Time to stop hating Barbie

TOMORROW IS Barbie's 40th birthday. You probably don't want to know that and, frankly, I wasn't all that thrilled when the Barbie News Desk at Mattel Toys rang me last autumn to prepare me for the big day. Since then there have been at least 10 calls and even an invitation to New York to attend the Barbie Women of Achievement Birthday Ball. Sadly, I had to miss that event, which I'm sure was very pink. But none of this explains why I am writing about Barbie today. I am doing this because when I mentioned the Barbie birthday hard-sell to people, their reactions were so fierce that you would think I was talking about something serious.

"Won't have her in the house," said one father. Others went on about how boring she was for such a long period of time that I could only surmise that she wasn't boring at all. Did I know, they asked, that she was made by peasants in China? Did I know that if a real woman were her shape she would fall over? Others took a more personal approach and, as they say on daytime TV, started to share their pain. "My mother wouldn't let me have one and, you know, I think it all started from there," said a friend. I looked at her. Irony? But she was serious. "I really wanted that doll!"

Then the Pink One became the latest in a series of politically incorrect types to feel the wrath of Germaine Greer. "With her non-functional body, boasting a nipple-free bosom more than twice the circumference of her minute waist, legs twice as long as her torso, and feet so tiny that she cannot stand on them, Barbie is unlikely to have been very effective in her career roles as astronaut, vet or stewardess," says Ms Greer in her new book, The Whole Woman. She holds Barbie responsible for teaching women to despise their bodies and therefore prompting us to spend so much on make-up. Germaine says that this money would be better put towards the "cost of books or computers or bicycles".

Undoubtedly Ms Greer will be celebrating Barbie's 40th by taking off her hair shirt and sending it to her. But I found little comfort in another side of the debate, put by John Pilger. In the latest issue of New Statesman, he takes feminism to task for its obsession with what he believes is trivial. He is in despair because women want to talk about nail polish and who cleans the toilet. This poses an obvious question. Anyway, I'm sure Barbie is in the same category (though, it must be said, her plastic bathrooms do not contain a toilet). Mr Pilger thinks that such trivia diverts from the real issues in life, such as poverty. "The public voices of feminism, like those of the political elite, have all but severed their ties with the aspirations of ordinary men and women."

Does no one have a grip on reality here? The truth is that, for better or worse, little girls like Barbie - be they poor, middle-class or rich. It is something that the First World and Third World agree on. In America there are entire stores devoted to Barbie. I wandered into one once in Seattle. It was so pink and cloying that it was like walking into one of those tinted blancmanges sprinkled with hundreds and thousands that are sold in supermarkets. I couldn't escape fast enough. But when I went to Moscow, I again saw a pink awning with the word "Barbie" on it. Inside, armed guards watched over glass cases that showed Barbie in a variety of plastic tableaux. The place was buzzing with excitement.

It is no good tut-tutting and saying it is all too trivial or sexist. The fact is that 1 billion Barbies (and family members) have been sold since 1959. She is hardly going to fade away. By the time Barbie turns 80 there will be at least a billion more out there. Mattel is good at this. They know that capitalism is all about growth. Never has a doll had her family extended so ruthlessly. Every year the company creates yet more cousins and siblings for Barbie, not to mention outfits, pets, cousins, nationalities and careers. If Barbie were real she would have a nervous breakdown about it all, renounce pink for life and tell her ineffectual boyfriend Ken that it's all over.

But she is not real, and another thing that must be faced is that little girls know this. Have we all forgotten what it is like to play with dolls? I grew up doing so, but that did not mean that I did it while sitting quietly, in a clean, starched pinafore, gently back-combing Barbie's hair. My sisters and I treated our dolls appallingly. We had tea parties, yes, but we also had a theatre of war. Dolls were routinely kidnapped and attacked. Several were scalped and at least one was mutilated beyond repair. It was hardly pretty or nice.

I now have two daughters. When the eldest was born I said that she would never own a Barbie, but somehow she acquired one without my permission. I discovered that Barbie was not nearly so desirable now that she was no longer on a shelf in a store. In fact, she could usually be found thrown in a corner somewhere. Mattel says that every girl in Britain owns five Barbies and that is probably how many are floating round my house now. But none of them are beautiful or even properly dressed. Several have lost a leg or an arm and most are doomed to a Bad Hair Life. Little girls take something that is unreal, like Barbie, and make her real through play and neglect. Barbie herself may be passive but the world that little girls create is not.

Perhaps it is time the grown-ups started being sensible about it all. All we are talking about here is a bit of curved plastic who has managed to achieve icon status by decades of clever marketing. Things could be worse. Of all the friends and family members created for Barbie, she has never had any parents. She is a clone and one with a murky past, descended from a vampy heroine called Lilli who appeared in a Das Bild cartoon. Lilli was adapted as a sex toy and sold in tobacconists before her rights were bought up by Mattel. But Barbie as a character is no Lilli. She is very much mistress of her own universe. Men are superfluous (just look at Ken). At 40, she is single and a virgin, has had almost every career going and is rich enough to buy whatever she wants. She is self-reliant and probably, dare I say it, a feminist.

Even so, I'm not that keen on her. I do not think that this is an icon that the sisterhood needs to reclaim. The truth is, I'd prefer it if there weren't five of her lying in various stages of undress around my house, but then, that's life. The alternative is to pretend she doesn't exist. I don't even want to think about what kind of guerrilla war a Ban the Barbie campaign would start. It would only make her more important.

I decided to ask the real expert on this subject, my eight-year-old. What did she think of Barbie? "OK," she said. Just OK? "Yeah, OK." Well, I asked, did owning a Barbie make her want to look just like Barbie, and have her figure, and go out and buy make-up? Did it make her not want to think about poverty, or whatever? Did she want to be Barbie? "Yeah," she said. My heart skipped a beat. "Really?" I asked. She paused for a moment. "Well, yeah, I'd like to have long hair." And with that she went outside to play.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US