“The Good, The Bad, And the Barbie”: Q&A with author Tanya Stone

 
You will most likely not fall off your chairs in shock when I tell you, I’m not a fan of Barbie. I played with her when I was little. I think I had three of four of them. I didn’t really ever love Barbie. But I did love her Palimino horse, Tawny. I loved the adventures Tawny could take us on. I grew up in the 80′s, so very unfortunately my Barbies were taken POW by an army of Russians and despite valliant efforts, my brothers’ elite team of G.I. Joe, arriving in Barbie’s purple Convertible Dream Car, could not save her. Eventually I ditched the dolls, but held onto the horse and my love of adventure.
  
I’ve never been very good at sitting, which is why I never was good at playing with Barbie. Also, I think I was born a feminist, and even as a raven haired little girl I can recall looking at my blonde haired, blue eyed Barbie and thinking I had some issues with her. In second grade I cut big chunks of my shiny black hair off and Scotch taped them to my Barbie’s head because I was desperate for a doll that looked like me.
  
Fast forward twenty five years, and I now have a raven haired girl of my own. She wants a Barbie – Sea World Barbie and Mermaid Barbie, to be exact. So with as open a mind as I could muster, I dove into Tanya Stone’s “The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us”. (buy here) Maybe I was over-reacting. Maybe my view that Barbie is a sexist, sexualized, 3D version of all the photoshopped models we scream about affecting older girls’ self-esteem was all wrong.  I was traveling to DC and needed something to keep my occupied while in the air. I will say this — the book is excellent, well reserached, and unbiased. My plane to DC was delayed by three hours, and I never once looked up from the book. I took six pages of notes! At one point I read a couple of excerpts aloud to the poor lady next to me. I don’t love Barbie any more, but I have a new love for Barbie’s creator and astounding businesswoman Ruth Handler, and I have a much better understanding of what Barbie means to different people and different generations.
  
Tanya was so nice to answer some questions for us…..
  
1. Tanya, thank you so much for sharing you new book with us. I loved reading “The Good, The Bad, and The Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact On Us”. I have to say, after reading the book, I have a better understanding of ‘who’ Barbie is to so many people. I don’t like her any better, but I understand better. How did you view Barbie when you were a girl?

As I confessed in my Author’s Note, I never cared about Barbie much one way or the other. But this made me a prime candidate to dig in an analyze all the pros and cons and be objective about her. 
 
 2. Do you think Barbie is more sexualized today than Barbie of yesteryear? What do you think Ruth Handler, creator of Barbie, would say about Barbie in 2010?

Surprisingly, if anything, her figure has been less sexualized over time. Her waist has been slightly widened and her bust line slightly reduced. But I think the clothes, which Mattel has often historically linked to current trends in fashion, are much more sexualized. Sadly, this is not limited to Barbie, but in keeping with what we see in many toys, and, of course, of the teen clothing stores. I think Ruth would not be a fan of these trashier trends as she was very much admiring of haute couture and had great taste, and I just can’t imagine her categorizing the current teen fashion trends that way!
 
3. What would you say to the parents of girls, like me, who fit into the 10% of girls age 3-10 who do not own a Barbie? What about those of us who say “over my dead body”?

I say that everyone should make their own choices about it. If that’s how you feel, more power to you! I’m not interested in swaying anyone’s opinion. My goal was to explore what it means to be an icon and the impact Barbie has on our culture. 
 
4. I once met with a Congresswoman, and brought along Miss Sassy Barbie, or Stripper Barbie as I unaffectionately call her, to give a visual aide to the type of sexualizaed products sold to young girls. One thing that drives me bonkers about Barbie – she is one of few dolls marketed to girls. Does Barbie have any competitors? Match Box Cars has Hot Wheels. Who goes up against Barbie?

I actually think there are a lot of dolls marketed to girls. There are all kinds of little-known fashion dolls lining the toy store shelves, as well as American Girl dolls, Hasbro Pussycat dolls (cough, cough), and don’t forget those Bratz dolls that most certainly went up against Barbie. I think Bratz dolls are much more sexualized than Barbie dolls. We have Barbies in the house, but I defy you to find a Bratz in any nook or cranny at my casa. I’m sorry, but they all look like they’ve had plastic surgery and lip injections!

 
The figure of the Barbie doll is one issue–and is a constant–but any particular outfit is a separate, dynamic issue that changes with each new issue of a get-up. So how offensive or inoffensive you find Barbie might depend on what she is wearing.

 
Dealing with her figure first–my book puts Barbie’s figure into context–when and where she was designed, and by whom had a lot to do with the body type she was given. Her function was really to be a teeny tiny mannequin that would look great in haute couture at a time when the beauty ideal was Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield. Also, I like to remember that Ruth’s initial intention was to make Barbie quite plain so that any girl could see herself in Barbie. Even today, as much (or as little) as it has changed, imagine a Barbie face next to a Bratz face. Big difference. 
 
5. How strong do you feel Barbie’s message is that, “You can do anything, so long as you are pretty?” And can you tell us more about 11 year old Super Girl Sara Newman? I loved her insights in the book!

What I found most interesting in the research for this book is that the distraction of how pretty she is was more a concern of adults and less so for the kids. The kids seemed more interested in what they were doing with her, and less what she looked like while doing it (whatever it may be). 

 
Yes, isn’t Sara Newman fabulous? As is Abby Jones, who co-wrote the article Sara’s quotes came from in New Moon magazine. 
 
6. Black Barbie isn’t really so ‘black’. I think your book did a great job of teaching how Barbie didn’t always do such a great job of reflecting diversity or cultural norms. Did you find this at odds with the very diverse and forward thinking workplace the Handler’s had created during the years of Segregation in the 1940′s and 50′s?

I did, a bit. The thing is, there’s a big difference between real-life actions by people (such as the admirable ones shown by the Handlers in their workplace) and concepts intended to reflect real life as played out in a doll. It’s difficult to compare the two. I am always interested in intention, though, and I think it’s significant that Mattel has been well-intentioned throughout the process, despite the varied successes of their ethnic dolls. My frustration with these dolls has less to do with how they were executed and more with the fact that they are much more difficult to find on store shelves than the white dolls.  
 
7. Pretend Ruth Handler could be at one of your book signings. What do you think she would say to all of us? What would you want to say to her?

I think she would tell everyone to relax and let kids play how they want to. But I also think she would never have come up with Miss Sassy Barbie in the first place. That happened well after her time!   

 
What would I want to say to her? I think I might want to ask her what regrets she had. She was a complicated and driven person who achieved a lot, but also suffered losses along the way. I think I might ask her if she was given a Do-Over, what would she “do over.”  
 
8. What was the craziest Barbie story you heard while compiling this book?

Oh, I don’t think I can pick just one! People wrote and told me some hard-to-imagine scenarios! Let’s just leave it at that!
 
9. What do you want people to take away from “The Good, The Bad, and The Barbie”?

Mostly to always consider context. The fact that Barbie was invented by this specific woman, living where she did (Hollywood), and when she did (in the 50s), and what her goals were, have everything to do with the resulting creation that is Barbie. When you put the story of Ruth Handler and the story of her invention in context, it all makes a lot more sense than simply wondering why a toy company would market a toy to our girls that make them feel badly about themselves. It’s also important to remember that, with any icon, what we as a society bring to IT has just as much impact as the icon itself. 

Advance Praise:  

“Love Barbie or hate her, what I admire about Tanya’s book is that she takes an even eye to Barbie’s global phenomenon and delicately lets readers explore their own complicated relationships to this very complicated doll.” –Jess Weiner, self-esteem expert and author of Life Doesn’t Begin 5 Pounds from Now 


“Holy belly buttons! This is no mere Barbie book. This is a how-to manual about being a girl: a strong, sparky, awesome girl, with Barbie in hand *or* Barbie in the nearest Dumpster!”  –NYT best-selling author Lauren Myracle

 Tanya Stone is an award winning author whose books focus on the amazing accomplishments of women from our nation’s history. “The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie” is on shelves today! 

  

 

  

Comments

  1. Really interesting! Thanks for the book review and the Q & A.

    Not too long ago, I embarked on what I called “The Great Barbie Project of 2010″–my basic strategy being subversion of “girly” (that’s pre-re-defined girly!). My one success was knitting a maternity dress + baby bump for a knock-off thrift store doll. After that, however, I ran into the hard unyielding material reality that is Barbie’s rigid plastic figure. Tanya’s observation is right on–you can change Barbie’s clothes, and that open up new options of play, but her figure remains the same. Getting Barbie up as Rosie the Riveter (one of my discarded plans) only goes so far–what you’ve got is the same problematic, exaggerated and impossible female figure dressed up in a temporary, discardable outfit. So if the figure, and not just the message of the standard issue outfits, are a problem, what can you do? Short of taking a Drimmel to her boobs, slathering silicon around her waist, and cutting her feet off at the ankles… So, not having the skills, the tools, the time or the patience, I opted to pack ‘em all away. The good news is, they’ve not been missed.

  2. Full on honesty – I LOVED Barbie as a little raven haired girl. :) (sorry, couldn’t resist, but it is true) And my daughter loves her too. And I didn’t actually realize it until I read this article, but she is very specific about the Barbies she likes. She wants the “teacher” barbies or the “animal doctor” barbie. She is very into Barbies role and not just the doll itself. Very interesting.

  3. Here’s to being among the 10% of parents of girls aged 3-10 years who says, “Over my dead body!”

    • I posted this on my Facebook status and got an interesting backlash. If parents are secure in their choice to give their daughters Barbies to play with, then why would they be so threatened by my being proud NOT to give them to my daughter? Hmmm.

      Also, I have to disagree with the author’s advice to just “relax and let kids play how they want to.” We are the parents for a reason. If we find something inappropriate, we have the right and the responsibility to say no. If other parents don’t find it inappropriate, they are free to allow it. But it doesn’t mean that I am wrong for not allowing it and that I need to “relax” and stop being my child’s parent.

      • Hi Robyn,

        I agree with you 100% that “we are the parents” and “if we find something inappropriate, we have the right and responsibility to say no.” If you read my answer to Melissa’s question again, you’ll see that I was imagining what Ruth might say. And she was definitely the kind of person who would put forth that opinion!

        all my best, Tanya

  4. As always Melissa, I love reading your posts, I am also enjoying the journey you are taking with and without Barbie. I have refrained from commenting on the Barbie doll conversation but here goes a dive into what feels like shallow water.

    I can’t remember if I myself had a Barbie or not. What I do remember is that any doll I had in my life was subjected to crayon applied make-up after I had all but shaved their scalp with my plastic scissors. One such doll was a “Sasha” doll from Europe…imagine my horror when a friend told me while walking the streets of Paris many years later, what the original Sasha dolls were going for on E-bay, choke, my own Sasha doll I am certain was donated after my mother had moved households for the tenth time. Anyway I digress.

    Barbie. Two friends of mine owned what to me appeared every Barbie manufactured. Along with the actual dolls they also had a plethora of choices for dressing them…from plastic heels, go-go boots, to mini-skirts and bell bottoms (here I go dating myself again) anyway…they had it all. The accessories included the enormous folding cardboard doll house made for Barbie and of course the much coveted by me, convertible car. One friend also owned every model horse one could dream of, seriously not even the Del Mar Race Track could board them all there were so many, and when I was at her house that was what we did. We played for countless hours making the Barbies do all the things that little children do. There was not a story left untold with those dolls and despite not being clear whether I owned one or not I do remember enjoying the play.

    Fast forward…as it turns out Chandler had the crayon/scissor things going on too. She had at most, 4 maybe 5 Barbies. Their fates all were similar to Sasha. 99.9% of the time I was the one retrieving them, bald, naked, and water logged from our pool. She just never really cared about them. They came into the house and their presence was never big or small, they just were and then they weren’t.

    You already know how I felt and feel about Bratz (NFW) but sometimes I think the more power we grant something the more power it has. I can honestly say that the brief experience with Barbie in this house did not confuse my daughter one bit about her self worth. I can’t say the same for the poor Barbies that darkened our door…had they been able to speak I am quite certain they would have requested a ticket out of her grasp.

    Last, I agree with Tonya Stone 100% when she said these words in response to your question what would she say to the seemingly small % of mother’s who say “over my dead body”:
    “I say that everyone should make their own choices about it. If that’s how you feel, more power to you! I’m not interested in swaying anyone’s opinion.”

    That is the beauty of being a parent to our children–we have to make decisions that work for our own families. As you often say, robbing our children of their childhood is unacceptable, I love what you do, how you do it, and think both your kids are super super lucky to have you as their mom. Furthermore I also believe that what you contribute makes our world a better more thoughtful place…so thank you.

  5. Hi Melissa

    Thanks for the book review and your willingness to be humble and objective. Really interesting insights.

    I was never really into Barbie (wasn’t cool for a guy when I grew up) but I did go through a period where I really liked her sports car. However my sister when through a real Barbie phase, was part of the fan club, and use to get a magazine and letter from Barbie on her birthday. The reason I say this is because my sister never seemed to be adversely affected about her self worth (she looked nothing like Barbie) and just grew out of the phase in a couple of years.

    At present my daughter has a modest collection of Barbies but they don’t seem to rank higher or lower in importance than any of her other toys, and I think she seems to be more influenced by what she watches on TV than the toys she plays with – but I will be watching closely to see how things evolve.

    I like Elin Stebbins Waldal’s comments particularly “I think the more power we grant something the more power it has. ” Seems like wise advice in many of these areas.

    Thanks again for the review and interview, great input into an important conversation.

    Chris

  6. I know one fact involving Barbie and G.I. Joe once in
    the 1990′S due to a production error Barbie and G.I.joes
    voice boxes were switched so the Barbie dolls said stuff like:
    “Eat Hot Lead Cobra!” and the G.I.Joes said stuff like “Let’s go shopping!”
    and I for one would like to have toys like that and see the gender roles switched.

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