Decoding Barbie’s Radical Pose

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In Barbieland, as envisioned in “Barbie,” the writer-director Greta Gerwig presents a world where positions of power are held by female dolls such as a Black President Barbie and a Filipina American Supreme Court Justice Barbie. Indeed, in the pink landscape of “Barbie,” all the jobs are held by women, and the Dreamhouses are owned by them, too; the Kens are mere decoration until one of them catches a glimpse of men’s lives in the Real World. But, by making patriarchy the villain of the story, the movie glides over the decades in which Mattel, the company that makes Barbie, waffled on racial representation and the depiction of women’s professional roles. “The Barbie world you see in the film is Malibu Barbie from 1971,” Rob Goldberg, the author of the forthcoming book “Radical Play: Revolutionizing Children’s Toys in 1960s and 1970s America,” says, “but, in reality, the racial diversity of the Barbie character wasn’t there yet.”

Goldberg’s book describes how toys became political during the sixties and seventies—from Lionel Corporation’s toy trains’ embrace of anti-violence rhetoric to wooden figurines that allowed children to assemble families more complex than a husband, wife, and two kids. American culture was convulsed by Vietnam War protests, Title IX disputes, and the Equal Rights Amendment debates, and toys were enlisted in the fights for empowerment and equity by women and people of color. Gerwig’s film builds upon, but only occasionally acknowledges, sixty years of attempts to use the popularity of Barbie to advance a more complex agenda than sun, fun, and lots of pink. That’s too bad, both for the historical record and for the new buyers of Barbie that the film’s success will attract. As Goldberg writes, the nineteen-sixties forced toy-makers “to publicly reckon with, perhaps for the first time, their status as entrepreneurs of ideology.”

Barbie’s first Dreamhouse, released in 1962, was a cardboard foldout apartment, with modern furniture and a single bed. It had no kitchen, no room for a family, and no room for Ken. Part of the original radicalism of Barbie was that girls could use her to act out fantasies of being something other than mothers. The inventor of Barbie, Ruth Handler, said she was inspired by watching girls play with paper dolls of adult women; shrewdly, she saw a hole in the toy market for a doll who could stand, however precariously, on her own two feet. Gerwig’s film opens with an homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in which little girls clad in trad-wife aprons smash their baby dolls, liberating themselves from playing house.

In 1968, Mattel made a more dramatic move. As Goldberg recounts, the civil-rights activists Robert Hall and Lou Smith, leaders of Operation Bootstrap, a Black economic-development organization founded in the wake of the Watts riots and based in South Central Los Angeles, were invited to meet with the Mattel president, Elliot Handler, and other executives at company headquarters. They were the only Black people in the room in Hawthorne, California, which was historically a sundown town. Black consumers were seen as a growing part of the toy market, and, by the late sixties, most companies had at least one Black doll. In 1968, Mattel was the first company to introduce a Black fashion doll with its own character and name: Talking Christie, Barbie’s friend, who said things like, “Let’s go shopping with Barbie.”

Partly as a result of an influential study, Black families were encouraged to buy their children Black dolls. In the nineteen-forties, the psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark performed a series of doll tests which, in their interpretation, demonstrated the preference of even young Black schoolchildren for white dolls. This theory of “damage psychology” was popularized in mainstream publications such as Ebony, which, during the next decade-plus, published numerous images of playrooms full of developmentally appropriate toys, including dolls. At one point, the magazine urged parents to consider: “Do the toys contribute to [your child’s] physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and social growth, or do they stunt his development by implying that only white is beautiful?” The Clarks’ research would be cited in footnote 11 of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education as an example of the harms that segregation inflicted on the “hearts and minds” of Black children.

Mattel saw its talks with Operation Bootstrap as an opportunity to help the local Black community develop professional skills rather than just treat the demographic as a new market. Sponsoring a company that would create “brother and sister dolls made by brothers and sisters,” a tagline under which Operation Bootstrap’s dolls would eventually be sold, was also a shortcut to the kind of “authenticity” in facial features, hair texture, and clothing that doll buyers had begun to expect. (Lagueria Davis’s new documentary, “Black Barbie,” describes how long it took—until 1976!—for Mattel to hire Black women in-house to work on doll design. Mattel’s first Black fashion doll named Barbie came out in 1980.) Mattel offered to finance a new toy-manufacturing operation in South Central, owned and operated by Operation Bootstrap as a community-development project alongside the organization’s existing clothing-and-textile-import businesses. Mattel would donate training and equipment, but Operation Bootstrap would design, distribute, and profit from the dolls. And thus Shindana Toys was born.

The dolls that Shindana produced in South Central from 1968 to 1982 came to include Baby Nancy, with a face modelled after a local six-year-old and sketches by neighborhood high-school students; Malaika, a fashion doll with natural hair and “Afro-print” clothing like that sold at Operation Bootstrap’s boutiques; and Wanda Career Girl, initially sold in nurse, ballet-dancer, and stewardess iterations, with a booklet that included pictures and first-person narratives of real women describing their work. In 1972, when Wanda was introduced by Shindana, Mattel’s top seller was Malibu Barbie, “a young teen whose main interests were surfing, dating, driving sports cars, and enjoying the relaxed life of a middle-class extended childhood,” as Goldberg writes. Though Barbie had become a career girl in the early sixties—the company had even introduced Astronaut Barbie in 1965 at the height of the space race—no new career Barbies were released between the mid-sixties and the early nineteen-seventies.

Wanda’s career orientation, Goldberg writes, “affirmed the burgeoning Black feminism of the time,” going further than any white manufacturer or white doll in the early nineteen-seventies. Wanda proved so popular that girls started writing in, and Shindana created a Wanda Career Club with a monthly newsletter. As Shindana’s dolls took off, Mattel followed their lead, putting its World of Barbie dolls in dashikis and, in 1973, reintroducing career Barbies—such as Surgeon Barbie and Olympic Skier Barbie—some of whom are name-checked in Gerwig’s film. Shindana was also the first toy manufacturer to introduce a multiethnic doll line: the large vinyl dolls known as Little Friends, launched in 1976, included Hispanic and Asian dolls. Mattel finally got around to starting its own multiethnic line in 1980, launching “Dolls of the World” collection—including costumed “Oriental Barbie,” which had long black hair, a red mandarin-collar jacket, and a fan, and “Hispanic Barbie,” which had long black hair, a black lace shawl, and a choker with a red blossom.

Gerwig makes room for Barbie lawyers, judges, and writers, and briefly shows the designer of all those Dreamhouses: Architect Barbie. As the professor of architecture and feminist scholar Despina Stratigakos describes in her 2011 essay, “What I Learned from Architect Barbie,” the idea for the doll came after a Michigan ballot initiative to end affirmative action in public institutions. As a way of thinking about the aftermath, especially for a profession that continues to struggle with gender and racial equity, Stratigakos asked her students to prototype an Architect Barbie, which the public had chosen as Barbie’s next career but Mattel had yet to produce. “I had expected Barbie to show up in a black power suit and Corbusier eyeglasses,” she writes. “In other words, architecture would come first, Barbie second. Instead, some students reversed the order. . . . Inside architecture’s hallowed halls, Barbie’s ‘girlie’ attributes were not a mark of oppression, but of resistance. These dolls looked you right in the eye and asked, ‘Why can’t architects wear pink?’ ” The students’ dolls wore everything from catsuits to pearls and Elle Woods-approved pink glasses and lace scarves.

In 2010, Mattel once again invited the public to vote on Barbie’s next career. “This time, Architect Barbie’s rivals included Surgeon Barbie and Computer Engineer Barbie,” Stratigakos writes. “The latter emerged victorious.” But she wasn’t willing to let Architect Barbie’s campaign die. Stratigakos and the architect Kelly Hayes McAlonie made their case directly to Mattel, and (surprise twist!) the company listened. Stratigakos and McAlonie were invited to advise on her appearance and accessories. The steel-toed boots recommended for construction sites became ankle boots with a chunky heel; black was banished, reading more Maleficent than competent. While Real World women architects (and critics like me) scoffed at the inaccuracies of the look, most came to the same conclusion as Stratigakos: “Whatever Barbie does, she brings it into the sphere of women. She has the power to make things seem natural to little girls.”

Goldberg’s book underlines the same point that Gerwig’s movie eventually makes: Barbie has always existed in the Real World, from her initial challenge to the idea that play should only prepare girls to be mothers, to the cyclical, market-driven attempts to have her represent Olympic prowess, leadership, and STEM skills. “Barbie” the movie jokes about, but doesn’t ultimately challenge, Mattel’s complicity in upholding the Malibu Barbie version of the world. By producing a film that triggers Gen X and millennial moms’ nostalgia and offers corporate feminism in a goofy, beautiful package, Mattel is putting a new irony-lite gloss on the Barbie brand. It’s the same corporate ethos that has added and subtracted BIPOC, career, and athlete dolls throughout the years. Mattel changed Barbie only after other, more radical players in the toy market showed them all the places the doll could go. The “Barbie” movie retcons doll history to make radicalism run smooth. Even when challenged, the Barbie aesthetic always wins. ♦


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