Monday, October 28, 2013

about the Barbie Diaries storybooks

I also found this article from The Washington Post via the library website, about the Barbie Diaries books that have been published.

The World According To Barbie: How Does a Real Doll Remember the ’60s? Thinly

Bob Thompson
The Washington Post
March 27, 2005
p. D1

Everybody complains that American kids don’t know their history, but nobody ever does anything about it.

This is where Barbie comes in.

The shiny-haired, pointy-breasted cultural icon has just been revealed as a secret scribbler -- and, what’s more, a historically minded one. Mattel, the toy behemoth Barbie built, has teamed up with Golden Books to launch the “Barbie Diary of the Decade” series. The first two diary books are out this month.

In Red, White, and Blue Jeans, Barbie takes us back to those dy-no-mite days of the ’70s -- 1976, to be precise -- when disco was boss and little girls put Pet Rocks under their pillows at night. In Peace, Love, and Rock ’n’ Roll, she time-travels a decade further back, to 1964, when Carnaby Street was groovy and John, Paul, George and Ringo were on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
She hosts a Beatles party to celebrate. “What a fab night, Diary!” she writes.

“Eeeee-ew,” you might say, especially if you’re an anti-Barbie individual, one who believes, perhaps, that a compulsively accessorizing shopaholic with a bust- to waist-size ratio not found in nature is hardly the best historical tour guide for 8-year-olds.

But not so fast.

What if the diaries portrayed Barbie as a pioneering feminist -- and never mind that she herself would never use that term?

What if they revealed that, when she wasn’t trying on miniskirts, she was schlepping down to Washington for the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

What if they took on anorexia, for heaven’s sake?

“It took me about five minutes to realize it was a brilliant concept,” says veteran children's book author Linda Lowery about her reaction when an executive at Random House, which owns Golden Books, asked her to be Barbie’s ventriloquist -- and never mind that she’d had a brief eeeee-ew reaction herself. By putting such a powerful character into history, Lowery said, she hoped to show girls “how to create change in their own lives.”

Random House, she says, had no problem with her wanting to give Barbie a social conscience. She started with 1964 because of the Beatles-led British Invasion, but also because it was the year the Civil Rights Act passed. And she made sure that Christie, the African American friend-of-Barbie introduced by Mattel in the late ’60s, played a major role in the story.

Then again, it might be a mistake to expect too much from a perky lightweight who once chirped “Math class is tough!” If the girl can’t handle basic algebra, we shouldn’t be surprised if she messes up her civil rights homework, too.

Lowery’s text, as published, makes no mention of Christie’s race. The author says she was “relying on the art” to make that clear. Reached by phone not long before the official March 8 publication date, she says she’s just gotten the finished books in the mail.

Has she noticed, she is asked, that in the illustrations Barbie and her friend are a bit hard to tell apart?

She has not.

She turns to one of the pages on which they appear together, hair equally long and straight, skins an identical shade of pink.

“Is this Christie?” Lowery says.

Like it or not, as her leading biographer puts it, “Barbie is us.” As such, in the 46 years since Mattel put her on the market, she’s been a lightning rod for cultural contention about sexuality, commercialism, the nature of childhood, gender roles, race.

Why should it be any different when America's favorite 11 1/2- inch plastic princess starts giving history lessons?

“I'm sure it's going to be the theme park version,” says M.G. Lord, author of Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, when informed of Barbie’s new vocation. Yet Lord also notes that Barbie can be resistant to stereotyping -- as a look at the doll’s own history confirms.

Barbie was the brainchild of Ruth Handler, whose husband co- founded Mattel. She’d noticed that when her daughter played with paper dolls, she used them to imagine her life as a grown-up. Happening on a full-figured German doll called Lilli -- described by Lord as “a pornographic caricature, a gag gift for men” -- Handler had her copied. By 1959, Barbie was being mass-produced in Japan.
Her universe in those days was exclusively white. She acquired her first minority friend in 1967, a short-lived doll with the unfortunate name “Colored Francie” who was quickly replaced by Christie. In 1980, Mattel introduced a black version of Barbie herself, along with a Hispanic one.

Over the years, Barbie has had innumerable careers, starting with the kind women were routinely funneled into (nurse, stewardess) and moving on to the kind the women’s movement made it realistic for them to aspire to (physician, executive, astronaut). In 1961 she acquired an insipid boyfriend, Ken, whom she finally ditched in 2004 after they’d gone steady for 43 years.

Despite such evident progress, however, Barbiephobes still accuse her of teaching little girls to see women primarily as sex objects and shoppers. Exhibit A might be a board game called “Barbie's Dream Date.” It’s a timed competition in which, Lord writes, “each player’s mission is to make Ken spend as much money as possible on her before the clock strikes twelve.”

Yet Barbie has also starred in a game called “We Girls Can Do Anything.” And in her original fictional incarnation, a series of long-forgotten Barbie novels published in the early ’60s, she behaves in what Lord calls an "exceedingly subversive" way.

This Barbie rejects the role model she finds at home (“Mother, don’t you ever want anything for yourself?”) and seeks out female professional mentors instead. Even when working as a fashion model, she displays a raised consciousness:

The job makes her feel “like a piece of merchandise,” she complains.

The Barbie diaries were Kate Klimo’ s idea.  The vice president and publisher of Random House Children's Books says she pitched them “off the top of my head” at a meeting with Mattel in 2001. The target age was 6 to 10. Barbie coloring books and titles tied into Barbie videos were doing well, she says, but she thought the rest of the Mattel-licensed Barbie line “was kind of pablum-ish.”

Her idea was sparked in part by the success of historical novels based on American Girl doll characters (produced by Pleasant, which Mattel bought in 1998), and of Scholastic’s popular “Dear America” diary series. Both have won praise as relatively accurate and nuanced, but a Barbie version would, of course, need its own identity.

It would offer “history through the Barbie filter,” as Klimo puts it. Clothes and accessories would play a big part, because with Barbie, “you cannot deny fashion.” But Klimo also calls Barbie’s diaries “a noble and exciting experiment” designed to put girls in touch with the history their mothers and grandmothers lived through.

Some women on Klimo’s staff initially resisted the notion of working on Barbie books, but she herself had no such doubts.

“Barbie is what Barbie is,” she says. Now 55, she remembers being drawn to the doll as a girl because “she looked like she came from another planet,” like the impossibly statuesque actress Julie Newmar. Also, Barbie was just plain sexy, she adds, and “little girls have sexual fantasies from an early age.”

There’s no sex in the Barbie diaries, though.  Linda Lowery's plot for Peace, Love and Rock ’n’ Roll has Barbie, a recent college grad, scoring a tryout as a magazine fashion photographer. “Diary, I am so nervous!” she writes. “What if the pictures are horrible?” They’re not. Impressed, the magazine sends Barbie to London, where she dashes from shop to Carnaby Street shop, “clicking pictures and trying on clothes.”  Miraculously, she runs into the Beatles. She thinks she’s going to faint, but she’s got a job to do, and gamely -- “Click! Click!” -- she seizes the moment.

A few parts of the ‘60s are missing, of course.  The first diary entry is dated Jan. 4, 1964, six weeks after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Barbie apparently hasn’t heard the news. (“That would be pushing it, don't you think?” Klimo says.) Her last entry is Aug. 10, the same day President Johnson signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, escalating the Vietnam War. Barbie doesn’t know from Vietnam, or the Cold War, either. She’s too busy baking cupcakes and chowing down on fish and chips.

And yet: That food is there for a good reason. “I'm very aware of the struggle girls can have with weight issues and eating disorders,” Lowery explains. She wanted her Barbie, whose waist in the diary illustrations is not quite so impossibly thin as the original doll’s, to be a better role model in this regard.

There’s a women's-rights scene, too, that Lowery particularly likes. Skipper, the older of Barbie's sisters, mocks Stacie, the younger, for wanting to dress up as a rock drummer on her school’s career day. Girls can’t be drummers, Skipper tells her -- do the Beatles have a girl drummer? 

Barbie reminds Skipper how mad she’d been when the neighborhood boys tried to stop her from helping build a treehouse because “girls don't know anything about building.”

But of all the good-role-model plots, it’s Barbie’s civil rights adventure that gets the most play. The magazine sends her and her best friend, Christie -- an aspiring writer -- to Washington to do a story on the Civil Rights Act and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Barbie gets a great shot of a little African-American girl “full of hope, gazing at Dr. King.”
We know the little girl’s race not from the text, but from an illustration that shows her with her dad; the two are noticeably darker than anyone else in the book. The closest we get to finding out that Christie herself is black, however, is when she remarks that the bright-eyed girl “looks like me when I was little.”

And given her Barbie-pink complexion -- well, it’s easy to assume she’s just talking about those hopeful, shining eyes.  Asked how the decision to portray Christie this way was made, Barbie’s handlers can be a bit defensive.

That’s a question for Random House, says author Lowery, who suggests a call to Klimo.
Actually, it’s a question for Mattel, says Klimo, who advises that Vicki Jaeger, marketing manager for Mattel Brands consumer products, is the person to ask.

“We felt that the illustrations were whimsical characters,” says Jaeger, who uses the word “whimsical” four times as she explains the difference between the Barbie artwork and, say, portraits by the Dutch Masters -- the kind intended to be “an exactly true depiction of a person.” Mattel public relations director Stacey Gomoljak steps in to suggest a talk with illustrator Ann Field.

Reached at her Santa Monica, Calif., studio, Field declines to speak for publication. She’s an approved Mattel illustrator and would prefer to remain one. Back to Random House, then, for a last word:  “There's nothing in the art that Mattel doesn’t want there," Klimo says.

What, then, are we to make of this corporate color scheme? By now it shouldn’t be surprising that opinions vary. Or that, as with Barbie and women’s rights, Mattel’s history can support conflicting points of view.

“You're kidding!” exclaims M.G. Lord when told of Christie's whimsical pinkening. But then Lord comes to Mattel's defense. After the 1965 Watts riots, she notes, the company provided financial support and expert advice to a black-run Los Angeles startup called Shindana Toys. Shindana, as Lord wrote in Forever Barbie, made “multicultural playthings before they were trendy.” She portrays Mattel’s effort to help as significant and sincere.

Occidental College anthropologist Elizabeth Chin, who teaches a course called “The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie,” has a more skeptical view of the toymaker. “They’re only as far into civil rights as is going to make them a buck,” Chin says, adding that the company tries to “play it both ways” on race. Yes, there are non-white Barbies, and yes, she has multicultural friends. But in the end, “white Barbie is still the star.”

The whole question of portraying different races with dolls is “deeply problematic,” says English and African-American studies professor Ann duCille of Wesleyan University, whose book Skin Trade includes a long chapter on Barbie. “It really can be done only through stereotypes.” Then duCille tells the story of the “ethnically correct” dolls Mattel introduced in 1991.

As it geared up to launch its Shani line, the company hired as a consultant Darlene Powell Hopson, a psychologist who had done extensive work on children and dolls. Hopson recommended that the Shani dolls be produced in a variety of skin tones, not just one. Mattel went along with this. But when it came to the dolls’ hair, which Hopson also wanted to make more realistic, the toymaker drew the line.  All little girls love long, combable hair, she was told.

Apprised of the plot of Peace, Love, and Rock 'n' Roll, duCille takes issue with Barbie’s upbeat version of civil rights history -- which, as it happens, is a lot like the version now taught in the early grades of American elementary schools.  “I call it ‘hunky-doryism,’ “ she says. “It's a kind of ‘all’s well that ends well.’ It places the struggle in the past tense, when actually, I think, we're slipping backward.”

Kate Klimo thinks there will be more Barbie diaries soon. Next up would be entries from the ’80s, the ’90s and even the first years of the 21st century. “For little girls, three years ago is history,” she says.

Linda Lowery hopes there will be many more -- perhaps one for each year since Barbie’s 1959 birthday. She says she didn’t intend the 1964 and 1976 volumes to represent whole decades, just the particular events of those years. If she gets to write more, she expects they will deal with difficult historical issues such as Vietnam. “If Barbie is actually witnessing history, that's part of the period,” she says.

For now, though, the plan is to wait and see how the first two diaries do. And when it comes to difficult history -- well, if anything remotely un-hunky-dory happened in 1976, it's clear that America’s plastic sweetheart slept through it.

Red, White, and Blue Jeans makes Barbie’s take on the ‘60s look like Dante’s Inferno. The 1976 plot revolves around the nation’s 200th birthday. Barbie and her sisters help organize a Bicentennial celebration in their small, seemingly Midwestern town. They sew costumes. They plan a disco dance. Barbie and Stacie take a road trip to Philadelphia where they learn, among other things, that the movie Rocky was filmed there. Sample diary entry: “Stacie thought it was boss that the boxer has the same name as her pet rock.”

Nothing remotely as edgy as the passage of a civil rights bill transpires. The big crisis is a bungled quiltmaking project. Mood rings turn black, but not to worry -- the Daughters of the American Revolution are there to save the day.

Christie doesn’t show up in pinkface this time. Assigned a smaller role, she simply isn’t pictured at all.

1 comment:

D7ana said...

Thanks for this article!