Barbie: The Doll Who Will Live Forever?

Cultural commentators have had a lot to say about Greta Gerwig’s smash summer movie, but no one I’ve read has considered Gerwig and Baumbach’s clever script as a post-modern take on a classic doll story like Rachel Field’s Hitty: Her First One Hundred Years (1929). The first I know of was Richard Johnson’s The History of a Doll (ca. 1780).  The heroine Charlotte could  describe and comment upon her experiences to the reader, from being carved from a tree branch to passing through several owners’ hands.  After surviving many accidents that required extensive restoration of her face and body, she was eventually burnt up in a fire.  Her lack of agency is central to the action: appearing lifeless to her owners, she is as much at their mercy, as if she were a servant or an enslaved person.

Barbie’s origins are more glorious than poor old Charlotte’s.  The little girls on earth are caring for their baby dolls when they see her in a striped one-piece bathing suit descending from the heavens like a goddess.  The little girls are so enchanted by the prospect of possessing a far more glamorous and empowering plaything that they immediately cast aside the baby dolls and heartlessly smash them to bits.  A less violent version of this scenario with a fairly happy ending plays out in Brenda’s “Victoria-Bess,” in which a beautiful expensive doll rules the nursery until deposed by an even more fashionable French one.  Ordered by her fickle, spoiled mistress to throw the shabby former favorite into the trash, a charitable relative rescues the humbled Victoria-Bess, who gratefully goes to a new owner, a poor girl recovering from surgery in the hospital.

Gerwig’s Barbie behaves less like a doll than an autonomous being that is not exactly human.  While the first shot is of a Mattel doll, the subsequent footage features Margot Robbie, who flirtatiously lowers her shades and winks.   What is that gesture supposed to mean?  A signal to not to overthink the ride on the hot pink roller coaster?  But the cracks and inconsistencies reveal some interesting angles on her creator’s game.

After Barbie finds herself thinking about death and her feet flatten, she is urged to consult the oracular Weird Barbie, a victim of rough doll play, from whom she learns that there’s a patch of cellulite on her thigh (surely impossible on hard plastic) and her old owner must be messing with her. While the director acknowledges that doll play comprises savagery, she roller blades around the possible plot implications of the Barbies being subject to the whims of Real World owners.  If Weird Barbies constituted the underclass, then mobs of mangled, neglected dolls like the one led by the Bad Doll in Ian McEwan’s The Daydreamer, might periodically roil Barbie Land.  If most girls’ nights were stopped dead by outbursts of existential angst, then the Barbies would all be in analysis and there would have to be a health care system.  The truly flawless Barbies could only belong to collectors, museums or extremely meticulous kids.  They would constitute the ruling class, which would disturb the benevolent, egalitarian administration of Barbieland’s vacuous perfection.Without any memories of having been a child’s plaything, Stereotypical Barbie has to seek the complete stranger who transferred anxieties to her and disrupted the rhythms of an rosy eternal now in the Real World (Los Angeles, naturally).   Throughout Barbie’s adventures, she is perceived neither as a doll or a human being all of the time: her status may fluctuate according to the situation, but her affect never changes.  When she crosses the border into Venice Beach, she passes for human in spite of her outfit—which didn’t seem especially outré for La-La-Land–because she attracts attentions from construction workers and a random bystander gives her shapely bottom a big smack.  The Mattel suits have no trouble identifying her as the doll that has to go back in the box, yet she can run like a gazelle in the painted-on, hot pink, lace-up bell bottom pants through the corporate head quarter’s labyrinthine corridors and maze of offices.

Reunited her owner and daughter, they all return to Barbieland and set the things which have gone so terribly wrong back to rights with the Mattel suits in hot pursuit.  After quelling the Kens’ abortive insurgence and restoring the matriarchy with only a few gracious concessions to the rebels, Stereotypical Barbie expresses the desire to be a real girl in the Real World.  She turns for help to Ruth Handler, the marketing barracuda behind the brand in her final incarnation as a sweet old bubbe who listens sympathetically over cups of tea.  This stand-in for a fairy godmother cautions her creation that humans get only one exit, but ideas live forever (presumably “Girls can do anything”). If Barbie truly wishes to be flesh and blood, i.e. sentient with a vagina, she, like Dorothy Gale, has always had the power to make her dream come true.  Without a dramatic wave of a wand that transforms plastic to muscle and bone (holding Ruth’s hands seem to have had something to do with it), the doll-being formerly known as Stereotypical Barbie leaves her dream house for Los Angeles, slips her flat feet into pink Birkenstocks, and is dropped off at the gynecologist’s.    And that’s all, folks.  No promise that she’ll live happily ever after.

For over a decade, a succession of creative teams tried to bring Barbie to the big screen, but crashed, and burned.  Margot Robbie was sure no one would finance the Gerwig-Baumbach script.  A successful director of small-budget Indie films who was ready to break the glass ceiling, Gerwig has to have known what side her bread was buttered on.  One way of keeping the plate with the Mattel logo up in the air was to avoid dark aspects which have always been present in doll stories.  Her claim that the movie had to be “totally bananas” could be interpreted as a palatable but slippery justification for furiously whipping the mixture to a froth and never letting it deflate. “Totally bananas” means that the poster boys for patriarchy had to be paper tigers.  The Mattel executives are more bumbling than the Keystone Cops, the Kens too disorganized to remember the all-important constitutional vote, and who could take Alan seriously?  The heartbroken Stereotypical Ken had to be satisfied by the stale old Tinseltown line that the key to happiness is the discovering that being yourself is better than good enough..  And the paradise of Barbies?  It’s a stretch to take seriously President Barbie, Dr. Barbie, Diplomat Barbie, etc. when they were brainwashed as easily as if they were bimbos (they are styled like them too).  Gloria’s rousing oration has no relevance to the powerhouses of Barbieland, none of whom have offspring to complicate their lives.  It’s really pitched to feminists and tired moms in the auditorium and to me it sounded more like a prompt to cheer at a pep rally than a serious statement about the difficulties of modern women’s lives.  And what would Ordinary Barbie look like?  Would she really be a marketable commodity?  Given the silliness of almost everyone Stereotypical Barbie meets during the film, it is hard to envision the advantages of trading one condition for the other.  Writer Barbie or exhausted executive assistant?  Unlike a doll in a traditional it-narrative, Stereotypical Barbie has told audience members too little about her thoughts and feelings for them to understand her dramatic change of heart.  Or did she?

With a billion dollars and counting in profits this week, Gerwig doesn’t have to apologize to anyone for any of her creative decisions. As eye-poppingly imaginative as the script and art direction was, more substantial ideas might have been mixed in with the fun for viewers to think about after they left the show.  Having seen it a second time last night with a first-time viewer, there’s plenty to talk about after the credits roll, but how much is the herky-jerky race through a landscape so packed with details that it makes your eyes bug.  Perhaps the film could be compared to a very elaborate doll house presented to a young girl, which the Edgeworths observed in Practical Education (1798), may not be able to hold her attention long, even though she may peep inside from time to time.

A furnished baby-house [ i.e. doll house] proves as tiresome to a child as a finished seat is to a young nobleman.  After peeping, for in general only a peep can be had into each apartment, after being roughly satisfied that nothing is wanting, and that consequently, there is nothing to be done.

Fashion and Beauty in Barbie Novels from the early 1960s

Look for vintage clothes for Barbie from the1960s and you’ll find more ensembles that can fit in the closets in her dream house.  Search for reviews of the pioneering novels about the girl who is the living doll and you’ll come up price and identification guides plus some cover designs for the thirteen novels Random House issued between 1962 and 1965.

Cynthia Lawrence and Bette Lou Maybee collaborated on the majority of the volumes, but they seem to have left few traces behind, except for entries in the copyright records and a single box in the Random House archive at Columbia University.  A romantic explanation for the gaps in the record would be that these novels were written for money under assumed names by people who did not want to connected with them in the future, should their careers take off.   A more earthbound one is that they found employment elsewhere in publishing or in another industry altogether.  A really satisfying and completely unproven possibility is that one of them had been a Stratemeyer Syndicate writer in the Nancy Drew mill.

Whoever Lawrence and Maybee were, the world of difference between their presentation of the iconic character and in the later publications such as the 12-volume Barbie and Friends Book Club (Grolier, 1998-1999, pictured at the end) seems to have passed unnoticed.  In comparison to those later titles  promoting the well-established hydra-headed money-making brand, the short stories and novels of Lawrence and Maybee function something like a courtesy book for early sixties girlhood, a successor and competitor with the Nancy Drew mysteries.   Barbie is clearly a real girl and her connection to the doll is really not developed or exploited, although it is impossible to forget it.

“The Size 10 Dress” in the first volume, Here’s Barbie, is cringe-making. “Big Bertha,” a size 14 blonde damned to wear slimming shirtwaists, goes on a diet, determined to become like Barbie so she won’t sit at home any more.  Barbie encourages her to step out and join in, knowing that Bertha’s father is too busy and clueless to guide her in the womanly arts, but finds it embarrassing at being copied down to her lipstick color.  Bertha breaks down when the home-economics teacher won’t let her model the dress  identical to the one Barbie made, but she takes to heart Barbie’s advice “I’m just an ordinary girl, no better or worse than you or any other girl!  But I’m me.  And you should be yourself too.  When you try to become me, you’re just half a person and you make me less than myself.”  With Barbie’s coaching, a new hair cut, and the power of accessorizing, the new Bertha steps out on the stage with Barbie at the school fashion show.

The play in the same volume, “The Easter Hat,” shows Barbie the candy-striper volunteering in the local rest home, with a tip of the hat to the classic Hollywood film with Judy Garland and Fred Astaire.  One of the residents, who had been a Broadway star in her youth, gives Barbie the Easter bonnet she wore when her husband proposed to wear in the Easter Parade.   Barbie denies herself the joy of buying a smart new chapeau with her own money to show off on Sunday and instead organizes a surprise parade at the facility, where she and Ken bring up the rear in vintage costume, much to the delight of the ladies.

Barbie’s New York Summer is a whirl-wind account of her Teen Magazine internship, during which she effortlessly picks up the fundamentals of modelling and of fashion journalism.  In the evenings, she is driven to the Village in the red Jaguar of the adoring Latin trust-fund baby Pablo, who does his best to replace the faithful, steady All-American future lawyer, Ken in her affections. He’s a powerful temptation, who wouldn’t have any trouble being a playwright and keeping her in filmy frocks, matching pumps, gloves and tiny evening bags that Grace Kelly might wear.  (It’s surely no coincidence that Mattel has issued Grace Kelly dolls from Alfred Hitchcock’s films To Catch a Thief and Rear Window in their Barbie line).  The chic editor who bears no resemblance to Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, offers her a permanent position before she graduates from high school.  But in the end, Barbie’s head isn’t turned because she realizes that she loves and misses her life in Willows too much to leave home for the big city–she still has a lot of growing up to do and that process might take her down other paths before she returns to the industry she has come to love.   The editor thinks that Barbie has made the right choice and reassures her that the job will be there when she is ready.  And so will Pablo, which is just too good to be true.

It’s easy, for example, to find evidence of a fixation on thinness in the three books–the adjective “slim” is always a compliment and the most attractive characters, like Barbie’s mother and her Latin lover Pablo, conform to that body type. “The Size 10 Dress” concludes with a chart in which to record the reader’s measurements and more.  Overall the co-authors indirectly emphasize inner beauty as more important as outer, show that kindness to others is more satisfying than indulging personal pleasures, and suggest that listening to ambition without checking in with the heart and head may not lead the way to the best path forward.  Barbie Millicent Roberts in these books may be blonde, pretty and well-dressed enough to turn heads wherever she goes, but she is not a terrible role model, being  a thoughtful, intelligent, empathetic teenager instead of an airhead clotheshorse.   Of course she is too nice to be believable, when she should by all rights be the queen of mean girls.    Where on the scale of role models will the Barbie(s) in Greta Gerwig’s hot pink star-studded extravaganza fall?