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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.