Monday, December 20, 2010

The Good, The Bad and the Barbie

The Good the Bad and the Barbie
by Tanya Lee Stone
published by Viking
130 pages

Publisher's Description:

During her unparalleled fifty-year history, Barbie has been the doll that some people love and some people love to hate. There's no question she's influenced generations, but to what end? Acclaimed nonfiction author Tanya Lee Stone takes an unbiased look at how Barbie became the icon that she is, and at the impact that she's had on our culture (and vice versa). Featuring passionate anecdotes and memories from a range of girls and women, a foreword by Meg Cabot, and original color photographs, this book explores the Barbie phenomenon in a brand-new light.

My Comments:

My own impression of Barbie as a kid was mixed. I had a couple of the dolls, but was more interested in playing with Dallas, Barbie's horse. When I played My Little Ponies, Barbie was often the villain. So, I was bolstered somewhat by Stone's even-handed history, which acknowledges that not every little girl was enamored with Barbie.

Barbie's creator, Ruth Handler, is presented as a feminist who worked outside the home from an early age. She helped to form Mattel with her husband Elliot and another partner named Matson. Mattel under the Handlers is presented in a very positive light – the company was progressive and integrated before integration was required. Stone does later mention that the Handlers eventually resigned from Mattell amid some scrutiny from the SEC. While the writing overall is very good, I was occasionally bothered by simplistic statements like on page 25, “television, movies and music do a great job of reflecting what is happening in society at any given moment.”

Overall, though, the book presents a balanced and thorough view of Barbie. Chapter 5 provides a nuanced, thought-provoking examination of Barbie’s effects on girls. It includes interviews with fathers as well as girls and women. Stone also makes it clear that Mattel counted on customers buying clothes and acessories for their dolls, and that the company cared about what would sell as well as quality. Chapter 6 delves into racial and ethnic identity. Stone reveals that, while it may be more obvious to think of Barbie's unattainable proportions as being harmful to girls in general, a more common problem may have been how the doll's whiteness effected non-white girls. Chapter 7 gets into how kids (including boys) played with Barbie. There are several laugh-out loud moments. Chapter 8 examines Barbie as art, and how the doll has inspired many artists and designers.

I found the otherwise-engaging forward by Meg Cabot to be somewhat troubling because of one instance of poor word choice. She said that Barbie was “useless without Ken,” which invalidates her other statements about Barbie inspiring girls to be whatever they wanted to be. I think maybe what this slip reveals is that girls’ aspirations have been limited by social conventions, and that these limitations had more effect on how they played with Barbie than vice versa.

There are many photos throughout, and the section of color photos toward the back is a lot of fun. Stone acknowledges Peter Harrigan, a theatre professor whose massive Barbie collection is featured prominetnly in these photos. The book is very well-documented. Quotes from personal emails of Barbie fans and detractors are noted while maintaining privacy. Additionally, many books and articles have been consulted. Photo credits are given ample space, making them easily readable. The index denotes textboxes in addition to photos and is well-organized in general. I liked this book even better than Almost Astronauts, which was a YALSA finalist last year.

Your Comments?

1 comment:

  1. You didn't get any comments! Shame.

    This is interesting; I might actually have to check it out when I get the chance. I've always found Barbie interesting from a feminist perspective (and who could forget the racial aspect?), so I'm glad to find something delves the history as well as the other angle.