As a woman of a certain, ahem, vintage, I owned the original Barbie doll.
She was a brunette with a ponytail and bangs that looked like an awning and improbable blue eye shadow, given that she was wearing a zebra-striped strapless bathing suit that showed off big boobs, a wasp waist and deer legs that seemed permanently molded for high heels.
I hated her on sight.
The years haven’t improved that perception. The unending wardrobe, the pink dream house and convertible, the bland boyfriend Ken – Barbie was designed to invite envy even as she had nothing really to offer. The funniest thing was her array of occupations, including astronaut and, in the Clinton years, presidential candidate. It was much like the Bond girls always being astrophysicists. Most astrophysicists don’t look like Bond girls. And they don’t look like Barbie. (The irony was that while Barbie was supposed to hold the female figure to an impossible ideal, her face was another matter. The original Barbie doll looked like she had bad plastic surgery.)
So word that Barbie is undergoing a makeover – petite, tall and curvy Barbies are now being presold and will be available at the end of the year – is good news, right? Certainly, it’s a step in the right direction. But I think there’s a reason that Barbie’s been eclipsed by the Elsa doll and others based on the characters from “Frozen.”
With her fishtail braid, big eyes and curvy figure encased in off-the-shoulder, slit gowns, Elsa is certainly as sexy as Barbie. But her beauty and sexiness is offset by her brains, her talent, her courage, her foibles, her personality and the idea that you are seeing the maturation of a woman in full.
There’s nothing wrong with loving fashion or a well-appointed home, having a great car or a hot boyfriend. But these have to be integrated into the whole woman. And into a story.
When Elsa sings “Let It Go,” you know who she is. But Mattel never created a narrative for Barbie beyond her appearance.
In her present incarnation, Barbie is still just a little-girl fantasy of what the big boys want. And what female needs that?