Power moves

This all-American doll has a surprising amount to say about the status of women

An exhibition in Paris charts the evolution of Barbie — a ground-breaking toy that allowed little girls to project the adults they wanted to become

(Photo: Luc Boegly)

Seven Barbie statistics off the bat: 57 years, 150 countries, 18 eye colors, 14 faces, 23 hair colors, 4 silhouettes, 8 skin colors. Her transformative nature is precisely what makes her a telling societal emblem in miniaturized, condensed form. But to what degree is she really a telling barometer of shifting expectations on girls and women?

Although a worldwide phenomenon, Barbie’s roots and brand values remain quintessentially American. With this in mind, the exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris seemed poised to yield some insight into this all-American doll. Drawing on Mattel’s archives, the exhibition places Barbie in context historically and sociologically, though it treads lightly when examining her complex evolution of femininity.

The playful and bright exhibition is “threaded” with a ribbon theme to guide the visitor. There’s a recreated workshop outlining the Barbie-making process from sketch to hair- and face-design, to plastic parts development. A children’s corner is set up against the background of Barbie’s pink living room.

(Photo: Luc Boegly)

(Photo: Luc Boegly)

The Musée des Arts Déco has a robust in-house collection of toys, and Barbie is included in the longer evolution of the doll. The 19th-century doll was a “mute object of admiration” per French writer Charles Baudelaire in his La Morale du Joujou, cited in the wall text. The severe wooden faces and fragile porcelain limbs of yore were meant to be displayed, rather than handled. Moreover, dolls were for upper-crust children, while the lower-classes played with hand-sewn creatures fashioned from leftover fabrics. As the doll became less objet and more plaything, it was imagined as something to baby — a means of letting little girls practice at mothering. Barbie broke new ground because she was a full-fledged woman, allowing girls to project themselves, through her adult stature, as the women they might want to become.

At her origins in 1959, she was truly an American doll, born of post-war economic growth. “People who survived the war wanted to offer their kids the best of peacetime economic prosperity and abundance,” noted exhibition curator Anne Monier, who admits that during her own childhood she was “more Playmobil.” Barbie became an export representing the American way of life, and while she was quickly embraced in Europe, she was reviled in communist contexts. Like many successful icons, she had to put up with rip-offs that never quite made it: Sindy (U.K., 1960s), Petra (Germany, 1960s), Perle (France, 1980s.)

Created by Ruth and Eliott Handler, Barbie was imagined for their daughter. The toy company Mattel was then mostly making dollhouse furniture, miniature pianos, and fake revolvers; Ruth introduced the Barbie concept to the company (she was the entrepreneurial brains of the couple.) The first Barbie donned a swimsuit, and was clad in stripes strategically meant to be visually effective for TV advertisements. Barbie was what Monier calls a “poupée pionnière”: she represented an independent, autonomous woman with a career and a house — she was never married to Ken, and while she seems to have a Duggar-like number of siblings, she has no children of her own.

“We don’t criticize Barbie for the same things she was criticized for at the beginning,” Monier notes. Her breasts, for example, are perceived as being shaped by male fantasy, but dolls up until that point had no chests whatsoever, eliding the reality of a woman’s shape. Monier describes the fact that Barbie has breasts as a power move, one insisted upon by Ruth Handler. Though her proportions may be questionable, the female torso is at least acknowledged (if not the genitals, for either Barbie or Ken). Barbie would undergo her first modifications as early as the 1960s. Like anyone with a female silhouette, the expectations projected onto Barbie can be unrealistic and harsh. On the one hand, she’s simply a plastic doll; on the other, she’s a staple of childhood and, arguably, a formative early encounter with the female body.

Mattel’s eagerness to make Barbie in sync with the times normalizes, more and more, identities that it once overlooked. It’s progressive that there are new body types and skin colors that will make kids feel represented by the toys available — but to treat it like a trend by waiting until it’s a prevalent part of the conversation (instead of spearheading diversity for its own sake) reveals shallow intentions. Indeed, Barbie has also rewarded superficial trends. For example, during the rise of bubble-gum popstars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera in the 2000s, Barbie mirrored the culture-wide shift of wanting to emulate a teenager rather than a woman; a bellybutton was added to her torso so that she could show it off.

The exhibition examines the genealogy of Barbie — her friends, her sisters, her new guy as of 2004, Blaine, sporting a surfer-brah getup with sunglasses. Barbie has a horse and a dog and friends of color. Her entourage throughout the years has included Kayla (white; clad in a magenta jacket and green pouf skirt, 1989), Becky (white; in a wheelchair, 1997), and Nikki (black; sporting a gold bomber jacket, 2006). The extended Barbie family checks every heteronormative box, including an incredibly spry set of grandparents. Nearby are examples of Ken and Barbie as a couple, a perfect pairing in any situation — ice skating partners! a skiing duo! … soldiers!

There’s a dedicated section to Barbie’s careers, perhaps the section that felt the most dubious in the Barbie universe. In trying to appease and be versatile with the array of professions, there’s a flattening effect. Barbie is a cheerleader or a firefighter or a policewoman or a lifeguard. She can work at McDonald’s with a fast-food uniform and tray, she can be a president in a red skirtsuit, or an astronaut or a scuba diver or Miss America. The more far-reaching Barbie gets, the more diluted the whole spectrum seems.

In another vein, Barbie is celebrated as a fashion muse, which brings out the fun of her as a mannequin for dressing up. There’s a full-set décor replicating a couture atelier in miniature, from the sewing rooms to the fashion runway and client salon, a nod to chic Parisian fashion. A circular moving runway shows Barbie spinning around in designer-made outfits by Jeremy Scott, Oscar de la Renta, Diane von Furstenberg, Burberry, Paco Rabane. Barbie also metamorphoses with pop culture, transmuting into the Wizard of Oz cast, Andy Warhol, Star Trek, Liza Doolittle, Farah Fawcett.

A handful of artists address Barbie, and the most effective pieces are injected with humor, such as a tongue-in-cheek Barbie foosball table by Chloé Ruchon, or Marianela Perelli and Emiliano Paolini’s Barbie-turned-religious figures.

As the exhibition winds down, a rainbow of 7,000 Barbie clothes and accessories are pinned against a black background like taxidermied butterflies. (This is certainly an exhibition for completists.) The last vitrine closes with 12 looks shortlisted from a fashion school competition, based upon students who have outfitted Barbie with cool contemporary garb and unexpected silhouettes. It’s a nice note to end on—the idea of a young generation outfitting Barbie creatively, overthrowing the vacuous mall-girl vibe she’s so typically associated with.

(Photo: Luc Boegly)

Barbie clothes are pinned against a black background like taxidermied butterflies. (Photo: Luc Boegly)

When asked how the perception of femininity through Barbie can seem problematic, Monier is not too bothered. “Barbie is a toy, realism isn’t its vocation; being attractive is,” she says. “What her body represents, it’s not so important in how children conceive the body. The adult behind the purchase may think differently, although Mattel has now addressed this with the different body types.”

Ultimately, Barbie can be seen as an imaginative vehicle as much as a loaded symbol. Whatever her flaws, she effectively taps into childhood creativity, and continues to do so. “Once in hand, the imagination takes over… When you see her with kids, she does anything: flies, swims, is decapitated.”

BARBIE is at Musée Arts Décoratifs in Paris until September 18, 2016.

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