Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll” Barbie collectors are hard to categorize. Some are attracted to Barbie as a highly speculative financial investment, others make Barbie part of a larger doll collection. Still, others view her as a reflection of American society. Surprisingly, up to a third of the collectors at Barbie doll show and conventions are men. Many of these collectors have thousands of dolls, old and new.

Today there is so much Barbie merchandise produced that it is practically impossible to collect each year’s crop of new dolls. Prior to 1988, the basic Barbie collector was looking for vintage Barbies, preferably still in the box, as well as unopened sets of clothes, cardboard “Dream Houses” and early Barbie vehicles. However, since 1988, Mattel Toys has begun producing dolls aimed strictly at collectors. The first Holiday Barbies appealed to doll collectors, Christmas decoration collectors and those looking to give a child a special gift. This line of dolls alone sparked dozens of spinoff items – miniature tree ornaments, calendars, greeting cards, music boxes, plates, miniature tea sets and porcelain figurines.

Other highly collectible Barbies from this early period of collectibles in the 80s and 90s include the “Great Eras” line of dolls that featured Barbie in historical dress. Barbie designers created couture outfits for the Classique line and the Hollywood Legends collection presented Barbie costumed for “Gone With the Wind,” “The Sound of Music,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “My Fair Lady.” A wide variety of face molds now give Barbie a more accurate ethnic appearance, ending the days when only Barbie’s “friends” were African American, Asian or Hispanic. Today, catalogs full of new collectible Barbies are mailed out regularly, containing dolls that both represent the past look of the doll and wild and futuristic fantasy couture.

Despite the critics who feel she reinforces sexism, Barbie has never wavered from the concept that was her motto in the eighties – “We Girls Can Do Anything.” Barbie has done it all, or almost all. She never officially married longtime beau Ken, despite modeling wedding gowns, and has now officially “broken up” with him. She’s had more than 35 pets, but no children. Like Mary Richards of “The Mary Tyler Moore” show and Anne Marie of “That Girl,” Barbie remains perpetually single.

Beginning in the 60s, Barbie followed women out into the workforce, taking on careers as a nurse, a stewardess or a fashion editor. In 1965, years before NASA would send a woman into space, Barbie appeared as an astronaut. In the 70s, she became a surgeon, and in the 80s, her careers ranged from rock star to veterinarian to Army officer, and again, astronaut. The 90s saw her become a pediatrician, a presidential candidate, a paleontologist and a police officer. According to Mattel, Barbie has had close to 100 careers in the past 50 years. Not a bad record for a doll written off by some as an inappropriate role model.

Since 1959 more than 900 million Barbie dolls have been produced, along with an extensive wardrobe that includes more than a billion pairs of shoes. Numerous books published about her range from collector’s price guides, to comic books, to in-depth examinations of Barbie’s place in society. Whether vilified or idolized, the phenomenon of Barbie looks to remain a fixture as we continue through the new millenium. Recent years have seen a dip in Barbie’s popularity, so look for some changes and new initiatives to come.

It seems fitting that as Barbie approaches 50, an age at which many women reevaluate themselves and their lives, that Barbie should be thinking about what the future holds for her, and where she wants to go. It’s a weighty responsibility for a tiny gal, especially one made out of plastic.

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