September 11, 2018

ASTRONAUT BARBIE

I've never given much thought to Barbie dolls, other than to notice their odd message of consumerism and unnatural proportions- oh, and lots of kids seem to love them! But it's always been clear to me that the dolls (and especially, the accessories!) have sold well since Barbie first debuted in 1959. I once helped to run a toy shop for a year and witnessed first-hand the ongoing popularity of the brand. Fast-forward to Spy Vibe and I begin to take more notice of the fashion history and perhaps ways the dolls reflected their times. I suppose most people are familiar with the typical Barbie identities that envision her hanging out at beach houses and going on dates. And there have been many apt criticisms about how the doll's disproportionate design and limited roles have perhaps entertained -and hurt- girls in equal measure. I didn't expect much from Mattel as I looked a little deeper, but was surprised to learn the company launched a Miss Astronaut Barbie and Mr. Astronaut Ken in 1965. Four years before the Apollo landing, Barbie was in space! Incidentally, the first woman in space was Russian Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova in 1963! But there was a Barbie for the Space Race.


If fact, Mattel has marketed a career range for Barbie throughout the decades to promote inventor Ruth Handler's vision that "through the doll, a little girl could be anything." In practice, the message was pretty limited, unfortunately. Yes, there was a Barbie astronaut, but the accent was heavily on cosmetics and fashion more than scientific exploration- the later anniversary edition included on the box "yes, I am a rocket scientist". But sure, the fashion aspect can be really cool from a design perspective. Other careers for Barbie at the time were predictable options such as stewardess, nurse, fashion model, ballerina, business-woman, and... babysitter. OK, stereotypes of the age, but how bad could it be, you ask? Just consider the 1965 Slumber Party set, for example, which included a miniature weight scale and little books titled "Don't Eat" and "How to Lose Weight." What child doesn't love shaming and image obsession? Yikes. These items were eventually pulled from the set by 1967. Barbie's horizons did expand a bit in the 1970s with surgeon (but with a skimpy cut to accentuate her legs) and Olympic athlete. I found the new documentary series The Toys That Made Us (Netflix) really interesting, and the Barbie episode was a good intro into the history. I seem to remember one of the interviewees talking about how some of the choices re: body proportions was due to needing a foundation shape that could accept the thick, folded fabrics of the costumes properly (the fabrics would have otherwise been too bulky to fit smoothly). Seems hard to believe in that era of new developments in synthetic materials. When I asked historian, writer, cartoonist Trina Robbins about her impressions of Barbie, she talked about how she felt back then about the doll's unrealistic dimensions and about working later on the official Barbie comic book. "I hated Barbie in the 60s! I thought she was a terrible body image for little girls. When my daughter was a little girl I had to change my perception just a little because she really, really wanted a Barbie, and it would have been cruel not to get her one when all the other little girls had Barbies. Then in the 90s, I was one of the writers on Marvel's Barbie comics and we really did a good job. We didn't have her shopping all the time- we did some realty good stories, dealing with anorexia, a girl who's ashamed of her mother because her mom is deaf, stuff like that. And I even did some mild mysteries, which I really enjoyed writing. We were practically an all-woman group (I called the artists "the Barbie Four") a woman editor and women writers and artists, and there was nothing else out there for girls." This all reminds me of a great 1998 poem and recording by my friend Nerissa Nields (I enjoyed re-mixing it once to music), which you can read about at her blog here. Perhaps Barbie has sparked these kinds of discussions because her image has so ubiquitous in an industry that otherwise did not market many role-model alternatives. Naomi Wolf has said “The harm of these images is not that they exist, but that they proliferate at the expense of most other images and stories of female heroines. If the icon of the anorexic fashion model were one flat image out of a full spectrum in which young girls could find a thousand wild and tantalizing visions of possible futures, that icon would not have the power to hurt them.” Looking at the current Mattel site, it would appear the company is working to expand the message of the brand to support the inventor's hope that the doll could inspire girls to be anything ("more role models" is the current slogan). And there are dolls now with different face shapes and nationalities (my students tell me they still mostly see only white dolls in TV ads), but the final hurdle of change re: role modeling will have to come down to evaluating the doll's range re: glamour and body type. The company will have to invest in tooling new figures. I love that there has been an astronaut Barbie, but I also hope to see awesome Barbies of all types doing a wider range of amazing things. More role models- really go for it! Kids deserve it. I began this saying that I've never given much thought to Barbie dolls. That's because, as a boy, there were endless action figures, cars, and playlets marketed to me. I didn't have to think about Barbie. Maybe you didn't have to, either? But I'm glad to know a bit more about her complicated past and place in culture. Some kids love her; some kids question her. And yes, that astronaut outfit was so awesome! Explore Barbie at Mythanthrope and Mattel. Entertainment Tonight looks at the most controversial Barbies. Below: Astronaut Barbie designed in 1965. Related post: Interview: Trina Robbins- Trina and I talk about Honey West, Miss Fury, Emma Peel & more! Spy Vibers, please check out my new book about one of America's most successful cartoonists. Enjoy!



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2 comments:

  1. Shame they didn't offer a Barbie-rella Psych-A-Dela themed figure ��

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hahaha- A Barbie-ella would have been fantastic :)

    ReplyDelete

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