by Laura Baudo Sillerman

Barbara Millicent Roberts was born on March 9, 1959.  Icon and controversial celebrity, and better known as Barbie, she has been the subject of countess books, magazine articles, Ph.D. dissertations, moms meetings and public harangues—not to mention the inspiration for hundreds of millions of dollars of cosmetic and more radical surgeries.

She has also been beloved and cherished by millions of girls worldwide.

Barbie began in Germany and given America’s confused emotions about the land that inspired her, it is no wonder that we’ve been nothing if not conflicted about her from the beginning.

Her Wikipedia entry is a good introduction, before you get to  that fascinating “unauthorized biography” by  M.G. Lord, Forever Barbie.  Published in 1994, this dusty volume set out to present the good, the bad and the very ugly sides of Barbie as toy, best friend and fetish.  Fifteen years later, it remains a solid piece of investigative work, born of Lord’s desire to decode the hidden meaning behind what became one of our country’s most enduringly passionate romances.

The fact of this much paper being expended on what is really a triumph of marketing is, however, barely the point.

The fact is that for most women of certain ages, Barbie is something we have in common.  And the deeper fact is that at the time when she came into being and for a long part of her lifetime, Barbie was a triumph of emotion over implication—because women were supposed to be about what set them apart from one another.  What’s even more complicated is that Barbie herself was the prime example of that.

Tall (5 feet 9 inches if we extrapolate the scale on which she was built), slender (if you can call as much as 35 pounds underweight, slender) and dressed to kill, for much of her life Barbie could have been about leaving the other girls in the dust.

Still, when girlfriends got together to play with her, Barbie became not a killer, but a gentle joiner—the friend who let you try on her clothes and was certain to take out her best shoes to lend you as well.  Just recently I mentioned Barbie’s birthday to a group of 30-somethings and they melted into coos of, “Oh, I loved my Barbies” and “I spent hours and hours playing Barbie with my friends.”  and the predictable “I still have my Barbies and all her clothes!”  It’s never only one Barbie—it’s several and there were outfits, cars, houses and tiny lose-able pets and bits that somehow didn’t get lost.

(And, let us not forget, she introduced us to the concept of the less dominant male counterpart.  Ken is barely a footnote.)

So what is the meaning behind Barbie turning 50?  Well, in a country where (at least until recently) we have thought the more disposable the better, she was treasured and kept and even if she lived under the bed for a few months, she almost always was rescued to be retained for a foreseeable lifetime.  Barbie didn’t get traded in, you see.  She may have become outgrown, but not out-sourced.  Only Barbie could fulfill her role in the lives of now several generations of girls and women.

This pretty much makes her her someone like us. Someone who aged, but didn’t lose her value.

So happy birthday Barbie—you sweet mixed-up, career-minded, superficial and oh-so-deep manifestation of this cock-eyed business of living in the western world.  Who knows what you really meant or if you really hold any deeper meaning at all?  You’ve done a good job of staying on top and keeping it in perspective.  You may be a little plastic, but there’s something about you we love.

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  • Carolyn Hahn March 12, 2009 at 8:14 am

    How funny–Barbie and I are exactly the same age–same day and year. Wow. Of course she sprang into the world full blown and stayed Barbie, and I got old(er). She seems so much less relevant now–who wears those little f*** me shoes that never really stayed on her stunted little feet? Somebody get that poor girl a pair of ass kickin’ Doc Martens and let her see what it’s like to not have to mince top heavily around (and that’s another thing–but let me not get too far off topic). Maybe I’m just jealous: I, apparently alone in America, never had a Barbie–I had her cousin, Francie. And that was it, no little Barbie wardrobe of the stars, etc. I do remember thinking, even then, that Ken was an bland little idiot. Who would want to spend life with him? Such a tacked on nothing. BUT I DIGRESS. Laura, what a thought provoking piece. Now I *really* need to read “Forever Barbie, ” which I’ve heard about forever, and couldn’t imagine (sorry) could ever be An Entire Book (even though, knowing MG a little, I shoulda had more faith)