Its taken me a long time to get round to writing another post about Barbie reading. This is partly because I wanted my next book post to be about “Barbie’s Queer Accessories”, in which Erica Rand applies a deconstructionist approach to Barbie. I read some postmodernist books at University and BQA is much easier going than, for instance, Derrida (whose writing always reminded me of the Times crossword puzzle but with no actual crossword, and much longer). However, to my poor tired Mummy brain, BQA did get a bit wearing as a lot of it is about wading through definitions of terms and acknowledgements of personal experience – so I can’t say I powered through it, but it was worthwhile, if sometimes slightly uncomfortable, reading. I’ve left it, read something else and then come back to it a few times. There’s just so many ideas going on in there, I wasn’t sure how I could write about it in a post.
So I haven’t – I’m just going to talk about one concept put forward in this book, which I’ve been thinking about in the context of Cali Girls. This concept is about how Barbie is marketed – its like a pendulum and at one end of its arc, there is “Barbie With a Life” and at the other, “Infinite Barbie”. Its all about what appeals to little girls – do they want a story told to them, should Mattel create somebody they can hopefully identify with (Barbie With a Life)? Or do they want a blank slate, with maybe only a loose prompt about how they should play with this toy (Infinite Barbie)?
“Barbie With a Life” is better known as Barbie Millicent Roberts, and in the sixties there were a number of sweetly winsome books written about her. She was from a town called Willows (possibly in Midwest, although apparently Mattel stopped just shy of specifying this), her parents were called George and Margaret, she attended High School, and she sometimes worked as a model. On the other hand, “Infinite Barbie” (the Barbie I grew up with in the 80s) has none of this back story attached to her, and the possibilities she has available to her are endless. The Career Barbies are good examples of this – “We Girls Can Do Anything”, can’t we? A Doctor, a Pizza Chef, a fairy princess, an astronaut, President … this super-being obviously isn’t the same little girl from Willows. Taking this approach obviously allowed Mattel to successfully produce and sell a lot more dolls.
The problem was, and I can only speak from personal experience, by the time the 90s were drawing to a close, “Infinite Barbie” was starting to look a little bit dated. Maybe this is why “Barbie With a Life” started to reappear.
As you can see, Cali Girlzine is very specific about who Barbie is, where she’s from, and what her interests are. We are even told that she’s a Piscean (of course she is, all the best people are). At the time, after twenty years of mostly Infinite Barbies, I think that this approach must have seemed fresh and different, although there is a big dollop of nostalgia here as well – one day, when my plans have come to fruition, I will post about California Dream Barbie.
Strange what they left out and what they put in. Unlike the sixties novels, Barbie doesn’t have her surname any more, although she is finally identified as a Mid-Westerner. However, I’ve been thinking about this and identifying Barbie’s home town helps to build a more infinite kind of fantasy. She may have been from the Mid-West, and you may or may not be able to relate to that. But she’s NOW in California – escape! – and God, wouldn’t you like to be able to relate to that?