Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fifty years of Barbie stories

Is it a coincidence that West Virginia lawmaker Jeff Eldridge decided to submit a bill to ban Barbie sales in the state right before the iconic doll's 50th birthday? Poor Barbie can't cut a break; isn't turning 50 rough enough without some well-meaning dope trying to cut you off at the knees? Oh, wait: Barbie is already cut off at the knees, more or less.

Historiann has said about everything smart there is to say about fashion dolls, so I won't duplicate her efforts here.

But for awhile now, I've been meaning to blog about my vintage "Miss America" Barbie doll. In 1972, Laurel Lea Schaefer, a native of my hometown in Ohio, was crowned Miss America. My father and her mother worked together, so in many ways, it was my first (and to date about my only) brush with celebrity. Needless to say, I was smitten.

I'm pretty sure these dolls were a premium for sending in cereal boxtops--I could be mistaken--but at any rate, my parents got two: one that I was allowed to play with, and one that they kept in the box and stashed away in their bedroom closet. The one I played with has long since disappeared, and I think all the clothes got totally worn out.

Just a few years ago, my parents finally decided I was responsible enough to take the mint one home with me. As you can see, I've tried to take good care of it. In fact, I wanted to take the scepter, roses, and white shoes out of their original bag so you could get the full effect, but my collector husband advised me not to. It seems a shame, but I suppose he's right; any value it has is completely linked to the unbroken seal on that little package.

Alas, Laurie Lea never went on to any great fame, though the doll is still worth something, not only as a collectible, but as a relic of my childhood and of the 1970s more generally. As some of you know, I managed to break Laurie Lea's Miss Ohio crown several years later when some other kids and I were playing with it during a party at Mrs. Schaefer's house.

This page on the Miss America website suggests that 1972 may have been the last uncynical year for the pageant. While Laurie Lea's predecessor, Phyllis George, toured Vietnam with the USO, the woman who followed Laurie Lea won the crown while wearing a POW bracelet, and later admitted to entering just for the scholarship money and being pro-choice. In 1974 the National Organization for Women held its annual convention in Atlantic City during pageant week in protest, even as the crown went to a doctoral candidate, Shirley Cothran.

In the meantime, a classmate's mom who volunteered in our second-grade classroom had asked me if I was a "women's libber," and encouraged me to be one. My dad, upon finding out that I'd decided I was a women's libber, told me I could open the car door for myself. My mom smoked Virginia Slims. We've come a long way, baby.

NOW's protest of the pageant was deeply symbolic and completely ineffectual in much the same way Delegate Eldridge's bill is.

What's always interested me about people's "Barbie stories" is how subversive they all are. I've never encountered a woman (or a little girl, for that matter) who's had a simple, uncritical relationship with Barbie. She is, instead, always a canvas for working out all kinds of issues, very few of which ever seem to be related to body image in any straightforward or unproblematic way.

A former colleague reluctantly gave her daughter a Barbie years ago, only to discover that she had popped Barbie's head off, since that made it easier to change her clothes.

My friend Karla and her sisters begged for a Ken doll, but their mother--fearing some kind of sex play--unequivocally said no. Ever resourceful, the sisters chose one of the old Barbies they didn't like, cut off its hair, and took it outside where they scraped its breasts off on the sidewalk, thus performing the first Barbie sex-change operation.

I'm sure you know similar stories. The reality of children's play is always vastly more complex and interesting than adults generally see or are willing to see. I probably went home and played with my Barbies the very day I told my classmate's mom that I was a women's libber.

So, Mr. Eldridge, may I respectfully request that you go out and observe some real, thinking girls playing with their Barbies? And if you really want to create some legislation that makes girls feel better about their bodies, do something about gym.

For other interesting Barbie stories, look here and here...


Erica said...

My daughter, at 5, is obsessed with princesses and Barbie because that's what she sees. (It's not only the dolls, now, there's books and movies. And of course, those are what girls read and watch. [Bah!]) Luckily, she's also obsessed with Batgirl, dinosaurs, and helping me paint the walls.

My brother gave her a mermaid Barbie for the holidays, and my mother totally flipped out at the removable clothes (which preschool daughter immediately started taking off and putting back on), convinced the girl was about to learn how to become a stripper and/or pole dancer. It was weird -- while I never had Barbies myself, I don't remember it being because it would teach me naughty things about What Is Under Clothing. I simply preferred Legos or digging in the dirt outside.

Yeah, everybody has a weird Barbie story -- even if you never had them as a child!

Rosemary said...

Erica, who *wouldn't* wonder "What Is Under Clothing" with a *mermaid* Barbie? What *is* under its clothing, anyway? Does Mermaid Barbie have legs?

(Some questions are, apparently, not limited to childhood. ;^)

Erica said...

More than you ever wanted to know about Mermaid Barbie... Actually, there are a few Barbie-sized mermaid dolls available on the market. Daughter's gift was the Disney Ariel version -- she does have legs (her tail is sparkly satin fabric). Presumably this is so you are required to buy whatever ballgown Ariel dances in at the end of the movie? There's a Barbie princess mermaid (non-Ariel) which also has a fabric-tail-over-legs, and I've also seen a cheaper knock-off which looked like Barbie up top, but had a plastic tail.

Oddly, I remember Barbie (at friends' houses) having patterned underwear, and Mermaid does not, it's just smooth. Probably just a cheaper plastic mold.

Rosemary said...

That is fascinating, Erica. Seriously!

Too bad there's no Hans Christian Andersen "Little Mermaid" Barbie, whose face would be frozen in a perpetual grimace because her legs would feel like she was walking on knives. Now that's a doll I could get behind! ;^)

Christy said...

One of my undergraduate professors often taught with Barbie -- in other words, Barbie herself became the instructor. I can't remember whether it was an effort to parody the poor creature or actually to reclaim her. But I remember her in front of the room, spouting off about subliminal advertising or some such.

I had a Quick-Curl Barbie: her hair had thin wire and you could actually style it into various arrangements of curls. Not surprisingly, I didn't help me make peace with my own curly hair, especially when hers got more matted than a horse tail.

ej said...

I used to play with my Barbie for hours. For me, it wasn't so much about the doll herself. She was merely a vehicle for the accessories. Ah, the shoes! And bags, and fake furs...

Historiann said...

Thanks for the link, Rosemary, but clearly there is a LOT more to be said about Barbie! (Like Christy, I had one of those quick-curl Barbies, and her hair became an awful mess. She's the Barbie that I scalped last year--we now call her Bad Haircut Barbie.) I also had one of those stupid makeup Barbie heads--almost life-sized, stuck to a platter of pink plastic. A very disturbing toy when you think about it, and very disappointing in its unidimensionality.

Horace said...

We also had the make-up Barbie head, of my sister did, even if I played with it fairly often. And we also gave it an unfortunate haircut.

Imperia inherited a box full of them from a little girl Willow used to sit for, but there are so many of them, that they only get played with as a kind of tiptoe brigade. We'll have to see what the next few years bring, though, and what sorts of stories we generate here.

I bet Imperia would LOVE to see your vintage Laurie Lea Barbie, though!

Rosemary said...

Christy, I forgot to ask you about this when I saw you on Saturday! I was hoping to get an impersonation of "Lecturer Barbie." :^)

ej, I've seen your closet--moved its contents a few times--it's your grownup "accessory vehicle."

And Horace, Imperia is very welcome to come visit the Miss America Barbie whenever she likes. I know *she'll* treat it with the proper reverence! And yes, she will generate *many* Barbie stories in years to come, I predict...