We Still Can’t Stop Talking About Barbie

AM Homes and MG Lord on “A Real Doll” and the plastic icon’s enduring legacy

Newlywed barbie and Ken
Photo by Tara Winstead via Pexels

This conversation between AM Homes and Forever Barbie author MG Lord is part of Recommended Reading’s special issue of Homes’ iconic Barbie story, “A Real Doll.”

MG Lord: It was Barbie that brought us together. I like that as an opening, especially when we’re discussing a short story that opens with the line, “I’m dating Barbie.” 

AM Homes: Yes, you were doing research for your book, Forever Barbie and a mutual friend directed you to “A Real Doll.”

MGL: One of the reasons why I wanted to write Forever Barbie wasn’t just to tell a bizarre and captivating business story, but because artists like yourself were beginning to use the doll, as metaphor and image to explore and illustrate larger questions. 

AMH: When I wrote “A Real Doll,” I didn’t know much about Barbie’s history. It’s fascinating to  think about how she went from being a product to breaking out of her box, so to speak, to becoming a larger-than-life figure. She is only eleven-and-a-half inches tall literally, but psychologically/culturally she is enormous because she is a refraction of our collective unconscious which makes her both profound and problematic.

MGL: So how did it happen that thirty-five years ago you wrote what has become an iconic, infamous short story that spurred an anthology, Mondo Barbie, and is taught in writing programs around the world?

AMH: It all started innocently enough. Fall 1985 into spring 1986, I was at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and had the idea of someone who was dating Barbie. In the name of research, I went to the local toy store which only had one Barbie, “My First Barbie,” which I interpreted as virgin Barbie, because she was wearing a white dress and on the box it said, “Now with larger buttons,” which I thought was very strange. 

But I think it was really meant as a marketing tool aimed at younger children who might not be dexterous when it came to changing her outfits. It turns out that dressing and undressing Barbie is a big part of the way in which people interact with the doll—both because when you change Barbie’s outfit, you can change her personality, her profession, and kind of smash cut into a new scene. But also the idea of dressing and undressing an adult woman is also inescapably sexual, and so from the very start there was always a sense of taboo about handling Barbie. 

What does Barbie mean to us and how much of Barbie’s identity is in fact our projections onto Barbie?

When I was a kid growing up at the edge of Washington DC—my mother wouldn’t let me have a Barbie, she thought it was inappropriate. In the 1960s the feeling among many was that what Barbie represented was not a feminist or pro-female experience but rather a distorted male gaze of what women should look like—so in essence not an ideal toy for children. In the end, it was an issue of social currency that got me a single Barbie. I told my mother that I couldn’t go to my friend Suzy’s house without one and so she got me one. I think it was a Tropical Barbie, because she cost less than the more heavily outfitted ones.

Jumping many years forward, there I was in Iowa City with this Barbie and every person who visited immediately went over to Barbie and picked her up and started doing things to her. I remember being surprised and kind of horrified by it. They didn’t ask—they just did. I felt a bit like the Dr. Ruth of Iowa City because people would come in, take Barbie’s clothes off and start telling me about what they or their siblings had done with and to Barbie. A much darker psychosexual world emerged. People would say, oh, my sister used to put pins through her head to make earrings, or they would chew her feet, or draw pubic hair on her. I realized that the story about dating Barbie was much more complex, and about the space between our public and private selves and the unarticulated fantasies, fears, and anxieties about sexuality.  

When Barbie was launched in 1959, we were on the cusp of a kind of revolution in terms of women’s lives. The birth control pill was on the horizon, more women were going to college and entering the workplace. And what’s super interesting to me now is that we’re at a similar moment but almost in reverse. Once again in 2023, we’re at the edge of a new landscape in terms of how gender and identity are explored and inhabited, and at the same time, women’s and LGBTQ+ rights are being rolled back with a vengeance—literally. This tells me that these ideas are clearly as socially frightening now as they were back in 1959.

MGL: What impact do you think that had on the story you were incubating?

AMH: It impacted my work on many levels. In “A Real Doll” there is a lot of graphic sex of all varieties including a gender-bending moment when Barbie and Ken’s heads are switched and female becomes male and vice versa. This was and is important to me in terms of exploring ideas of taboo and shame across all gender lines. Also importantly this story was written as the AIDS epidemic was raging. It’s relevant to think about these cultural inflection points in context, and how when one is silenced sometimes it can lead to creative breakthroughs. We often talk about how major world events affect the arts—9-11, COVID—but it’s important not to forget how AIDS devastated the gay community and the arts!

Also relevant in terms of social and cultural context—1959, the year of Barbie’s launch. Barbie’s birth perfectly marks the rise of the plasticization of American culture and the beginning of our consumer culture. On one hand, we fault Barbie for all that she represents in terms of unrealistic proportions for women, but by 2023 not only is she an icon and movie star, Barbie is part of the firmament and probably also part of the landfill and perhaps even part of our bodies, given the amount of forever chemicals and plastics we have consumed. 

MGL: I called my book Forever Barbie because she is not going to biodegrade. But AM, don’t you think Barbie also functions as a Rorschach test?  I think that is why she means different things to different people.

AM: And then the question is, what does Barbie mean to us and how much of Barbie’s identity is in fact our projections onto Barbie and reveals how vulnerable we are to being sold things we don’t need or want. I think we are near the peak right now, with all the algorithms knowing what we’ve been looking at and have ordered in the past and the various selfie-insta-face-gram social media platforms.

MGL: Everything about Barbie had to do with the excitement around the end of the war and technology and revolutionary new materials

AMH: Yes and much of my work is about The American Dream—which comes to blossom at the end of World War II and the rise of the military-industrial complex and also all of these new ways of manufacturing things. Barbie is literally a product of that moment. 

MGL: Do you think that she was a teaching tool for, you know, to go all Judas Butler on you? Was she a teaching tool for the performance of gender?

AMH: I wouldn’t say a teaching tool because that inspires or sort of sounds like a positive thing. I think she was an indoctrination into role play, literally, and expectation and cultural coding of gender and sexuality.  

MGL: That makes sense. I have described her as a doll invented by women for women to teach women what—for better or worse—would be expected of them. Barbie’s relationship to feminism has changed over time, too. Where once she was tarred as anti-feminist, she has come to be viewed as feminist, or, in any event, as an important cultural touchstone in understanding feminism. 

The second-wave feminists hated Barbie. In 1971, the National Organization for Women accused Mattel of gender stereotyping boys and girls. At Toy Fair in 1972, yet more feminists accused Barbie of encouraging little girls to see themselves as sex objects, clothes mannequins, or household servants. 

But the third-wave feminism of the 1990s was more nuanced. It prioritized a woman’s right to control her own sexual expression, and, you could even say, her right to pleasure. It advanced the daring idea that some women might actually take pleasure in dressing like Barbie, a practice that some second-wavers might have interpreted as submissive to patriarchy. 

We have become Barbie and I think it would be perhaps self-hating to reject her now.

Finally, fourth-wave feminism, which began around 2012, had a big impact in Barbie’s world. It embraces intersectionality and body positivity, challenging the idea that there is only one ideal body type—which may have led in 2016 to Mattel’s decision to change Barbie’s iconic body, rounding her hips and reducing those substantial breasts.

My new podcast, “L.A. Made: The Barbie Tapes,” gives more background on how and why Barbie was created, in the words of the original creators, most of whom are no longer alive.  We learn about the Lilli Doll, which was the model for Barbie. She was a three-dimensional pin-up for men based on a sleazy comic character. Ruth Handler, the co-founder of Mattel, spied this doll on a trip to Switzerland, brought her back to L.A., and the podcast goes into wonderful depth about all the various characters and problems encountered along the way. 

AMH:  Barbie as a concept plays into the idea of what Hollywood calls a four-quadrant movie—something for everyone. There is also something nostalgic about the idea of Barbie—and entwined in there are ideas about a woman’s role in the home, the family, the workplace. And Barbie as a concept is so much about consumerism and role play, perfect fodder for Hollywood. It’s not like if you wanted to be a Dr. Barbie, you needed to buy this giant stack of books and study up. You just needed the outfit or the car, or the dream house in order to inhabit and live the life.

One of the big things to talk about here is time and age. Barbie herself is living a four-quadrant life. In 1959 when Barbie was launched she was 19 years old—and has remained that age. But in real life, someone who was 19 then would be 83 now. And as a product, Barbie is 65. In reality, Barbie would be post-menopausal, white-haired, sagging, and not only no longer a sexual threat but also no longer of sexual interest to many. 

She would be retired or retiring soon. So the fact that we are still talking about Barbie and playing with Barbie is rather spectacular. So should feminists now be pro-Barbie? Are we somehow anti-feminist if we can’t embrace this distorted plasticized woman and is she any more or less a woman than flatfooted 64-year-olds wearing Birkenstocks—which are also popular again. If you look at say Taylor Swift as current Barbie and Jane Fonda as real-time Barbie, you can get the picture. I also think about how in 1959 we didn’t have options for fake butts, bigger breasts, filled lips, and so on, and now add to that the opposite—injectables that cause one to lose weight, to erase excesses. We have become Barbie and I think it would be perhaps self-hating to reject her now.

About the Interviewer

M.G Lord is the co-host of the podcast L.A. Made: The Barbie Tapes from LAist Studios, which tells the story of the doll’s creation in the voices of its original creators.  

She is also the author of Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll and The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness And We Were Too Distracted By Her Beauty to Notice. Her 2005 family memoir, Astro Turf, is a cultural history of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the basis for L.A. Made: Blood, Sweat and Rockets, a 12-part podcast that she co-hosts. It details the early days of rocketry in Southern California, and the unusual figures—a practitioner of “Sex Magick”, an accused Communist—who founded JPL.

She is an Associate Professor of the Practice of English at the University of Southern California.

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