M.G. Lord wrote a book called “Forever Barbie” in 1994. It is both a history of the doll and a cultural commentary. Chapter 11 is entitled “Our Barbies, Our Selves” and a portion of the chapter discusses what Lord called the Skipper complex; that is, a feeling of inferiority. I’ve retyped the portion for you to read. Although I sympathize with some of what is written, most of it I disagree with.
Jan’s first encounter with “the whole Barbie phenomenon” took place in California in 1965. “I must have been five or six,” she told me. “That year, for Christmas, I got a Skipper doll and a little forty-five of Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ ‘She’s My Girl,’ and all day I had Skipper bouncing around to this song. She was a dark-haired Skipper, and she very much had that sixties look--eyeliner and little bangs and long hair. I thought Skipper was the end-all and be-all of the earth, until I phoned one of my friends to compare gifts. She started talking about how she had gotten this Barbie, which was a much different kind of doll. And I immediately felt rooked--why had I gotten the little sister? Why hadn’t I gotten the star of the show?”
Jan’s adoptive mother argued that the younger doll was closer in age to Jan. But, Jan recalled, “It made me feel in playing with other that I didn’t have what it took. Because all I had was a Skipper. I could never really get into the whole dating thing. I could never have this rich fantasy life--meet a man, have romantic love. I was always relegatedf to being the little sister.”
Nor did Jan's identification with Skipper end when she outgrew dolls. “I have never felt particularly pretty or attractive or sexually interesting. I have always thought that I was more like, not a little sister, but an androgynous person.”
This was not the revelation I had expected from Jan--chic, downtown Jan in her stylish black suits and crimson lipstick--who had competed in beauty contests as a teenager. I had expected her to talk about racial identification--how it felt for an Asian American to play with a doll that coded Caucasion standards of beauty. But all Jan wanted to discuss was Barbie’s voluptuousness.
“Barbie always looms,” Jan said. “That sort of ideal looms--and other women have it. Other women possessed these dolls, other women learned the secret. Maybe this is taking this Barbie thing too far, but I feel like the other women had a kind of girl experience that I didn’t--that they understood something about being sort of seductive and perky that I didn’t get. I was always kind of a gal-along-for-the-ride, never feeling I could identify with the Marilyn Monroe-Jayne Mansfield-Barbie character.”
By withholding Barbie, Jan believes, her mother deliberately tried to stunt her sexual development. And it nearly worked: Despite her cheerleader looks, she projected so much standoffishness that she scared boys away. It wasn’t until she was eighteen that she had her first date. Fortunately, her father, an engineer who wore Vargas Girl cuff links and joked about “va-va-va-voom actresses,” projected a different message. “My mother was a very threatened person,”Jan said. “Because she was very unattractive. And my father was quite handsome. I think she felt threatened by me sexually--by any woman who was attractive.
“You know what dolls my mother did give me?” Jan suddenly blurted. “Trolls! I never had a Barbie house but I had a troll house. I was thinking: Is this what she wants me to identify with--these horrible things with purple hair?”
Today, no one observing Jan and her husband--“a cross between Jeff Bridges and Jeff Daniels,” she says--would suspect that she had a Skipper complex. Yet just as I will never quite shake the legacy of Midge, Jan has been forever burdened with Skipper. Jan, however, doesn’t scapegoat the doll; in therapy, she learned to distinguish between the message and its messenger.