Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer It's A Barbie World

By Meredith Pierce

JULY 13, 1998:  Today we take her for granted as one of many super-popular toys, but there is a lot you might not know about Barbie. First off, between 1959 and 1997 a billion Barbies were sold in the world. Secondly, Barbie has boobs. And thirdly, you wouldn’t believe what some of the people out there do with their Barbies.

This is the kind of stuff uncovered by Susan Stern in her investigation of this doll and her creator. Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour details the impossibly proportioned doll’s history and her rise as an object of adoration and obsession. It airs on PBS Tuesday, July 14th.

“Two Barbie dolls are sold every second somewhere in the world,” says Mattel’s Lisa McKendall in the film. It seems as if Barbie is everywhere. According to the film, the average number of Barbies an American girl owns is eight. In Germany, the number is seven.

It’s not surprising that German girls love Barbie. They had her first. Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie and co-founder of Mattel, was traveling in Germany when she happened upon Lily, a 3-D pin-up doll marketed toward men. That was when her idea for Barbie jelled – an adult 3-D doll which would appeal to little girls.

Former Mattel advertising executive Sid Kahn remembers, “I could not believe that this doll was going to be marketed to kids.”

Why was he in disbelief? Because Barbie is stacked. Yes, Barbie has breasts, and they seem to be a focal point in the film, which sometimes goes a little off-track to explore them.

It is a fact that Barbie has a virtually unattainable body. That is, unless you’re a 6-foot-4 waif who just happened to be raised in a corset with a chest most exotic dancers would reduce. This issue is only explored through a scene with a bulimic young woman who is so edgy she appears on the verge of tearing her hair out. With eyes as big as saucers she admits, “I have to make sure everything else is perfect because if I can’t control this [her weight and body shape], then I have to control what I can control.”

It’s enough to make you want to send her a copy of Learning to Let Go.

Stern skips a beat when she tries to tie breast cancer to Barbie’s size-DDs. An early scene in the documentary shows a group protesting outside a toy store. They are blaming Barbie for cancer caused by breast implants. Supposedly, Barbie encourages a bad self-image, particularly for flat or average chested women. Stern tries to make a link here, but it’s a weak one. She probably deems it important because Handler lost her own breasts to breast cancer. The film ends with a reference to Nearly Me, Handler’s second company, which makes prosthetic breasts for women. Stern needed to choose. Either make a movie about Handler or make a movie about Barbie. Obviously they are tied together as creator and creation, but Stern loses her focus in this segment.

Barbies go beyond little girls playing dress-up. Adults have taken them as their own as well. Stern divides the rest of her documentary into sections focusing on different Barbie aficionados.

Allen, nicknamed “Barbie Player” by Stern, has a huge set-up in his house representing a backyard party. Some of the dolls have been given new names, but many of them are named after friends. There is even an “Allen.” His take on his fantasy world is, “If you like something there’s nothing wrong with it.”

Some people might disagree after viewing Caroline and Barbara’s fantasy world, which makes Allen’s backyard party seem tame. Their fantasy includes a doll orgy, with black leather, whips, and dog collars – and the addition of some missing body parts. That’s a far cry from “Barbie Dealer” Sandi’s take on her dolls: “Barbie was never liberated. Barbie was always a very wholesome type of individual.”

Stern also includes collectors who love to show their dolls just as they came packaged. Some even dress themselves up like their Barbies, not the other way around.

Maybe I don’t understand the attraction to these strange plastic dolls. I had one. She even had super bendy knees and leg warmers because she was Exercise Barbie. I still wasn’t impressed. Stern, however, captures why some people are. Her examples are extreme, and a couple of unauthorized detours are taken, but she’s probably right. Everyone does have a Barbie story.


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