Barbie: the Quintessential Bimbo?

THIS year marks the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Barbie doll. But Barbie isn't getting many good wishes to celebrate the occasion. My friend Susan exemplifies the feminist response. Susan went through the Christmas season staunchly refusing to buy her six-year-old daughter the desperately desired doll. ``I can't get her a Barbie,'' Susan explained. ``It'll teach her women are airheads. Look at the stuff in the store, look at the ads. All Barbie cares about is buying clothes and getting her claws into Ken.''

That sums up the public judgment on Barbie as she enters her fourth decade: the quintessential bimbo. Yet attacks on Barbie's qualities are equaled only by paeans to her profitability. If Barbie is such an undesirable role model, why does she sell so well? And why do I - an unapologetic feminist - recall so fondly the countless hours I spent playing with her?

When Susan told me that she refused to give her daughter a Barbie doll, I felt sorry for the girl. I pitied her, bereft of such a marvelously concrete alter ego - one who had to be clothed and accoutered, yes, but one who was ready to go fearlessly to any place a child dared envision. For me, Barbie's bimboism is in the eye of the beholder.

The way I see it, Barbie, like all of us, has choices. She can live life at its adventurous edges, or she can sit in her scale-model pink Corvette and wait for Ken to stroll by. My own Barbie was no pampered ing'enue. The only manufactured clothing she ever owned was the swimsuit she arrived in. After that, I clothed her, resulting in swift development of my fabric arts skills. My Barbie was little concerned with clothes, and even less with upholding a popular image. She was far too busy exploring the Amazon, discovering strange new planets, engaging in horseback Western adventures and espionage plots. She coincided with ``Star Trek'' and ``The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'' - and she was the three-dimensional embodiment of the female hero that TV refused to provide.

My best friend and I enacted never-ending dramas centered on Barbie and her associates. These adventures were often communal projects. An entire neighborhood of girls (and a few boys) acted out engrossing stories that transformed my friend's backyard into exotic locales.

And I don't mean we played ``getting dressed up for a big date'' or ``a day on the beach with Ken.'' Such tame fare wouldn't have gotten past the first critical minutes in which we decided the scene and plot of the day's theater. We developed wildly picaresque global adventures, elaborate spinoffs of science fiction novels we devoured, complex escapades set in other times and places. When we did stage a girl-meets-boy encounter, it was solely for the educational purpose of pooling our fragmentary knowledge of the subject. Our dolls lived lives very different from those in the Saturday morning toy commercials.

Barbie didn't socialize me into the world of consumer goods and a leisure life style. I still agonize over how to dress, and I don't expect I'll ever own a pink car. On the other hand, between us, and with the help of our group of friends, I developed an appreciation for complex situations, strong characters, and a modest sort of adventure that paid off when I grew up to be an anthropologist.

After all, what is a Barbie doll? It's simply a fully adult female figure, available in different hair and skin colors (though not yet, alas, in alternative figure styles). In other words, Barbie is a blank slate. In the right hands, she's an entree to spectacular worlds of the imagination. In the wrong hands, she's a bimbo. Unlike a baby doll, Barbie allows for the expression of more than one aspect of the developing female self. Unlike stuffed toys and fantasy figures, she encourages engagement with - not retreat from - realistic role playing.

As she comes from the store, Barbie is nearly naked, bare of history, personality, family constraints, or economic and educational limitations. And with no one to tell her what she cannot do, she is an invitation to dream. Whether your little girl dreams about high adventure or high fashion, saving the world or getting a date for the prom - that's up to her. And up to you.

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