Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Even Barbie Gets the Blues

How times have changed. When I was a kid, Barbie had it all. She was multi-faceted and versatile in her career, capable of being launched into space, thanks to her astronaut training, yet also at home running her own boutique (and she was financially diversified, thanks to her franchise opportunity with McDonald’s). She was outdoorsy – an avid horsewoman with her own RV – and sporty, with frequent visits to the spa or gym she owned. She spent her time between her luxe apartment in the city and her dream home, complete with pool, in the country. She preferred to drive the pink Corvette but she also had the silver ’Vette for when she wanted to be taken more seriously. For her city adventures, there was her moped. She even had a dirtbike and a Jeep for her country excursions. And, for the days when she wanted to be part of the jetset, she could either pilot her own plane or moonlight as a flight attendant to see how the other half lived. Ken was always around, but she wasn’t tied down. She had other admirers and divided her time accordingly. She was a modern woman, and I loved her and lived vicariously through her.

So imagine my shock and disappointment recently as I walked through WalMart’s Barbie aisle with my daughters and discovered a package with some kitchen/dining room furniture for Barbie’s house. In this package were a table and two chairs, and on the table were two plates of food. One chair at the table was empty and in the other was a cardboard Barbie with a speech bubble saying, “Oh no! Ken is late!”

At first, I laughed. I found it hilarious that even beautiful, blonde, buxom Barbie gets dinner ruined because Ken is late, likely AGAIN. I even momentarily applauded Mattel for providing a real-life image of commitment and adulthood. Clearly, the makers of Barbie are not of the Disney variety, where every wannabe princess lands her dreamy prince; and off they waltz (literally) into the sunset, immaculately clad, complete with familial blessings (and often with a sassy, talking pet), in a false image of marital bliss. Though my sisterhood with Barbie was likely never stronger than at that moment (that Ken is a JERK!!), seeing the two plates on the table and only one occupied chair, I quickly became horrified. While I typically embrace reality and disdain the Disney-fied fantasy, I quickly realized – seeing lonely Barbie – that there are definite perks to fantasy, and that reality comes all too soon and, often, it really does bite.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Stood-Up Barbie in the weeks since I saw her. Granted, she was a cardboard insert in the furniture box, and I know Mattel would certainly never actually make a Stood Up Barbie. But a lot of Barbies have been made over the years and Barbie, originally marketed in 1959 as a "teenage fashion model,” has delved into many “adult” careers, Hollywood personas, etc. She’s been an architect, a professional roller skater (frankly, who doesn’t aspire for a career like this??), she’s been Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly, she’s been a Viking princess, a beach bum, a bride, a doctor. The list goes on and on, to cover 52 years of creations.

In 2009, they developed (really!) a Totally Tattoos Barbie, although Mattel realized fairly quickly the errors of their ways and pulled Ink’d Barbie. In 1997, they even developed Oreo Barbie, which apparently was a marketing blitz with Nabisco, resulting in a Barbie with whom you’d want to share a cookie. But Oreo Barbie was made in both Caucasian and African-American versions, before Mattel realized a black “Oreo” Barbie might suffer a backlash. There have Barbie faux-pas over the years, yet it's most interesting what Barbie HASN'T been. She’s been a sister, a cousin and a niece, but never a mom. Taking a page from Disney, perhaps Mattel decided this was too much reality and not enough fantasy.

I can see the packaging now…Barbie, with bags under her eyes and unstyled hair, is wearing stained clothes that don’t fit her quite right. She comes with a baby that actually spits up and a kindergarten-aged kid. The speech bubble from the little kid says, “Something stinks in here. It’s either the garbage or your breath!” (actual quote from Grace a few weeks ago) Indeed, this would not be a glamorous Barbie. Parents would likely be horrified at this Barbie, and even the short-sighted creators of Oreo Barbie haven’t been this stupid. Another Barbie never developed: Military Spouse Barbie. She would likely come with kids (strike one!) and pets and a framed family photo showing GI Ken, with additional optional accessories including a moving van, several boxes and a detachable, hideaway hip flask (strike two!). No one has ever seen this particular Ken, since he is always working late or deployed. It is likely we’ll see Amish Barbie (her only accessories: a bonnet and a clothesline) before Mattel dares venture into these frightful territories.

Ironically (or maybe not), the Barbie we know today was based on a German comic strip character named Lilli, out to improve her lot in life by marrying well. Comic-strip-Lilli eventually became a doll marketed to adults in post-war Germany. Mattel founder Ruth Handler found Lilli on a trip to Switzerland and brought three dolls back to the U.S. After de-floozy-ing Lilli and transforming her into a “teenage fashion model,” Barbie was born. A billion dolls and 52 years later, Barbie – at her kitchen table, waiting for Ken – seems to have more in common with the likely problems of Lilli ("Men!"), and less in common with the problems of a teenage-fashion-model ("Which is more flattering - stripes or a geometric pattern?"). Ugh. Poor Barbie. Give me the Disney-princess-fairy-tale any day.