FOREVER YOUNG : After 30 years, Barbie has more clothes, friends and fans than ever.
Barbie, the ageless teen-ager, is 30.
She’s changed a good deal since she first appeared in a snug zebra-stripe swimsuit in 1959. Now a woman of the 1980s, she drives a sleek red Ferrari and lives in a posh brick townhouse. She’s traded her high school letter sweater and megaphone for a business suit and tiny credit cards.
It seems that Barbie has grown up along with the baby boomers of the 1950s. A prom queen no more, Barbie is now a classic Type A super-achiever: an astronaut-turned-surgeon and a former Olympic gold medalist who still finds time for her boyfriend, Ken.
But age hasn’t slowed her down. Last year was Barbie’s best ever. Mattel sold a whopping 20 million Barbies and her teen-age friends at about $10 apiece. There were Jewel Secrets Barbies, Perfume Pretty Barbies, Super Hair Barbies; not to mention companions such as California Dream Midge and Island Fun Miko.
With her staggering collection of clothes, cars, pets and friends, Barbie has emerged as one of the nation’s most enduring toys. In 1988, Barbie was the second-best-selling toy in America, behind the Nintendo video game system, according to Toy & Hobby World magazine.
Ninety percent of little girls between ages four and 10 own a Barbie, according to statistics from Mattel. And some little girls own a dozen or more.
By now, 500 million Barbies have been sold, enough to circle the earth 3 1/2 times. Mattel figures that it sells an average of 54,000 dolls--Barbie, Ken and their friends--every day. She has fan clubs, collectors, even professors who study her. So prized is an original 1959 Barbie that she sells for as much as $1,500 today.
Not everyone, however, is enamored. “Barbie is a bimbo, and adult women are not bimbos,” declares Susan Reverby, a Wellesley College professor who won’t buy her daughter the doll. Adds Bowling Green State University professor Marilyn F. Motz: “Her whole emphasis is on possessions, appearance, popularity and having fun.”
Her fame has grown, but those who know Barbie best say she hasn’t lost her values. “The most important things to Barbie are her clothes,” says Kitty Black-Perkins, a Mattel designer who creates 100 new outfits a year for the doll. “She is a leader--but especially a fashion leader.”
Barbie’s endurance is one of the great mysteries of the toy industry. Mattel can’t explain it fully, although the company says little girls seem to like her long hair, her gigantic wardrobe and her tiny size. “We talk about the Barbie mystique,” says Gary Ruddell, who publishes Doll Reader, a magazine for doll collectors.
Barbie’s longevity amazes even her creator. “I never expected that she would last this long,” says Ruth Handler, who founded Mattel with her husband and named Barbie and Ken after their own children. “So many of today’s women were Barbie players. It kind of overwhelms me.”
When other toy companies offer competition, Barbie seems to send them to doll oblivion. Over the years, Tressy, Darci, Dusty and Tammy have disappeared. Mattel’s arch-rival, Hasbro Inc., was forced to give up on Jem, a flamboyant teen-age rock star. Now Hasbro, the nation’s biggest toy company, is trying again with Maxie, a blonde teen-ager with her own boyfriend. But Maxie sales came to $20 million last year, according to industry sources, a small fraction of the $450 million spent for Barbie, her friends and possessions.
“We are very fortunate to have her,” says John W. Amerman, Mattel chairman and chief executive. “We have toys that are very well known. But when all is said and done, Barbie is the cornerstone of our business.” Indeed, last year Barbie accounted for nearly half of Mattel’s sales.
Mattel pampers its star. It is giving her a black-tie-only birthday party next month in New York’s Lincoln Center. Called a pink jubilee, the event will feature a lavish display showing how Barbie has changed through the years.
Even when Barbie isn’t having a birthday, she gets VIP treatment. Mattel sponsors a Barbie Fan Club, which has 650,000 young members who receive Barbie magazine. The glossy publication is packed with details about Barbie clothes and dates. In a recent issue, Ken takes Barbie to dinner at the “city’s most sumptuous restaurant,” which turns out to be “the penthouse of a famous skyscraper (that) commanded an incomparable view of the skyline.” For the occasion, Barbie wore her “ravishing new ruffled pink evening dress.”
Five fashion designers work exclusively on Barbie’s wardrobe to make sure she always looks her best. The designers travel to fashion shows in New York, Paris, London and Frankfurt to check out the latest fashion trends. If the designers can’t find the cloth they want, they order special fabrics just for Barbie, such as the glittery nylon used for Holiday Barbie’s red gown.
Barbie’s first outfits included tailored suits and pill box hats made popular in the early 1960s by then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. By the end of the decade, Barbie wore miniskirts and fishnet stockings. She started the 1970s in boots and hot pants, later exchanging her mod look for glitzy disco outfits. And in the 1980s, of course, Barbie stocked up on designer clothes and exercise outfits.
Last year, her designers noticed that the breezy California look was popular, so they gave Barbie bright new beach clothes, roller skates and a pink surfboard shop. “We take an idea, glamorize it--and it becomes Barbie,” says Black-Perkins.
Barbie’s designers work hard to create a glamorous image. “She would never be a waitress,” says Black-Perkins. Cheerleading and baby-sitting are off limits. “Older teen-agers don’t do those things.”
Mattel’s designers also have given Barbie a good life. Besides her townhouse, she has a carefully appointed $200 Dream House that has a toilet with “real flush action.” She has a pet horse and several furry pet cats. She vacations at her very own tropical “island hideaway,” where she relaxes in a hammock and plays with her pet toucan. She has a lot of friends--Midge, Whitney, Theresa and Christie, to name only a few.
What Barbie seems to lack is personality, and that is no accident. Mattel has intentionally said little about Barbie’s character because the company wants little girls to decide what Barbie is like.
Not even Mattel’s top executives can agree on who Barbie is. The toy company recently abandoned a five-month nationwide search for a “real” Barbie after painstakingly auditioning 84 girls. “We saw lots of lovely girls, talented girls, but we just couldn’t agree on a human personification for Barbie,” says Candace Irving, Barbie’s official spokeswoman. “Everyone sees her a different way.”
For years, Mattel resisted making a Barbie cartoon show so it wouldn’t be forced to create an identity for the doll. But just over a year ago, Mattel featured Barbie in a two-part cartoon special with her musical group, the Rockers. The cartoon didn’t reveal much about Barbie because she didn’t do much besides sing and play musical instruments.
Susan Dickey, a graduate student at Texas Tech University who has written an article on Barbie for a professional journal, says Barbie lacked “a sense of social commitment,” says Dickey. Barbie didn’t have a black friend until 1968, and, by then, “the civil rights movement had cooled a bit.” A black Barbie didn’t appear until 1981. Today, there are black Barbies and Latino Barbies, and she has black, Latino and Asian friends, too.
Yet Barbie’s fanciful life style and bland personality probably help make her a good toy, says Dickey. Barbie’s abundant possessions and costumes “allow Barbie to be whatever the little girl wants her to be. The possibilities are endless.”
She says that girls often pretend that Barbie and Ken are married--though they officially are just friends. Dickey says she has observed little girls pretending that Barbie is sexually involved or going through a divorce. “Barbie reflects what is going on in their lives.”
Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles uses Barbie in therapy with children who must undergo amputations. After Barbie’s arm or leg is removed, she is fitted with a prosthesis and given as a gift to the sick child. “It helps the children understand what will happen to them,” says Ellen Zaman, a social worker who is director of patient family services at the hospital.
Barbie seems to arouse strong emotions among women who once played with the doll. There are dozens of Barbie fan clubs around the country, and the annual Barbie convention draws hundreds of fans from such distant places as Norway and Japan. In Kenosha, Wis., two women publish a Barbie magazine that goes to 3,000 adult subscribers.
Barbie lovers concede they are a little obsessive. With her mother, 18-year-old Laural Christensen has accumulated 700 Barbies. The Barbies--and their cars, houses and old schoolhouse--have overtaken a bedroom in Christensen’s Westminster home.
“She is so glamorous,” says Christensen, who admires Barbie’s wardrobe so much she sometimes wears people-size copies of Barbie’s dresses. “She can put on a pair of jeans and look like a million bucks.”
Barbie is certainly not everyone’s sweetheart. “What can you do with the doll besides play date and sit on a couch and look pretty?” asks Reverby, director of the women’s studies department at Wellesley College who calls Barbie a “bimbo.” “I don’t want my daughter to think that being a woman means she has to look like Barbie and date someone like Ken.”
Many feminists say Barbie gives children a false idea of what its like to be an adult. “She represents an incredible sex stereotype,” says Reverby, who disapproves of Barbie’s exaggerated figure and leisurely life style.
Mattel is sensitive to such criticism. When Barbie sales dropped in the mid-1970s, the toy company surveyed mothers and asked them what was wrong with Barbie. Many mothers responded that Barbie lacked ambition. What Barbie really needed, they said, was a job.
Mattel responded by giving Barbie not one job--but many. She joined the work force in 1983 as a McDonald’s waitress. Then her career really took off. In 1985, Barbie was an astronaut. She returned to earth later that year as a veterinarian with a “puppy patient” to cure. Last year, she was lead singer for her own all-girl band.
Marlene Mura, publisher of Barbie Bazaar, a magazine for collectors, finds Barbie’s career achievements inspirational. “Barbie tells girls they can be whatever they want to be,” says Mura. “She encourages us to think of high profile careers.”
Motz, the Bowling Green State University popular culture professor, is skeptical. She questions Barbie’s commitment to her careers. Take “Day to Night Barbie.” She goes off to work in a hot pink suit and a dainty straw hat and carries a matching pink briefcase. At night, she sheds her suit for a glittering pink gown. “It’s an interesting mixed message,” says Motz. “Sure, Barbie’s got a career, but she doesn’t take it very seriously.”
Barbie may care more about her clothes than her job, Dickey agrees. But mostly she thinks that Barbie is just a fun toy. “She’s a symbol of materialism, but she’s not a shaper of values,” she says. “After all, millions of us have played with Barbie, and we’re not all airheads.”