The rise and fall of Barbie

No female childhood in the 1960s was complete without a Barbie or three. In the beginning, there was only one version, with long dark hair in a permanent ponytail. Of course, the permanence of the pony tail was not initially evident. This feature was discovered when Carol, who lived next door, decided to style Barbie’s hair and cut off the band around the ponytail to reveal the fact that Barbie was completely bald when the Donald Trump-like swoop of hair was no longer secured at the back of her neck. Strike one for Barbie’s lack of congruence with real life.

Once liberated from her box, all bets were off for Barbie’s safety and security. Her arrival outfit included a dress, purse and pair of shoes (shaped to fit feet that were molded into perpetual high heel position). There was no Barbie on earth that had two shoes beyond the first twenty minutes of box freedom. This was a bit of a problem since she couldn’t stand up without shoes. And without matching shoes, there was no reason to safeguard the lifespan of the purse and at that point we lost all pretense of the concept of a fully accessorized Barbie ‘outfit’. I do not recall any such thing as Barbie underwear, so she was always commando underneath her ball gown. We did not think this was strange.

Playing with Barbies was either active or passive. The active play placed Barbie in many perilous situations, like being dangled from the clothes line and carried along from one end to the other to fly about the yard (travelling around the pulley end being a particularly dangerous endeavor), or having a mock funeral in the flower bed. If we got distracted while playing ‘dead Barbie’, the Barbie population dwindled temporarily until the flower bed was dug up in the fall. We also made her cigarettes from the sticks of used suckers. Wisely, she did not inhale.

The passive Barbie was mostly an idle prop that rested in our laps while wearing her best fancy shoeless outfit, as we sat in a circle in the backyard discussing topics of utmost importance to seven and eight-year-olds, like which Beatle we were going to marry. There was always a big argument over who got dibs on Paul and who was going to be stuck with Ringo (again). Ironically, Ringo has now morphed into the ‘good looking’ Beatle. Unfortunately, hindsight is always twenty-twenty. As a testament to the wholesome influence of Barbie, we never discussed which one of the Rolling Stones we were going to run away with.

Of course, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and many Barbie knock-offs emerged. I had one called Tressy, whose manufacturer clearly pounced on the Barbie hair flaw. Tressy had a full head of hair that ‘grew’ if you turned a plastic key in a keyhole in her back. You could also shorten her hair by turning the key the other way. Alas, Tressy’s key soon ended up in the same parallel universe as Barbie’s shoes and her hair got stuck sticking out horizontally just below her ears, kind of like Andy Warhol’s. Anyhow, we never confused Barbie or her clones with anything that was supposed to look like a real human. And we all thought Ken was a dork.

But recently there was bad news for Barbie and not just because of lame imitations. Apparently, retailers are still clearing out dusty Barbies from last year’s Christmas season, leading to a 21% drop in global sales this quarter, which is the fourth straight double-digit decline. And of course, as Barbie goes so do the fortunes of Mattel, which has had a corresponding 22% decline in profits and a stock price plunge of 38% so far this year.

Barbie has been under the cloud of controversy several times, but I am prepared to cut her some slack since at fifty-five it would be more alarming if she hadn’t ruffled some feathers in the course of her relentless quest for fame. As far as I know there is no definitive (or any) Barbie biography or autobiography out there. Perhaps since she appears poised on the edge of doll retirement it might be time to publish one. Here are some of the facts that are likely to be revealed in a Barbie tell-all.

Although she has been referred to by one name much longer than either Cher or Madonna, her full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts. She quite wisely quickly ditched the Millicent part (I’m not sure a Milly doll would have caught on quite so quickly).

Barbie’s people say she attended High School but the details are rather sketchy and contradictory. Was it Willows High in Willows, Wisconsin or Manhattan International High School in New York City? A deeper dive into some investigative reporting is clearly required here. Despite her dubious educational qualifications, Barbie has about 150 jobs on her resume, including registered nurse, rock star, aerobics instructor, and police officer. You can see how these jobs are all closely related. This works out to about four jobs per year if we assume she started working as a model at age seventeen, and means her resume has no hope of achieving the best practice of being contained on two pages. It also begs the question of who keeps hiring her knowing her tenure on the job will be three months on average.

Not to be daunted by pursuing any career that might appeal to her, Barbie has run (unsuccessfully) for President of the United States six times since 1992. Barbie also says she was an astronaut who walked on the moon four years before Neil Armstrong. Although she does hold a pilot’s license and spent some time (I would guess three months) as a flight attendant, this is clearly such a fabricated claim that I hope her resume gets revised before she runs again for the highest office in the land, because there are many indications that she may well win next time.

In her most recent grandstanding effort, Barbie said she was on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue this year. In reality, her PR people struck some kind of deal to feature her on an ‘overwrap’ of the real cover, which presumably had women inside who were at least somewhat less plastic. Nice try Barbie.

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