Barbie turns 51 today, March 9. She has never married. Think about that for a minute. The ideal, American pin-up girl is a spinster. I'm not saying her marriageable days are behind her. But at 51, she has piloted through the bulk of family and peer pressure, grown accustomed to checking the single box on the form at doctor's offices, and realizes like many of her divorced friends who are content to be living without a mate, that marriage won’t save her. The odds are few she even wants to wed.
Barbie comes to me an unlikely role model, though we emerge from similar terrains. We were both born in mid-century, prosperous America, grandchildren of Eastern-European Jewish immigrants, with strong, competent mothers, who expected us to lead a traditional, womanly life. I assumed that’s where we parted company, because of course she’s a perfectly-figured, long–legged, bosomy blond, and I’m, well.... not.
I was lukewarm about Barbie as a girl, but I didn't hate her. I just preferred the more expensive, clunky-looking "Chatty Cathy" who had a pull-string at the back of her neck, and could say an assortment of phrases that included, "Tell me a story," "Will you play with me?" and "Please take me home with you." Mom ignored my relentless pleas, and stuck me instead with the second-tier “Tammy” doll, who she got as a consolation prize after a failed bid on the game show, "Concentration."
My full-throated Barbie disdain began in the mid-seventies, when I transitioned from pleated skirts and eyeliner to baggy jeans and peasant blouses. You couldn’t get me near a tube of lipstick. My mother was sure I’d snare a husband if I wore a tighter blouse and a little rouge (before it became blush), but I didn’t care. I had an abundance of men sharing my bed, and no one bothered with marriage then. But like many daughters, I’ve internalized my mother’s concerns, and wondered from time to time if she was right.
Barbie was created in 1959 by Ruth Handler, an improbable tycoon, who co-founded Mattel with her husband Elliot and a third partner Harold Matson. Before Barbie, the only dolls in the marketplace were babies or little girl dolls, which allowed their owners to practice the one inevitable career, that of nurturing mother and housewife. Handler’s innovation in designing Barbie as a “teenage fashion model” with an enviable wardrobe, came after observing her daughter (Barbara) and friends prefer to play with adult paper dolls, using them as Handler said, “to project their dreams of their own futures as adult women.”
Through the years, I’ve underestimated Barbie. Frankly, I’d always thought of her as an airhead, which speaks more to my small mindedness than hers. In fact, she wields such a bulky resume that Wikipedia was forced to organize her career into categories: Education, Medical, Military, Political (for her Presidential runs in 1992, 2000 and 2004), Public Service, Transportation (astronaut, flight attendant, NASCAR driver, pilot) and Misc. (paleontologist).
Barbie has always surrounded herself with the accoutrements of financial success. She owns a condo, townhouse, country home, camper, Jacuzzi, private plane, boat, Poodle, Afghan hound and a slew of cars, several of them convertibles. Mattel estimates that through the years they’ve produced a billion outfits and as many pairs of shoes (explaining the need for so many residences with closet space).
Ken (named after Ruth and Elliot’s son, Kenneth) was introduced in 1961, after customers begged for Barbie to have a boyfriend. In February 2004, following 43 years of steady dating without nuptials, Ken and Barbie finally called it quits. Speculation was rampant. Did Barbie waste her marriageable years on a gay, or commitment phobic man, or was Ken just another of her disposable accessories? Is Barbie a lesbian? (These are eerily similar kinds of questions my family has posed about me.)
Ruth Handler conceived Barbie as a brunette, and the early models sported brown and red hair, but the blonde was by far the best seller. She is the world’s most popular toy. Her inception and success are rooted in being a worthy object on which a young girl could pin her hopes and dreams. Can you imagine if we built an additional storyline into the blond-bombshell mythos: the happy ever after, never married, Barbie? How many bruising stereotypes of the plain, stay-at-home, spinster might that shatter?
Wendy Braitman has had a 20-year media career, working as an on-air journalist in radio and television before transitioning into film as a producer and project matchmaker. Her website FIRST PERSON SINGULAR: Notes from an Unmarried Life is a site about surviving, thriving and sometimes just getting through a “single” day.