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Icon of the month: Barbie

Brian Draper

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Maybe there is something to cloning after all. When Barbie was conceived in 1959, who would have thought that, come her 40th 'birthday' this month1, she would number well over a billion?

Like Peter Pan, the leggy blonde has the secret of eternal youth. Imagine being trapped in a 17-year-old girl's body all those years! It may be every pubescent boy's fantasy, but sceptics would have said it could not be done: somewhere down the line, some generation would wake up to find your legs too long, your waist too slim, your boobs too plastic...
Seemingly not. Natasha Walter and her sisters may regret their choice of childhood playmate, but she remains the world's best-selling toy. In every country in which she is available - over 150 at present - she is the brand leader.
Is this more evidence of the unstoppable march of the invisible US empire? Its crack market forces have certainly been deployed effectively. The vision of youthful beauty, good ol' U-S-of-A-style, is capital to Mattel's shareholders. As the company boasts, 'Barbie continues to dominate as a powerful mega-brand worldwide.'

But it simultaneously denies the charge of cultural imperialism: after all, she has 'represented' other nations too. In 1989, in what must have been a defining moment for glasnost, she became 'Russian Barbie'. In 1998, Native Americans got the treatment. It seems that few had reservations.

So, what is the secret of her success? Why do millions of girls (and their parents) the world over warm to her fantastic dimensions? It can't be the realism. If Barbie were 'normal', she would be 5ft 6 tall and weigh 110 pounds. Her vital statistics would be an improbable 39-18-33. Quite a doll!

Mattel instead credits her triumph to its marketing strategy, which 'focuses on well-targeted communication, ensuring its messages meet the right girls'. The typical US consumer is aged three to 11 and owns ten of her.

With endless new lines hitting the streets, children cotton on early to the fashionably fickle nature of Western culture. Believe it or not, Mattel is one of the largest 'apparel manufacturers' in the world, due to the 114 million metres of fabric that have already gone into stretching Barbie's notion of self-identity to the max.

It may just be one culture's idea of a beauty, but the 500 makeovers and 120 new outfits a year designed to keep her at the 'leading edge of fashion' ensure that children grow up believing that being is all about becoming.

When she first moved into the doll's house next door, Barbie was a revolutionary. No longer would girls have to play with surrogate babies to prepare them for their future of caring domesticity. Instead they were sold a powerful new dream (with collector's box): a bigger idea of the future than their grandmas had ever toyed with.

As a modern girl, Barbie thus holds down several careers, from dentist to police officer, from athlete to astronaut. Her critics, however, complain that such jobs are all very well until you hear the patter of tiny feet. Perhaps it is lucky for Barbie that Ken was never given the wherewithal (beyond a discreet bulge) to oblige.

The same detractors also point out that you cannot separate the dream of success from the appearance of 'beauty' that accompanies her commercial viability. This particular role model had a model role, which is one that most of her wannabes cannot expect to enjoy.

If Barbie is a product of mass culture, then what about us? Are we producers ­ or products too? What of the dreams we buy and sell. Do we want them to come true? And who cares, anyway? Life in plastic is certainly fantastic. I'd hate to spoil the party.

1  This article was first published in March 1999 (Vol 22, No 2). It forms part of an archive that stretches back to 1977, and is available online. Barbie turned 50 in 2009, and while she now competes with a crowded tech and games toy market, more than 90% of US girls aged between three and ten still own one.

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