Skipper, Barbie’s Little Sister, Is Having Growing Pains

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.

Santa Claus Saves Christmas  Again!

Classic Santa Stout courtesy of Coke.

No cultural icon seems to be safe from scrutiny in these critical times.  Over the last few years, two authors have created picture books showing little readers that there’s room for improvement in Santa Land.  Is this driven by data showing that kids don’t like him roly-poly, generous, and jolly?  That they aren’t in awe of the one-man international parcel delivery service powered by reindeer that Amazon Prime has yet to beat? No, it’s his size, which is laid to the door of poor food choices at meals and snacks.  A mature elf who eats a plate of cookies at even a fraction of the houses visited on Christmas Eve is going to put on weight without regular exercise..

The stories offer different solutions to the same dilemma: can Santa lose weight in time for the Christmas Eve run?  Ralph Packard tries to make The North Pole Goes on a Diet (2017) a low-key, inspirational story about controlling weight through mindful eating and regular activity.

Vigilant Timmy the Elf. Ralph Packard. The North Pole Goes on a Diet. Illustrated by Tracy Egan. [U.S.A.: no publisher], c.2017.

One year some of the North Pole gang noticed that everybody had gotten plump, sluggish and grumpy.  Six months later Mrs. Claus tells Santa sorrowfully that his red suit can’t be let out: it is either lose weight or have a bigger suit made.

Santa on the scale.

Being an enlightened employer, Santa has a doctor, nurse, dentist, and vet up to the Pole to evaluate the team’s overall health.  The news isn’t good, but everybody takes the pledge to get fit and trim by the twenty-fourth.  Poor Santa has the most trouble finding a form of exercise he can stick with.  After failing with jazzerecise, yoga, the stationary bike, and weight-lifting, he settles into a daily hour-long walk with the dogs.  He gets into the old suit, the workshop hums with energy and good cheer, and everyone looks forward to the Welcome Home banquet on Christmas Day.  Professional losers may click their tongues at food as a reward for shedding weight as counterproductive: the loser has to substitute new ones.

The diverse North Pole team around the dinner table enjoying a healthy low-fat, high-fiber meal.

Before and after the North Pole diet…

Gently fat-shaming a beloved imaginary character to demonstrate that change is possible may be a positive strategy, but it’s not without problems. Yes, it’s good to emphasize that walking is a fine form of exercise, and yes, it’s sensible to admit that it’s hard to follow an exercise program.  But these are grown-up problems and grown-ups are not the audience for this picture book.  The author proceeded on the risky assumption that four- to eight-year-old were going to be engaged by this situation set in the North Pole.

No one in Packard’s ackowledgments noticed that at the beginning none of the characters  were drawn as visibly overweight and at the end they are unchanged after a six-month diet  Some kids will giggle at what is probably an oversight in continuity on the illustrator’s part, but there will be children so sensitive about body image that may read it as an indication that people can be overweight even though if they don’t look heavy.   They may see this anxiety reflected in themselves when they look in the mirror or at themselves in photos.  Even putting younger obese children on a diet is extremely complicated–they are still growing and haven’t developed like the degree of self-control the process takes.

Charlene Christie. Santa Claus Goes on a Diet. Illustrated by Peipei. [U.S.] ChristieSolutions, c.2012.

After stuffing himself for the first ten months of the year with Mrs. Claus’s excellent cakes, cookies and cupcakes, Santa discovers that not only can’t he get into his red suit, he doesn’t fit in the sleigh.  Mrs. Claus admits her baking has been a factor in this crisis, but quickly conjures up a no-carbs diet menu for the next sixty days: three French hen eggs and veggies for breakfast, cream of mistletoe soup for lunch, and pickled turkey legs with cranberry cider for dinner (seems cruel not to vary it a jot for all those weeks).  For exercise, Santa chases Dasher the reindeer around the yard for a hour.

Thanks, but I won’t be needing that suit after all!

He makes his goal with twelve days to spare and rewards Mrs. Claus for her cleverness with a kiss under the mistletoe, not a celebratory sweetie.  The plot is much simpler than the one in The North Pole, but the focus is squarely on Santa’s perseverance in the face of  privations, which is the right kind of silly for the picture book crowd (a comment by Christie’s son is often the springboard for a new book).  You can hear a four-year-old shriek “Yeeeeew,” at the idea of mistletoe cooked up in soup or  laugh at the ridiculous spectacle of Santa’s belly flopping while he runs after Dasher.  And the reward for this effort is not a bowl of fruit, but the pleasure of achieving a goal with the help of someone else who has your back.

As children’s book writers,Packard and Christie would probably be quite happy to designated as values educators, and the market (insofar as it can be determined on Amazon, who sells the books) has validated Christie as a successful one in the verified customer reviews.  One person notes that  “in my son’s words ‘he loved this  because Santa never gave up and ate his vegetables and because Mrs. Clause helped him.’”   Another customer touched on the difficulty of writing about the subject for children:

Diet books often give me pause as they can feed into self-esteem problems while denying the goodness of the body, no matter what the physique is. This one, thankfully, is innocent enough, even accepting Santa in the end if he fails his diet (tailor made an extra-big suit, just in case). In fact, the story, promotes good healthy habits and is funny...

A third, who tried this book on the strength of her niece’s enjoyment of another Christie picture book, was not disappointed: “This was a hit with both my 3 year old niece and my 11 year old daughter who read it to her. I recommend reading both children’s book by this author. Looking forward for more books to come. “   And more have come in the form of translations into Spanish, French, and German, and Kindle downloads.

The North Pole Goes on a Diet, on the other hand, seems not to have found an audience, in spite of its author’s good intentions. He names his avocation as  an animal rescue volunteer and thanks his two dog-children.   Perhaps he should have kept his eye on the child, instead of the dogs….