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.