The Growing Pains of Skipper, Barbie’s Little Sister

Mattel’s Barbie dolls project toxic stereotypes that have shaped American girls’ ideas of body image  since the 1960s.  Although the actual dolls are out of scope for the Cotsen collection, it does have a handful of the authorized books about them.  One shows that the gender expectations for Skipper, Barbie’s little sister, in the books did not quite align with the toys and accessories rom the very beginning.

Skipper has been an enduring character in the plastic-fantastic Barbie world. Created in 1964, the doll was supposed to be the answer to fans requesting a mommy Barbie as a better role model for young ladies than the sexy career girl.  Mattel decided in the mid-1970s that eight-year-old Skipper had to change and the new Growing Up Skipper doll, designed to bloom before its owner’s eyes, hit the market in 1975.  Rotate the doll’s left arm counterclockwise and the torso grew an inch and petite breasts sprouted on the rubber chest.  Hence the slogan on the box, “Two dolls in one for twice the fun.”   The process of transforming the little girl doll into a willowy teenager, was demonstrated semi-graphically on the marketing videos, which are easy to find on the Web.   In light of the controversy about the gimmick the newspapers and parenting magazines stirred up, giving Skipper a friend, Growing Up Ginger, in 1976 was not an especially astute move on Mattel’s part.

The Mattel/Whitman paper doll/coloring book of 1978, which was published after the dolls were discontinued in 1977, presented Skipper’s maturation in a much more indirect and wholesome way.  Experimenting with hairstyles for a new look for the first day of school, she discovers that her clothes don’t quite fit.  Mother, who instantly sizes up the situation, proposes that they go shopping the next day to address the crisis in the closet.  Incidentally, none of the illustrations show that the long-waisted and impossibly leggy Skipper has filled out.  Except for the merest suggestion of swelling on her right side in a few illustrations, she is almost, as was said in less enlightened times, as flat as a board.

Growing up doesn’t change her, thank heaven.  To repay her mom for all the new clothes, Skipper agrees to help out at the Roberts’ backyard barbeque the next weekend.  She works so hard that her mom proclaims, ”Skipper, you’re growing up to be a mighty big help to me.”  But her friend Brian, whom she waxes at ping pong without disarranging a hair in her new do, notices something different about her, but can’t put his finger on it.   Her new look is approved by her best friend Ginger  before they rush off to class on the first day of school. Cute without being overtly sexual, Skipper is the perfect daughter, gal-pal, friend, and student.

The sweet teenager of the 1970s seems to have been pretty well erased in the redesigns of the 1980s and 1990s.   The long checklist of the Skipper brand in the Wikipedia article is defined by the traditional preoccupations of popular high school girls–their figures, clothes, sports, and boys—  Funtime Skipper, Sunsational Malibu Skipper, Beach Blast Skipper (shown at the left), Olympica Skipper, Hot Stuff Skipper, Great Shape Skipper, Teen Fun Cheerleader Skipper, Dream Date Skipper, Sleeping Beauty Skipper, Wet ‘n’ Wild Skipper, Pizza Party Skipper, Phone Fun Skipper, Disney’s Peter Pan Flying Tinker Bell (played by Skipper), and School Going Skipper (available only in India).

In 2009, Skipper’s beachy, party girl vibe was toned down in yet another redesign.   Now rocking a colored streak in her hair, Skipper is obsessed by her smart gadgets and all things technological. But she’s not a sulky, antisocial brat who can’t put down her phone.  In  Sisters Save the Day (New York: Random House, 2019), which belongs to the series Step into Reading starring Barbie, friends, and family, when the power goes off,  Skipper is coaxed into being a good sport and goes camping with the family.  She is more than happy to help her totally awesome big sister (who looks like she stepped out of Frozen) make sure Mom makes her project deadline.   Not quite the 1970s coloring book, but not as different as you might expect…

The negative reaction to Growing Up Skipper seems pretty tame in comparison to two  recent scandals in Toyland. Faced with accusations of encouraging pedophilia in 2020, Mattel rival Hasbro was obliged to recall its Trolls World Tour Poppy doll, which giggled and gasped when the button between its legs was pressed.   Some L. O. L. Surprise Dolls were found to be flaunting tattoos, suggestive lingerie, etc.that become visible only after being submerged in ice-cold water.  Outraged parents felt they should not have to explain this novelty feature to their children, when they discovered it on their own. It was, however, hinted at in the advertising, so MGA Entertainment, for whom we also have to thank for the BRATZ dolls, chose to stare down the protesting customers, and did not withdraw the offending products. This is probably not the end of the line for inappropriately sexual dolls.   But what will the manufacturers dream up next?

Thanks to my family in New Zealand, whose memories of Growing Up Skipper during a Zoom call inspired this post.

Floyd Cooper (1956-2021): Picture Book Historian of Black Americans

Three-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for the most distinguished portrayal of African American experience in literature for children or teens, Floyd Cooper passed away July 16 2021 from cancer. He was sixty-five.

So many of the 110 books he illustrated brought out the heroic, intimate, and joyful dimensions in American Black lives past and present, beginning in 1988 with Eloise Greenfield’s Grandpa’s Face. Over the years Cooper collaborated with notable Black writers for children and young adults Eloise Greenfield, Joyce Carol Thomas, Walter Dean Myers, Nikki Grimes, Patricia McKissack, Jacqueline Woodson, Howard Bryant, and Carole Boston Weatherford.  The last book he illustrated, Weatherford’s Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, drew on his grandfather’s memories as a survivor of the tragedy.  Nikki Grimes told Publisher’s Weekly, that the book was “a good note to go out on. He left us all wanting more.”

Cooper was a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma and one of his earliest memories was scratching shapes into the side of the house  at age three.  Art kept him grounded during a childhood unsettled by divorce: in each of the eleven elementary schools he attended, he connected with the art teachers and showed them his work.  His talent was recognized by the award of an art scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, where he graduated in 1978 with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts.  After college, he headed out to Kansas City to start work in the greeting card design department of Hallmark. The unpromising job of erasing and changing old cards was the genesis of the “subtractive process” that gives his illustrations their distinctive look. In 2018 he described in illuminating detail his unique approach to picture making, a process of erasing shapes from a background of oil paint.

Cooper’s art radiates a warmth that is partly grounded in capturing the individuality of the figures on the pages.  He typically used models, often  drawing his sons, their friends, and family members.  In an interview with Brown Bookshelf, he explained that “I tend to focus on the humanity of my subjects, the details of expression that add a certain reality to the work. Real faces = real art. That’s the goal anyway.”   The uniqueness of the brown faces in every book linger in the mind.In Sprouting Wings: The True Story of James Herman Banning, the First African American Pilot to Fly Across the United States by Louisa Jaggar and Shari Becker (New York: Crown, 2021), the reader also feels the young pilot’s excitement  when he pulls the plane up off the ground for the first time.

The climax of Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation by Pat Sherman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) shows the moment in the slave prison when young Benjamin Holmes no longer has to conceal his ability to read. One night word gets around the prison that Abraham Lincoln has freed the slaves and the illiterate inmates pool their money to buy a newspaper to see if the rumor is true. They ask Ben to read it to them and he does so with all the gravity the occasion demands.

Hands as a symbol of the dignity of work recurs in Cooper’s art.  Charles R. Smith Jr. tells the story of enslaved men’s unappreciated contribution to the construction of the White House in Brick by Brick (New York: Amistad, 2013).  Cooper draws hands skillfully wielding tools, lifting heavy burdens, and perhaps most poignantly, mixing clay, sand, and water to make bricks.  The weary boy looks at some point in the distance as he works.

A grandfather’s still nimble fingers can teach his grandson to tie his shoes, pick out a tune on the piano, throw a baseball, and knead bread dough.  Yet those skilled hands were stigmatized as dirty and forbidden by his employer Wonder Bread to touch the dough because white customers wouldn’t eat the product if they knew who made it. These Hands by Margaret H. Mason (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,2010) celebrates the Black workers successful labor action against discriminatory labor practices at the Detroit Wonder Bread bakery in the 1960s.

The young Frederick Douglass’s face is a study in just anger against an agent of cruel and arbitrary injustice, an anger strong enough to sustain resistance, even if it means risking death.  This remarkable illustration appears in Walter Dean Myers’ Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History (New York: Harper, 2017).

Rosa Parks, her hair pulled primly back, in Aaron Reynolds” Back of the Bus (New York: Philomel, 2010) doesn’t strike the reader as the kind of a woman who sets out to make trouble.  Yet her quiet face looks as if she has decided not to be frightened  an image of an ordinary person who has discovered power deep within to protest disrespectful treatment against her people. The focus of this illustration of Black Wall Street in Carole Boston Weatherford’s Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (Minneapolis: Carolrhoda, 2021) is the confident, stylish lady who stands out in the crowd of other prosperous-looking shoppers.  Is she a symbol of the resentment White Tulsans harbored against the prosperous Black community that boiled over in 1921?Cooper’s joy in celebrating Black beauty takes its most irresistible form in his portraits of children.  This illustration of a little girl exploding with laughter is just as beguiling as the more famous one on the cover of Joyce Carol Thomas’s poems in Blacker the Berry (New York: Joanna Cotler Books, 2008).   In this fiercely partisan age we are living through, the compassion that shines through Floyd Cooper’s picture books will be missed.