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.

Drum Cake from Betty Crocker’s Classic Cook Book for Boys and Girls (1957)

“If you use your cook book often I can promise you real fun and lots of good things to eat,” Betty Crocker told her young readers.  And she was as good as her word.  The last chapter, “Rules,”  which ought to have been first because it introduced the basics of kitchen safety, measuring, equipment, and vocabulary came after the recipes.  The book led off instead with “Extra Special,”  cakes, cookies, candies, and beverages “good things to make for parties—for holidays—for your friends—and just for fun.”   Betty may have been a corporate construct, but she was no fool.. She shrewdly figured more children would be lured into the kitchen to  stir up a batch of brownies than a pan of mac and cheese.  Her  beginners and their sweet-teeth learned right off the bat how to  grease and flour pans, use a spatula to scrape the last of the batter out of the mixing bowl, and test a cake for doneness  with straightforward recipes for chocolate sheet cake, cocoa fudge cake, and yellow layer cake.  Recipes and directions for frosting a cake followed, strategically placed to build confidence before introducing the delectable subsection of party cakes.

.The soldier with the marching side drum in Archibald Willard’s “The Spirit of ‘76” (1876) could have been the inspiration for this drum cake, which would bring the family Fourth of July picnic to a cracking conclusion.   It didn’t have to be made  from scratch: Betty Crocker’ mixes would save energy for the all-important job of decoration.   To imitate the zig-zag rope tensioning around the drum’s chocolate devil’s food shell, a pattern of peppermint sticks and maraschino cherries had to be pressed into the thick glossy coat of pure white fluffy icing.

Could eight- to twelve-year-olds, General Mills’ target audience, actually make this cake? Yes,  because a group of home testers,  eight girls and four boys identified on page 6, cooked every dish.  Tester Bette Anne explained that “We had to say if things were easy or hard and did they taste good.”  Veto power was in their hands. “ If we didn’t like it,” said tester Chris, “Betty Crocker didn’t put it in this book.”   The children’s comments were run above the lower margins and they designate the dishes they would make again, offered helpful hints, identified skills they wanted to polish, and even conceded the vegetable recipes were tasty.  The home testers were real kids who lived in Cranbury, New Jersey, but they would have been at home on Klickitat Street.  They made the book for many of the baby boomers who have hung on to their treasured dogeared, sticky copies.The editorial team that compiled Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls in the decade after World War II saw the kitchen as a space where budget-conscious meals were made with what was on hand.  Dinnertime came once a day, not once a year like taxes. As family members, kids were expected to help out with meal preparation, but they were also invited to be creative in the kitchen.  If a child wanted to surprise the family with a heart cake for Mother’s  or Valentine’s Day, a special shaped pan wasn’t necessary, with an 8-inch round and 8-inch square pan around.  Mother didn’t have to hover because the young baker could be trusted to have enough good sense to get the pans in and out of the hot oven and cut up the cooled cakes with a long sharp knife without accident.   It’s easy to point fingers at the outdated gender roles in the illustrations, like the exclusion of girls from the campfire cooking chapter or the insensitive representation of Indigenous and people of color in this cook book. Fifty-odd years out, I could not help but be struck at how refreshing it was  to see no signs of extravagant consumption signaling wealth and privilege— a batterie de cuisine, countertops full of appliances, a gastronomic library of print and on-line resources, shelves of ingredients from around the world—that so much of today’s more sophisticated home cooking depends upon upon.   Cakes made with butter taste better than ones made with hydrogenated shortening or from a mix, but Betty Crocker’s drum cake from 1957 is still within the means of more people than the birthday cake dreamed up for  a children’s birthday party in The Best of Gourmet (2005).I read and reread my well-thumbed copy of Betty Crocker  until I had perfect recall of all the color plates of the iconic party cakes.  I never made one of them. If the results were likely to fall short of the pictures, I was too intimidated to try.  Even if I hadn’t been daunted by the food styling, I  knew my health-conscious mother would nix the drum cake, because it required hard candy and maraschino cherries, full of sugar and red dye number 2.  She probably would have pointed out that the cake wouldn’t taste as good as it looked and I would have been reluctant to admit she was probably right.  Better to never bring up the subject than to concede the field later.   Or offer a face-saving explanation is that the cake construction gene skipped a generation.  My daughter or nieces down under would tackle a drum cake  in a heart’s beat as child’s play.   All I have to do is ask.