Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you probably know that the Barbie doll turned fifty this month. Now, if you read this column with any regularity, you may recall that I am not exactly a Barbie lover , and as such, I normally wouldn’t take time out of my life to mark this momentous occasion. However, seeing as how my daughter and I were invited to a celebratory party at the “real” Malibu Barbie Dream House, I simply couldn’t resist the urge to go check it out, my disaffinity for Barbie notwithstanding (and yes, I think I made up the word disaffinity, but I am too lazy to go hunting through a Thesaurus for the proper antonym for affinity, so disaffinity it is).
Let me just say this, right off the bat: the Malibu Barbie Dream House was kickass. From the moment we pulled into the ivy-covered gates emblazoned with hot pink roses in the shape of a “B,” and saw the hot pink, blinged-out convertible Volkswagon with the pull-down makeup tray just above the rear license plate, I knew that I was going to be converted, right then and there. According to the lovely woman I met from Mattel’s PR firm, the house was rented, the owner’s furniture had been pulled out, and famed interior designer Jonathan Adler had re-decorated it especially for the birthday girl herself. And wow, did he re-decorate. There was the custom, super-plush, black and white carpet monogrammed with lowercase bs, and the chandelier in the living room, made entirely from blonde, Barbie ponytails. There were the living room chairs covered in fabrics from various Barbie outfits and shaped to look like corsets, complete with black satin laces criss-crossing the backs. There was the boudoir ceiling draped in hot pink velvet, and the walk-in closet filled with identical, hot pink, Christian Louboutin platforms (which, the PR person told me, required a bodyguard). And of course, there was the magnificent ocean view, just steps above the Pacific Coast Highway. It was, without a doubt, a house that any girl would dream about.
And yet, it didn’t feel like it was inhabited by the Barbie that I knew. The Barbie that I knew was far too earnest to live in such a tongue-in-cheek setting, which is exactly what I never liked about her as a kid. She was so nice to Ken, and she was so good to her younger cousin, Skipper. She seemed like the kind of girl who said things like, “gosh” and “golly,” and who volunteered at a homeless shelter on Friday nights instead of going out on dates. She had those perfect clothes and the perfect house and the perfect boyfriend, and the camper that you just know she never used for getting high, or having sex, or doing anything that a real Malibu girl with a camper in the 1970s would have done. And frankly, I found her annoying. I mean, forgive me, but I prefer my female icons with a bitchy side.
And then, of course, there was the matter of Barbie’s career choices over the years, which were on display in a room of the house that had been converted into a mini-museum, with Barbie dolls from different years showcased behind glass. There was astronaut Barbie, and figure skater Barbie, doctor Barbie, Olympic gymnast Barbie and yes, even President Barbie (who, I have to say, bears a disturbing resemblance to Hilary Clinton). And as I took them in and pointed them out to my daughter, I could feel my former distaste coming up like a bad fish taco. Not because Barbie was presented as being all of these things, but because Barbie was presented as being these things without any kind of historical context. In the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s, when these dolls were released, real women were out there in the trenches, fighting to be admitted to law school and medical school, fighting to be considered for executive jobs, fighting for equal pay, while poof! Barbie could be anything that she wanted to be. Which would have been awesome, if she had somehow acknowledged reality. I mean, I’m not a fan of the American Girl franchise, either, but at least they’re historically accurate. At least they come with a book that explains the limitations of women in their day. Whereas Barbie seemed to live in a perfect, happy little bubble, totally clueless that the rest of the world didn’t look like her, or dress like her, or live like her, or work like her. I mean, where was Freedom Rider Barbie, or ERA Barbie, or Black Power Barbie? They could never have existed – it would have been too real, too intense for such a delicate, wholesome role model to handle. Better to just pretend that progress can be accomplished simply by wearing the right outfit.
And yet, the rest of the house, with its winks and elbows and campy, kitschy attitude, seemed totally incongruous with this wholesome, non-confrontational, I-take-myself-so-seriously Barbie. It’s as if she’s spent the last ten years in therapy and has emerged as a new woman, with a strong, new point of view, but hasn’t quite been able to cast off the vestiges of her Sandra Dee past. Or, perhaps it’s just a clever marketing strategy in a saturated toy market, where a doll with cute clothes and a career is not nearly as novel as it used to be, and the only way to attract little girls to the brand is to suck in their moms with equal parts nostalgia and humor. Although I’ll tell you this much: it worked. I can’t count how many moms walked through that Barbie museum and excitedly pointed out to their daughters the dolls they had as kids. And I can’t count how many moms looked at that closet filled with hot-pink Louboutins and cracked up.
For me, I like Barbie as a gay fashion icon way better than I ever liked her as a role model for little girls, and with declining sales and a loss of market share among the primary school set, it will be interesting to see what, if anything, Mattel does with this in the future. Personally, I don’t think it’s such a bad idea for them to shift their target demographic away from little girls and over to women in their 30s, so long as they can maintain a sense of humor about it. If you haven’t seen the Cougar Barbie  clip on YouTube, you really should check it out. And if the people at Mattel are smart, they’ll start selling Cougar Barbie tee-shirts. I know I would buy one.