I mentioned Erika Rand’s Barbie’s Queer Accessories as one of the library books I was having trouble returning. I’m working on the link between classical reception and Barbie for a couple of articles; you can read a paper I gave on the subject over at Academia.edu. Rand introduced me to the wider field of Barbie Research and the strange pull that Barbie operates over the American consciousness. According to Rand, everyone has a Barbie story. She would tell people she was working on Barbie, and that would open up a wealth of personal history, emotion, reflection, memory (fabricated or otherwise). This is what makes Barbie a cultural icon – nobody ever asked ‘who’s Barbie?’
My Barbie story is, I’m afraid, rather hum-drum. I owned a few when I was a girl. I put one in the tumble dryer as a safe place when a scary section came on the television program we were watching together, and my mother put a load of washing in to dry. Poor Barbie came out with strangely blank blue-run eyes, and hair that never quite felt right again. She was my first Barbie, and after her accident, although I got a couple more dolls, I don’t think I ever felt particularly keen on her. I did have Doctor Barbie, complete with wonderfully small medical instruments and charts, with a handy plastic doctor’s bag to keep them all in. I was more entranced by the objects than the doll, to be truthful – the same with the Playmobil operating room, full of tiny wonderful replicas of big adult objects, somehow magic in my hands. Especially replica bottles of medicine, waiting to be filled with some strange potion.
Barbies were big in primary school – there was a small clique of girls who were terribly into them, swapping clothing and that sort of thing. To try to fit in, to try to be popular (and how bitter that sounds now I type it), I took a Barbie and some of the Barbie clothes in, and played ‘swapsies’. I can’t remember what I swapped, but swap I did, for a suede ankle-length skirt – but once I got home, I hated it, and never swapped anything again. The memory still makes me feel sullen and angry, even though this happened years ago – but it’s the power of those childhood memories that make you come back to these things, and from which these cultural objects take their power.
I’ve come back to Barbie, so many years later, because of a Radio 4 program I listened to that celebrated the 50th birthday of Barbie and Madonna – I think it was called The Material Girls at Fifty, or something similar. They mentioned, in the course of that, the Barbie Collector website. Because I am a geek, I typed the term into Google – and ran smack bang into the very first of the new classical Barbies on the website front page, Barbie as Medusa. It was all downhill from there.
Do you have a Barbie story?