Barbie: from career woman to bimbo in a generation

Sex and the single toy

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November would not be complete without a seasonal outbreak of toy stories. Just when it looked as if this year's PR rosette would go to the Teletubbies (on offer at pounds 100 a piece in the small ads of Loot), Mattell weighs in with the obligatory Barbie shocker. This time it's the all-new, smaller-breasted, thicker-waisted doll due to be launched next year. The implication is that the multinational toy giant is doing its bit for feminism by dumping the impossibly pneumatic old Barbie in favour of a new one - but read the small print and it transpires that this is merely a cynical bit of niche marketing aimed at collectors, completists and that lunatic fringe of parents who won't give the little bottle-blonde tart houseroom. In fact the bulk of the trade will involve the old-style, waspy-waisted nymphette and most outfits will continue to be tailored to her fantastical proportions. Imagine the scenes of humiliation in the dolls' changing room as New Barbie discovers that she can't get the shocking pink Capri pants over her sadly realistic buttocks. Does my bum look big in this?

But nine-inch dolls are only part of the picture. Although she doesn't actually appear on crisp packets, Barbie could certainly teach Simon Fuller a thing or two about merchandising. Barbie's empire includes wallpaper, pyjamas, duvet covers, condoms (only kidding). Barbie's long-standing global success may be responsible for the fact that children's toys are more gender-specific than they were 40 years ago.

If you were packed off today to Woolworths to buy a toy for a six-year- old whose sex you didn't know, you might find that the only thing suitable was a bag of sweets. The sexual stereotyping of toys is now so universal that you can no longer buy a simple jigsaw puzzle: it has to be a Barbie puzzle or a Batman puzzle. The manufacturers' ruthless genderfication of toy production has been allowed to proceed unchecked by feminism or common sense until we have reached a stage where everything from a pencil case to a tricycle is indelibly marked with the sex for which it was designed.

We may believe that all this was true only in the bad old past when the pink-or-blue paraphernalia of childhood was largely responsible for old- style sexual conditioning: Janet helped mother in the kitchen, John helped daddy wash the car. But in fact the polarisation of child's play was not as extreme as it is today. Boys might have had their train set and girls played with dolls that peed everywhere, but at least they shared the same rollerskates.

The Sixties and Seventies saw an increased interest in the exciting modern idea of unisex playthings, but the trend didn't take over. Rather, boys' toys have progressed from cowboy outfits to combat fatigues and laser- sighted rifles, and Barbie has slid down the slippery primrose path into the dolly equivalent of white slavery. Once a pretty brunette who enjoyed a lively, self-sufficient existence with snappy, street-smart outfits and a full diary, Barbie has degenerated into a materialistic trollope whose clothes and accessories makes Barbara Cartland look like Jean Muir at a funeral.

The Barbie people always insist that her career is terribly important to her in an "I want to travel and meet people" sort of way but the wardrobe tells another story. The "career girl" has gone forever; instead Nineties Barbie is a kept woman with no shame and no taste. Run your eye down the Barbie wish-list and ask yourself what self-respecting female ever paid good money for a shocking pink horse box? The faithful Ken is just a blind: Mattel should really team up with Peter Stringfellow and launch a sugar daddy.

Do toys matter? Surely it's a fine and necessary thing that girls and boys should be different? Maybe, but not if we push them both to ugly extremes of brutality and airheadedness. There is more to role-playing games than deciding which sarong to wear in the speedboat. Two generations into the sexual revolution and grown women are still reading magazines that promise to make them slimmer, prettier, sexier, Barbier. It all has to start somewhere. The bimbification of Barbie has seen her degenerate from the Busy Girl of 1960 to the Rainbow Dream Slags of 1997 that line the shelves this Christmas: this is more than just a toy story.

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