recess radio program

3/16/05
Barbie's Birthday
    Read by Jaimy Mann

When toymakers talk about their hopes for success, the term they use to describe great, continuing sales is "legs"-- as in Barbie's. The Barbie doll, which debuted 46 years ago this month, is one of those fabled toys that never seems to get old or tired or worn out -- from Blonde Barbie #1 in her black striped bathing suit to Millenium Barbie with her tiara. The franchise keeps renewing itself, mutating, evolving, changing clothes and accessories, adding a little sister, a boyfriend, an automobile -- but always coming back to the same premise of slim, usually blonde, blue-eyed good looks. An archetypal essence.

The doll is much the same as it was in 1957 when Ruth Hanler discovered it while visiting Switzerland with her husband and childrne. She was looking for a grown-up doll for her daughter, Barbara. Ms. Handler could find only baby dolls until she saw a doll named Lili in a shop window. Lili was based on a racey cartoon character that was appearing in a German magazine at the time. Nevertheless, Handler found something interesting about the doll; she bought it, an back home in America brought out her own, homogenized version of it, carefully avoiding any hint of Lili's scandalous past, and it has since become a thriving industry, carrying its parent company, Mattel, well into the black for decades. The early Barbies are today, not surprisingly, collector's items -- costing in the thousands of dollars when you can find them in their original, mint condition.

Much has been made of how Barbie has become a fetish, a quasi-religious icon for a kind of unattainable, female perfection; the styrene catalyst for obsessions about body image. She is forever young America, shopping, clueless, ready to pageant.

And yet, and yet, millions and millions of copies of her are sold every year. And the Barbie website has taken great pains to tell us that she will remain a continuing subtext in American culture by placing her, and her permutating fashion styles, on the timelines of national and international events. So, for a million dollars, can you tell me who was wearing a specially tailored and decorated army uniform that goes from daytime wear to evening galas -- in 1989, when the Berlin Wall collapsed, the Exxon Valdez ran aground, Mili Vanili was exposed and banished, and then General Colin Powell became the first African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? I think we already know what (or who) your final answer will be.

Copyright 2005 John Cech

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Tuesday, 12-Jul-2005 11:13:19 EDT


"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."