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.

The Secret Life of Plants…

And dolls and inanimate objects… not to mention insects, birds, and other animals.

One of my favorite old Twilight Zone episodes imagines what happens to department store mannequins “after hours”: they come to life with human interactions and desires–including the desire to see the world of real people outside the store… Rod Serling was widely (and rightly) praised for imagining the interior lives of inanimate objects, animating them, and imbuing them with “humanity.”

Tenniel's famed illustrations of anthropomorphized playing cards in Alice in Wonderland.

Tenniel’s famed illustrations of anthropomorphized playing cards in Alice in Wonderland.

Yet a reader of nineteenth-century children’s books will find nothing all that startling about inanimate objects coming to life.  We’re all familiar with the pack of playing cards that springs to life in Alice in Wonderland led by the notorious Queen of Hearts (“Off with her head!”)–although truth be told, animated playing cards appeared earlier, in William Newbery’s History of the King and Queen of Spades (published in the early 1800s).

And several relatively early Warne toy book titles present similar imaginative renderings, using the toy book’s unusual synergy between text and illustrations.  In Warne’s Jack in the Box (issued between 1866 and 1881), a Christmas gift jack-in-the-box magically seems to animate himself and he adopts a changing series of different costumes and personas:sailor, grenadier, ploughman, carpenter, jester, harlequin, and back into a sailor. Three-quarter page chromoxylographs vividly present the changes described in the verse text and show the children audience’s delight at them.

Frontispiece ill. depicts Violet as a doll handed over to Fanny, and last ill. returns Violet to an inanimate state as Fanny the now-mature Fanny passes her along.

Frontispiece ill. depicts Violet as a doll handed over to Fanny, and last ill. returns Violet to an inanimate state as Fanny the now-mature Fanny passes her along.

And in Warne’s Life of a Dollissued between 1867 and 1868, Violet, the doll belonging to a little girl named Fanny, is presented as a play-thing in England who somehow comes to life and accompanies her mistress on a journey overseas when Fanny’s colonel father deploys to India. As Fanny’s constant traveling companion–much like other female traveling companions common in fiction of the time–Violet “becomes a great traveler” and is pictured visiting “exotic” sights in Indiaand later being received at the French court,” where she receives a diamond locket from Empress Eugenie, who has “heard of the little English girl’s walking doll.”(Eugenie fled France for England in 1870 with the onset of the Franco-Prussian War, which would seemingly confirm a publication date before then.)  But after Fanny’s family returns to England a number of years later, the now-older Fanny “no longer cared to play with dolls,” so she gives Violet to her younger cousin, Amelia.

Fairly standard narrative fare, but extended here by the accompanying graphical element.  Violet is first described and pictured as an inanimate doll. Then, the text narrates that Violet “stood up” by Fanny at a party, and most of the chromoxylographed illustration panels in the story depict her as an ambulatory active entity, magically imbued with the ability to move through means unspecified. The very last quarter-page illustration presents her as a mere doll again though, as she is being handed over to a new owner, thus returning her to the inanimate state she had at the beginning of the story.

What sort of imaginative alchemy, or narrative “instability,” is this?  The apparent answer, I think, lies in the last lines of text, which tell us that Fanny herself “wrote this life of a doll,” so she is the fictive author of the narrative. But while the text may be Fanny’s, the illustrations seemingly present what she herself imaginatively experiences when her doll “comes to life.”  A reader could read Fanny’s text alone as a child’s figurative speaking while daydreaming about playing with her favorite doll (just think of how most American Girl advertisements present girls and their dolls).  But the illustrations clearly show Violet as a moving, apparently living, entity–and they thus add a literal aspect to the overall presentation of her coming to life.

Most ills. present Violet as "a walking doll," as when she amazes the "Hindoos," who bow in homage, or receives a locket from the Empress. Perhaps Fanny's child's imagination is the transformative force?

Most ills. present Violet as “a walking doll,” as when she amazes the “Hindoos,” who bow in homage, or receives a locket from the Empress. Perhaps Fanny’s child’s imagination is the transformative force?

Illustration in Life of a Doll thus functions in an almost metatextual way, commenting on the text and expanding its meaning to a reader/viewer in a way that seemingly goes far beyond the role we usually assign to illustrations “depicting” a narrative or “accompanying” it.

It shouldn’t really surprise us that the imaginative feats in Life of a Doll and Jack in the Box take place in are heavily-illustrated “toy books,” any more than it should that Alice is virtually inconceivable without Tenniel’s illustrations.  Words alone can hardly convey the amazing spectacle of objects coming to life without the imaginative aid of vivid illustrations, in particular to a child reader perhaps more inclined to read a text and the events it describes more literally that an adult would.  Words use rhetorical or language-based devices, such as simile or metaphor, to describe events and bring them to life; illustration depicts life, or at least one way of rendering  it.  The modes of presentation–and the reader-perceiver’s negotiation with them–are thus different, and expansively open-ended to new meanings, potentially complementary, but still new and different and potentially independent of the text.

Speaking of anthropomorphized entities, children’s books of course abound with all sorts of animals dressing, speaking, and acting like people, particularly in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries.  Think of the works of Beatrix Potter or Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.  Then, of course, there are older, traditional fairy stories like The White Cat, The Hind in the Wood, or The Frog Prince, the last two famously reimagined by Walter Crane in his toy book series. The list of animals dressed up and acting like people–often reenacting human frailties and foibles in a satiric manner–goes on and on.  (Just think of all the personified animals in Aesop’s Fables.)

Walter Crane's "blushing Rose" (Queen Summer) Inspired by Mrs. Rose?

Walter Crane’s “blushing Rose” (Queen Summer) Inspired by Mrs. Rose? Queen Summer. London: Cassell & Co., [1891] (Cotsen 9572)

Plants may be “less fertile ground” (sorry!) for such imaginative renderings, and there seem to be far fewer instances where we find them brought to life in children’s books.  But Crane imagines worlds of animated plants sprung to life in Flora’s Feast (1889) and Queen Summer (1891)–which he both wrote and illustrated, again suggesting how language and image–the verbal and the visual–can be conjoint in presenting objects, or at least plants,  as they become animated.  Queen Flora and Queen Summer both waken their plant dominions, which come forth in masque-like processions of animated courtly flowers and plants, presented in brilliant chromoxylographed colors, thanks to the printing of Edmund Evans.  Color-printed work like that wouldn’t have been technically possible just a relatively few years before Crane rendered them.

Frontispiece of Mrs. Rose (with family members?) planning her party.

Frontispiece of Mrs. Rose (with family members?) planning her party. The Rose’s Breakfast. London: Harris, 1808 (Cotsen)

Despite the pleasure of having worked with titles by Crane and Carroll via my Cotsen cataloging, John Harris’s The Rose’s Breakfast still came as a surprise and a delight when I came across it recently.  In this story, envious shrubs and flowers, having heard of the delights of The Peacock at HomeThe Butterfly’s BallThe Grasshopper’s Feast, and The Elephant’s Ball (all works in which insects and animals spring to personified life for festive rites) plan a “gala” of their own, organized by Mrs. Rose.

The anonymous author of The Rose’s Breakfast imagines a problem though–and a deliciously imaginative solution.  Flowers “want the organs of speech” so how can such an event be organized?   Simple: Mrs. Rose, “in high beauty”  issues invitations by “send[ing] out her fragrance to invite the company” of plants and flowers.  But what of Mr. Rose, identified as “Mr. Pluto Rose”?  (A Pluto Rose is a type of very dark red, late-seasoned-blooming, flat-petaled rose.) Well, the author tells us that “he never interfered with the pursuits of his wife; he only declared he should not appear, and as he was “a very dark-looking Rose without any sweet,” the writer tells us, and Mrs. Rose is “delighted at the declaration,” so she can have a free hand in her society machinations.  (Intimations of the revenge of Persephone on her dark, reclusive consort?)

The stout Lord Oak, with Britannic lion and his fleet in the background.

The stout Lord Oak, with Britannic lion and his fleet in the background. The Rose’s Breakfast. (Cotsen)

Much planning for the party of the season ensures, entailing the assistance of Mrs. Larch and Lady Acacia, the latter eager to introduce “her niece Robinia from America” to society.  Visitors from abroad accept, including “all the cedars and firs,” except for Mrs. Larch’s “cousin from Lebanon” and even all the forest trees agree to attend, except the haughty Lord Oak, depicted in his Nelsonesque Napoleonic admiral’s uniform, who “never condescended to go to such meetings.”

The breakfast party enjoys quite a cast of characters, beautifully illustrated in hand-colored engravings and wittily described, among them, Mrs. Birch, “dressed with an elegant lightness of drapery,” Lady Aspen, “continually shaking her leaves as if she was twittering,” the “famous Roses” (all the Henrys, Edwards and Richard the Third), Mrs. Myrtle, Lady Orange-Tree, Lord Heliotropium, Mr. Monkey-Plant, the Evergreens of rank and nobility, “many Laurels,” Mrs. Lily with her elegant head-dress, Lord Tulip with the Duchess of Hyacinth, and Lady Sensitive.

Lady Sensitive quivers at her invitation, but not in sweet anticipation.

Lady Sensitive quivers at her invitation, but not in sweet anticipation. The Rose’s Breakfast. (Cotsen)

Much like Shelley’s description of Lady Sensitive’s namesake in his poem, “The Sensitive Plant” (first published in 1820), Lady Sensitive is illustrated as a Plain Jane with a simple dress, or as Shelley described her:  having “no bright flower” since “radiance and odour are not its dower… It desires what it has not, the beautiful.”  The similar presentation of the sensitive plant and 1820 publication date of Shelley’s poem invite the question:  Did Shelley read the anonymous Rose’s Breakfast, which first appeared in 1808, when the poet would have been only sixteen years old, and perhaps take inspiration from it?

Courtly fashion avatar, Lord Tulip, with a dowager-like Duchess of Hyacinth.

Courtly fashion avatar, Lord Tulip, with a dowager-like Duchess of Hyacinth. The Rose’s Breakfast. (Cotsen)

But amidst all the splendor of The Rose’s Breakfast’s plant-world’s version of “society” in its finery, some guests do not behave with appropriate decorum: Mrs. Ivy is too clinging to her social betters, the Hothouse plants socialize only in their own circle,” and “the Nettles, Thistles, and Firge were very troublesome.”  And some plants are not honored with invitations at all, as Mrs. Rose’s breakfast apes courtly standards; the entire Kitchen Garden is left off the guest list, “notwithstanding the elegant simplicity”  of many of them.  Brilliant floral raiment trumps personality or merit in Mrs. Rose’s considerations.

Some members of the Kitchen Garden, pictured as distinctly working class.

Some members of the Kitchen Garden, pictured as distinctly working class. The Rose’s Breakfast. (Cotsen)

Among those disappointed are: Mrs. Onion, Mrs. Cabbage, Mr. Bean–all depicted as distinctly working class–and Mrs. Bramble, the latter who “was very sharp at not being invited.” Also left off the guest list are:  many “perennials,” apparently being somewhat past their peak at this time of year, and the Misses Crocus, Violet, and Jonquil, and Mrs. Almond because “their beauty was gone by.”  Clearly Mr’s Rose’s event is an summertime English garden party!

The social trials and tribulations of hostessing ultimately prove almost too much for Mrs. Rose, much like a contemporary, society-obsessed Jane Austen social butterfly.  She  becomes “so fatigued” by “her dissipation” that she completely loses her bloom and comes out “no more this season.”  She is saved only by the professional ministrations of Dr. Gardener and the lavish care of her maid, Valerian, who presumably exerts a suitably calming effect on her frazzled mistress.  Notably, neither of these pivotal, but simply-attired characters is presented to us in an illustration–vanity, vanity…

Detail of Mrs Rose, with her invitation plainly legible: Mrs Rose presents her Fragrance.

Detail of Mrs Rose, with her invitation plainly legible: Mrs Rose presents her Fragrance. The Rose’s Breakfast. (Cotsen)

The “instructional” moral of the “amusing” dazzle of words and illustrations in the story finally becomes explicit, although there have certainly been strong intimations of this beforehand. It is only with “the greatest difficulty” that the struggling Dr. Gardener  manages to “keep her [Mrs. Rose] properly clothed” (imitations of a distracted King Lear?) via an enforced “confinement.”  Despite everything, Mrs. Rose remains “a slave to fashion, and nearly became one of its martyrs.”  Apparently incorrigible, she “still possesses so much vanity and lightness of manner” that she obeys Dr. Gardener only because of Pluto Rose’s injunction about “propriety”,  but we readers know better, having learned our lesson.  While Mrs. Rose has apparently learned nothing from her travails, we have been instructed by the events in the story, as well as thoroughly delighted by its interplay of language and illustration.

Publication History Note:
The Roses Breakfast was issued by Harris in a single edition of 1808, printed by Henry Bryer, an apparent testimony to its lack of lasting popularity with readers.  (In contrast, The Butterfly’s Ball and The Peacock at Home, both went through quite a number of Harris editions after their initial printings.)

The Roses Breakfast was later included in F.V. Lucas’s collection of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century stories: Forgotten Tales of Long Ago (c. 1906), where Lucas, in his Introduction, termed it: “poverty-stricken in fancy and very paltry in tone.”  Lucas added: “I am amazed to think I ever marked it for inclusion [in the collection] at all … the idea of making beautiful flowers as mean-spirited as trumpery men and women can be being totally undesirable [but] it was too late to take it out… Possibly its badness may incite someone to write a better, and that would be my justification.”

The full text of the Rose’s Breakfast is available online (although, sadly without illustrations) at: