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Barbie. My long, tortured, wonderful relationship.
A true story, remembered. "If you love Barbie, this movie is for you. If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you."
Read time: about 12 minutes. This week I prepare to watch the Barbie movie, despite my torturous relationship with her. This issue of Technocomplex is different from the usual.
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“Sorry you couldn’t come to the last meeting,” the foundation president said on the phone. “It was an interesting one, and the board felt that you could help out with a problem.”
“Hm. What can I do?”
The “problem” had to do with a doll, maybe the most famous of them all. Barbie.
I’m having flashbacks now because Barbie is about to re-emerge in a feature-length live-action movie. Despite my desire to put memories of her behind me, I will probably watch it, though I’m not entirely sure I can convince Bond Girl Bride to watch with me. You see, I have had a long and tortured relationship with Barbie.
Backstory: A movie pitch
Actually, looking back on the relationship, I guess it, too, could make a pretty decent movie script. I’ve even rehearsed the elevator pitch — easy enough, since it’s “Toy Story meets Sleepless in Seattle meets Bridezilla.”
A few of the story’s “beats”:
I learn a rule of board membership: never miss a meeting. You might be asked to do something that’s unexpectedly treacherous.
How do you communicate with Barbieland about the Real World, not necessarily considering Barbie’s odd proportions, but also not not necessarily considering her odd proportions? A recollection of a long international phone call … on my dime back in the 1990s.
What happens when a crudely typed message gets faxed to powerful people, including the President of the United States?
I sympathize with a (somewhat) terrorist organization committing strange plastic surgery procedures and “reverse shoplifting”? (That’s real plastic, too — high-density polyethylene.) Am I still law-abiding?
After all this, what is it? Barbie love? Barbie hate?
Hey, it would be a blockbuster.
Here’s the backstory, more or less. Before the turn of the millennium, I served on a foundation board, which sounds more important than it really was, since the responsibilities meant mainly raising cash and dispensing it on an annual basis — every penny, and sometimes augmented by pocket change from board members. No one got paid on this illustrious board, and everyone was sniffing around for prospective donors. It was a collection of amateur fundraisers, plopped into place because of presumed expertise and social connections. Being wealthy wasn’t required — as my appointment illustrated — but a couple board members had more money than sense.
The foundation supported a program that celebrated and encouraged highly talented high school graduates across the nation and from US territories. It was quite a thing and began during the LBJ presidency, when commission members included the likes of Leonard Bernstein and other luminaries. The first set of scholars had seminars with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Astronaut Alan B. Sheppard, and Chief Justice Earl Warren.
No one on the foundation board or the commission of my day was a Leonard Bernstein or an Earl Warren, of course, and as is always the case with such things, the group had its tensions and misaligned interests. Think “escape room game” with strangers, except the goal is to support a worthy venture.
Casting possibilities for this movie seem promising. It’s possible to cook up intrigue for a thriller, wouldn’t you think?
Well, maybe, but in my story there was The Barbie Thing.
Part one: My assignment. Or, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE
“Yes. The problem,” the president resumed. “You haven’t met B— yet, I don’t think. She sent the board a proposal.”
Indeed I hadn’t met her. She’d missed the meetings I went to. I knew she was one of the wealthy board members and particularly interested in the arts. And a bit irascible. She was closely tied with Mattel, Barbie’s maker.
“She offered the foundation a $100,000 donation. But there was a hitch. A new Barbie would come out as one of our scholars. Branded with the foundation. That’s the proposal.”
“A Barbie would certainly give us visibility,” she added, rather reluctantly and ironically, I thought.
“Let me guess. Nobody was thrilled,” I said, stating what in the Real World was obvious but in Barbieland wasn’t — especially in the 1990s.
“Well, not exactly,” she replied. “Everyone was thrilled by the offer of a donation.” She paused. “But the hitch. That’s the sticky thing. The board didn’t think Barbie is the right image, so to speak. That came out in the meeting, but no one has told her yet. So, B— is waiting.”
The board president was being diplomatic. I was actually bemused by the juxtaposition of Barbie (whose “Teen Talk” version said “math class is tough”) and the bright, somewhat nerdy, and engaged students the foundation helped to celebrate and honor. And a branded Barbie was getting to be a Thing. In 1992, she had run for President, so the image of a Presidential Barbie was fresh.
The trouble was that anyone can run for President — the roster of candidates every four years is the proof — but not anyone could be selected as a scholar in this program. And no one on the board wanted to get close to something smelling like an endorsement of a doll.
“OK. So, what do you want me to do?” I asked, dreading the response.
“We want you to talk with B— and tell her that a Barbie branded as one of our ‘scholars’ and tied to the foundation identity won’t be acceptable,” she said. “But we are very willing to accept her donation.”
“A tough sell,” I said.
“Yup. I guess. Especially the second part. If you do that, it’ll be a miracle. The board felt that you had the diplomatic skills and charm to pull it off.”
She was buttering me up.
“B— is in France at her vacation home. Here’s the phone number.” I got the phone number and more detail about the meeting. It was too late to call that day. I’d wait for the morning, when time in France would be civilized at least.
Part two: Explaining the Real World to Barbieland
I’ve only seen the Barbie trailer, but there’s a pivotal scene where Barbie consults with a quite decrepit old Barbie about what she needs to do. Old Barbie gives her a choice: “You can go back to your regular life, or you can know the truth about the universe. The choice is now yours.” She holds a pink high heel in her right hand (“your regular life”) and a very flat-footed Birkenstock in her left (“the truth about the universe”). Barbie wants the high heel, of course, but the old doll forces the issue.
In the movie, Barbie has to go to the Real World.
I was in the OLD BARBIE role in the phone call to France, to my BARBIE fellow board member.
In France, the ringtone is a “boop-boop boop-boop.” An assistant of some sort answered, and she said she’d ask BARBIE if she could talk with me.
BARBIE (i.e., B—): Hello.
OLD BARBIE (i.e., me): Hi. We’ve not yet met. I’m OLD BARBIE from the foundation board. I was asked to call you up to report about the meeting.
BARBIE: Yes. Good. Sorry I couldn’t be there. I’m in France, though.
OLD BARBIE: Yes, that’s what I heard. I wasn’t there, either. So, there’s that.
I paused, wondering where to begin or whether I even made sense about where I was. Neither of us had the benefit of first-hand knowledge of the discussion of the proposal. I had to wing it based on my conversation the day before. And BARBIE was mainly in the same boat.
OLD BARBIE: Of course everyone was very excited to hear your proposal. It would certainly go a long way to securing the future of the program.
BARBIE: Yes. Good. The Barbie doll. That’s what I’m excited about, too.
I wish I had a high heel and a Birkenstock at hand at this point, just to illustrate. I didn’t. I had to pull BARBIE to a different conclusion without foot-bound visual aids.
OLD BARBIE: Yes. Well. The board talked a long time about it, and the Barbie isn’t really an option. Couple of reasons, really.
I could feel BARBIE’s body stiffen over the phone.
OLD BARBIE: First, the board came to the conclusion that a branded Barbie would look like the foundation and the program endorsing Barbie. People didn’t know if they could even do that kind of thing.
BARBIE: No, not right. Barbie would be great to encourage girls to become better scholars. No endorsement of Barbie. The other way around.
I paused again, trying to comprehend how a Barbie endorsement would work for the foundation and the scholars. Would I want to be endorsed by Barbie? The mind boggles — or at least the Real World mind boggles.
OLD BARBIE: Hm. I have to say that your take is a positive one, but it wasn’t what the board saw. The other thing has to do with …
I hesitated, trying to assess how to cast the message. Suddenly, I felt a yawning gulf between the Real World and Barbieland.
OLD BARBIE: … has to do with, uh, Barbie ... Barbie’s image.
I was thinking of her DD-cups and 22-inch waist and her impossibly narrow neck and legs as long as telephone poles. I also thought she was a bit ditzy. Then I made a big mistake, in retrospect.
OLD BARBIE: Uh, she doesn’t fit the image of a scholar. The image of Barbie isn’t exactly a really smart student. And that’s what worried the board. Misinterpretation, you know, of what the scholars program is.
BARBIE (after a pause): Barbie has done lots of things. Really lots, and she’s exceptional. There’s a Black Barbie. There’s an astronaut Barbie. Do you know that somewhere around the world someone buys a Barbie every seven seconds?
I didn’t know that, and to be honest I can’t remember today — thirty years after the exchange — if it was every seven seconds or every six. Whatever. But it was clear from that point on in our twenty-minute conversation that BARBIE wasn’t going to put on the Birkenstock of the Real World.
She’d stick with the high heels, thank you very much.
When I hung up the phone, I was relieved to be done with the conversation and felt that we parted amicably. Or, as amicably as could be expected. There was tension but no yelling or expletives. I didn’t expect a miracle; there wasn’t going to be a $100,000 check in the mail without a specially branded Barbie in the offing.
Part three: I sympathize with a “terrorist organization”
The night after our telephone conversation, I imagine B— in her French chateau, typing away in her high heels. Then, in the cool morning light of France, she had her assistant fax the note to several people. Members of the foundation board and another person or two. And to the President of the United States.
I came into work, glanced at the fax machine next to the door to my office, and picked up the single page. I was on the recipients list.
Even though the phone call was without static and clear as the Bell System could muster, the connection between the Real World and Barbieland apparently was quite garbled. I thought the conversation went as well as it could have, my momentary bluntness about Barbie’s image notwithstanding. B— apparently didn’t share that view.
Her fax recounted a telephone call that sounded pretty bad, actually, but time has eroded my memory of the details of her description. (Too bad I didn’t save the fax. It’d be hilarious to see now.) I do remember one phrase: “He sullied my reputation.” That was news to me, and a particularly ingenious twist, since obviously my reputation was sullied quite nicely with the faxed narrative from Barbieland.
So, I spent the morning on the phone again, calling other board members. The foundation president immediately understood. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Doesn’t surprise me that this would happen.”
Another long-time board member laughed and said mainly the same thing, but he added, “You know, it’s said that when she goes to the White House she has free rein on the third floor.”
“Third floor?” I wondered. Where the First Family lives?
I didn’t bother calling the President.
No hit man arrived to knock me off. No FBI or Secret Service agent visited me. I didn’t hear about the matter again. I stayed on the board for a while longer until the change of administration.
But, I’m afraid, Barbie’s reputation with me suffered, so I guess in the end she was the one who got sullied. That did have consequences in the Real World — my Real World.
Dark forces seduced me.
It began with a folded sheet of paper, crinkled from having rested at the bottom of a backpack, I assumed. It was stuffed into my inbox along with the paper detritus of old-timey office work: memos, letters, notes, newspaper clippings, drafts of this-and-that, candy wrappers, rubber bands.
I unfolded it to reveal a copy of a copy of a copy. Xerography in the last century stole resolution and greys from originals, and the damage increased with every iteration. But this copy was still legible, even though the line drawings had taken on a more cartoonish quality and the lettering was blobby. It was a set of instructions for a type of surgery: voicebox transplantation. Take Hasbro’s 12" talking GI-Joe and Mattel’s Teen Talk Barbie and do a switcheroo. The idea was genius. Just think of the devious symbolism and social commentary!
The photocopied sheet was a sinuous tentacle of the B.L.O,1 an underground organization, shadowy and nefarious. The Barbie Liberation Organization. Lord knows who delivered it to my mailbox, but actually I was thankful and amused.
I guess you would call me a sympathizer, but I had been leaning in the B.L.O. direction for some time. I took delight in stories of Toys-R-Us shelf stockers surreptitiously unpacking Barbie and Ken dolls and placing them in various shocking positions — not a practice welcomed by management or by moms and dads who might have discovered their plastic trysts. (Though I have to think that some parents might find it a little amusing if Little Mary and Johnnie hadn’t been tagging along in the aisle.) Would I have fashioned that kind of doll display if I were a teen working nights at Toys-R-Us?
Given this rich history with Barbie, there’s no way I’ll miss the movie. From what I’ve read, it is quite a bit more than a feature-length doll commercial. Do take a look at the movie trailer (linked below) and peruse the propaganda from the Barbie Liberation Organization, just to keep your balance of course.
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Tags: barbie, mattel, barbie movie, sexism, blo, barbie liberation organization, board membership, philanthropy
Links, cited and not, some just interesting
Gotta watch this. Barbie [Main Trailer]. YouTube video, 2023.
Truly excellent New York Times piece on Greta Gerwig, the director and co-writer of the Barbie movie. You’ll see why I’m psyched to see the flick. Paskin, Willa. “Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’ Dream Job.” The New York Times, July 11, 2023, sec. Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/11/magazine/greta-gerwig-barbie.html.
Another thoughtful piece with a little wider scope. Barasch, Alex. “After ‘Barbie,’ Mattel Is Raiding Its Entire Toybox.” The New Yorker, July 2, 2023. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/07/10/after-barbie-mattel-is-raiding-its-entire-toybox.
Just so you can see the longer history. Barbie’s distant German relative was sex toy. Challita, Violet. “The Development of Barbie.” Timetoast timelines, May 17, 1956. https://www.timetoast.com/timelines/the-development-of-barbie.
The spokesperson? A liberated Barbie! Barbie Liberation Organisation, YouTube video, 2010.
From “The Yes Men,” a news program from “NBC.” Includes a spot with Dr. Erickson who shows how the transformative surgery is done. The Barbie Liberation Organization. YouTube video, 2013.
The acronym played on a similar one that in the 1990s had criminal undercurrents in the United States. The “P.L.O.” or Palestinian Liberation Organization had been declared a terrorist organization by the United States, though it was recognized by most other nations as the representative of the Palestinian people displaced in 1947. The B.L.O. echoed the P.L.O., but the Barbie Liberation Organization didn’t use the tactics of the P.L.O.