Happy 35th, Barbie: You Sure Don't Look It

B arbie, that goddess of the doll set, is 35 years old? Without a hint of crow's-feet framing her eyes or even the beginning of a bulge on her torso, how can this be? We'd like Barbie more if she were available in a mature version along with the forever-young original. Time for a Barbie reality-check.

SHE: Give me a Barbie with a little vintage, and I'll show you a doll that is a real role model. The perfect plastic Barbie may provide lots of make-believe time, but she's hardly the kind of girl I'd want me or my daughters to be--obnoxiously skinny, every hair in place and packing a wardrobe that puts Ivana Trump's to shame.

Barbie dolls force girls to deal with their big-girl dreams too soon. Give me a Barbie baby-doll, an adolescent Barbie, a young adult Barbie and, yes, Barbie as a young wife and grandma, and I'll give you a generation of young women who are in touch .

HE: The chance any of that will happen: approximately the same as that of Al Gore getting a tattoo.

You don't think for one minute that Mattel is going to stomp all over one of the biggest moneymakers the corporation has ever produced by injecting something as horrible as reality into the mix? Maybe Andrea Dworkin would dearly love to bulldoze every Barbie in North America into an immense landfill, but the way I get it the average doll-age girl would rather have a Barbie, fully tricked out in the latest mini-duds, than a certificate good for one undergrad year at Bryn Mawr.

Ready for a little sexist propaganda? I'm willing to bet that Barbie is responsible for more cases of low self-image and crash dieting among women than all the airbrushed Playboy models since 1959.

SHE: Most women don't bother comparing themselves with the women in Playboy. Too declasse. (The tony women in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue are another matter.)

But I'll grant you that Barbie fosters an unrealistic expectation in girls that may lead to problems with self-image. The way I see it, Barbie doesn't have to work for anything. She pops out of the package looking like a million bucks. She should be accompanied by a caveat: Play with at your own risk. Life isn't just about looking great. It's also about developing your talents and using them to make the world a better place.

HE: We probably shouldn't beat all the stuffing out of Barbie without trying to find something laudable about her. For instance, I'll bet that more than a few girls learned quite a bit about clothes from round after round of dressing Barbie for one event or another. If guys of my generation relied on a doll to teach them how to dress, we'd all be wearing camouflage fatigues to work every day (G.I. Joe, remember?).

But Barbie was versatile. Heck, there was even a Barbie fashion show recently at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, with live models wearing reproductions of Barbie fashions from the '60s (a few of which looked a bit silly on grown-up women).

SHE: There it is--the hype machine that will keep Barbie alive until she's blowing out 1,000 candles, sans wrinkles.

OK, something good about Barbie: She provides creative play and an opportunity for little girls to converse with each other.

Hey. What about Ken? Is Barbie at the point where she no longer needs a man?

HE: I just came up with the most horrible mental picture: thousands and thousands of otherwise cheerful girls preening away merrily with Barbie and then, in a sudden fit of blind rage, grabbing Ken (who's dressed in old boxers and a sweat-stained "Beer Drinkers Make Better Lovers" T-shirt) and slicing him up with a kitchen knife. Whew! Too awful to think about.

SHE: I remember the days when the whole Barbie thing had to do with getting dressed up to attract Ken. Now, at least, I see little girls playing with their Barbies and putting them in a context where she comes home from work and dresses up to go out--man or no man. Come to think of it, Barbie is doing girls a favor when she helps them express themselves in a way that coincides with reality.

Gosh, I'm sounding awfully serious about this. Maybe it's because my role model was Cinderella. Talk about a reality check!

HE: Well, what next? Corporate raider Barbie? Boardroom shark Barbie? Merciless divorce lawyer Barbie? Mindless daytime talk show hostess Barbie? Bloodless political lobbyist Barbie? Urban terrorist Barbie? Weaseling Hollywood agent Barbie? Sleazy trash novelist Barbie?

On the other hand, we could see Astronaut Barbie (pink space suit, $450), medical researcher Barbie, Olympic luge champion Barbie and, maybe with a bit less makeup, Saint Barbie.

Next: G.I. Joe gets a set of dress blues.

* This column appears every other week in Thursday's Life & Style section.

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