Zaftig Barbie and the American Jewish experience

classic barbie

The original, 1959

We’re visiting my mother’s cousin Reba, and I’m pretty excited because I get to play with her daughter’s Barbie. Shari is in high school, and uninterested in her Barbie, which is the real deal original. She has blond hair, swept into a curly ponytail, her face framed by curly bangs. Heavily lined eyes cast an aloof look and she sports a strapless black and white swimsuit. Tiny little pins, with pearly balls on the end, serve as teeny-weeny pierced earrings

A sad-eyed waif in a Margaret Keane painting plucks a guitar and watches over me as I play happily on the shag carpet, changing Barbie from her swimsuit to a full skirt and twin set and then into capris and a bowling-style shirt. She’s always in heels, because those permanently arched feet only work that way.

I am in preschool heaven.

Shari’s Barbie was in perfect shape. Except for those little pins she was using as earrings, the doll was unmarred from its packaged state. She slept in a red vinyl box made just for her, with an array of early 1960s outfits neatly hangered in the neighboring compartment. I would soon have my own Barbies, but they had perky, open California-girl faces, long straight blond hair, sometimes in a modish flip, and lacked the sophistication of a doll that was originally marketed as a “Teen-age fashion model.”

barbie 1969

Barbie circa 1969, the one I might have played with. Very Betty Draper.

The Barbie of my day wore short, A-line dresses, big sunglasses and had an array of plastic, pastel colored cars, houses, pools, kitchen, you name it. She had a boyfriend Ken, a prepubescent sister named Skipper–who unlike Barbie had no boobs (or later, you could turn her arm and she would grow them. I kid you not.) – and a black friend who had a little extra sass and cool about her.

Barbie has had many makeovers through the years. She is, after all, 57 years old, and well, a girl might need a little makeover help by then. But recently Barbie got her latest update. Today, she’s available in three new body types–curvy, tall and petite– as well as the original, with a variety of skin tones and hair textures and styles.

Diminished market share and slumping sales probably have a great deal to do with the change. We live in an America where a white Barbie doesn’t reflect 37 percent of the population. A skinny one? Well, nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population is considered obese or overweight. And no one has to trot out those stats that show how if original Barbie were a real woman she’d have a 16-inch waist and would walk on all fours because her tiny feet couldn’t support her. We all intuitively knew that, as she readied herself for Ken to pick her up in the dream convertible.

Barbie has gotten a bad rap over the years.  She has been made over, not always convincingly, as an astronaut, a presidential candidate, a girl with a scale that registers 110 all the time, and one who thinks math is tough (maybe talking Barbie wasn’t such a good idea).

But her story is so American­. And although she does not look it, also so very Jewish. Ruth Handler, the daughter of Polish Jewish immigrant and a brilliant businesswoman, who along with her husband, Elliot founded Mattel, created Barbie when she saw that her daughter’s paper dolls were limited because the fashions didn’t stay on them very well. A sexy German gag gift, the Bild Lilli doll was the inspiration’ even so, Barbie didn’t succeed right away, not until Mattel invested heavily in television advertising during the Mickey Mouse Show. Voila, Barbie, clearly was made for the coming “Mad Men” TV age.

Tiffany Shlain, in her 2005 Sundance award-winning short film, “The Tribe,” takes a pointed look at American Jewish history and the desire to fit in through what can only be dubbed as “the lens of Barbie,” for want of a better description. Click on the link and watch this gem. I first saw it in 2006 at a conference on Jewish culture, and in it Shlain somehow manages to presciently tap into all the anxieties we have about Jewish millennials (before we were calling them that) that would froth into full-blown hysteria seven years later with the publication of the Pew report.

new barbie

The new girls on the block

In the film, Barbie is both insider and outsider, the prefect symbol for the Jewish story in America. I wonder if Handler ever saw her that way. Probably not, but then she was in the middle of living what we now think of as a typical narrative of the successful child of Jewish immigrants.

Never in my wildest childhood fantasies did I think Barbie resembled anything real or even aspirational. And as a gawky-looking Jewish kid with frizzy hair and no sense of style, believe me I had a lot of things to get hung up about back then. But not seeing myself in Barbie wasn’t at their root. Whatever I might have thought about Barbie and her looks, I knew they were nothing like mine, nor those of my friends or any of the adults around us. And it didn’t really matter.

I wasn’t one of these moms who denied Barbie to her daughter. Lily’s romance with Barbie came early, when we were house hunting. One of the homes had a child-sized pink Barbie jeep in the basement in which she sat contentedly while we looked at the house. When it was time to go, we had to pry Lily from the jeep crying, “Barbeeee, Barbeeee!” I bought Lily her first big-girl underpants with Barbie designs on them not too long after. She was so upset that Barbie wasn’t in the package that she threw them on the floor. Clearly, Barbie was going to have an intergenerational future in our family.

We project a lot on Barbie, poor doll. She’s taken a lot of feminist flack over the decades. She’s not a role model; she is one and shouldn’t be; she should be a better one. In a world where we say looks aren’t everything and then act 180 degrees in opposition, Barbie encapsulates a lot of anxiety. If little girls today want to see themselves in curvy Barbie and her multi-complexioned sisters, it probably represents a cultural shift for the good. I still don’t see a very Jewish-looking Barbie in this mix, but I’m really not too upset about it.

And I doubt Ruth Handler would be, either.







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