Life in plastic, it’s fantastic

Parents can be divided very precisely into two categories: There are those who believe the Barbie Doll is the anti-Christ, a plastic Satan who gives girls eating disorders, low self-esteem, and an unhealthy obsession with stiletto heels.

And then there are the moms and dads who view the doll as, well, a doll. It may or may not empower their daughters into believing they can be super hot astronauts when they grow up, but it does kill a lot of time that might otherwise be spent with the Olsen twins. Just for the record, in my opinion neither of the Olsen twins is Satan either, although I’m also not sure I would have hired them as either detectives or fashion stylists.

My wife and I fall into the latter category when it comes to Barbie. We never had any objection to her. We objected to her shoes, but only because they are small and sharp and we stepped on way too many of them in our bare feet. But in the late 1990s, my wife and I spent a lot of time playing Barbies with our daughter — and figuring out the most outlandish sex positions possible with the different dolls when our daughter wasn’t looking. It made the Dream House a lot more interesting. And we were honestly saddened when our daughter packed her Barbies up and exiled them to the attic. It meant both that she was growing up and we could no longer violate Barbie blue laws.

All of these memories came pouring back when I read Tanya Lee Stone’s absolutely delightful new book for young adults, “The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie.” Stone is the South Burlington writer who has helped young adults learn more about the first women to be considered for the space program (“Almost Astronauts”), Ella Fitzgerald (“Up Close: Ella Fitzgerald”), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (“Elizabeth Leads the Way”).

The book is an unauthorized history of the doll “and her impact on us.” It is rich in interesting minutiae and anecdotes about the doll, and filled with photographs that will intrigue any baby boomer — many by Hinesburg’s Karen Pike, using Barbies from the collection of St. Michael’s theater professor, Peter Harrigan.

Stone insists that she never played with Barbies as a little girl, but she sure did her homework, both in terms of her secondary research into the doll’s history and the numbers of adults and teenagers who shared with her their recollections.

Among my favorite stories Stone shares? There is a section about the ways artists, musicians, filmmakers and jewelers have used Barbie in their work, including Deborah Colotti’s creation “Queen Size Barbie,” and Ken Goldberg’s and Tiffany Shlain’s film, “The Tribe.” There’s a revealing chapter titled “Banning, Bashing, and in the Buff,” which explores the creative ways some children (and, apparently, their parents) play with Barbies.

“I was playing ‘nudist colony Barbie’ … with another neighbor friend. Barbie abandoned all her fancy outfits and was vacationing in a nudist colony,” recalls one woman Stone heard from in her research.

And then there are all the details that have marked Barbie’s ups and downs since Ruth Handler introduced her at a toy fair back in 1959: The Barbies that rocked (“Midge”) and the Barbies that failed (the 1986 Astronaut Barbie in her pink, puffy sleeves and “Flash Dance” leggings). There are stories of humans so obsessed with the Barbie look that they resort to cosmetic surgery to replicate the doll (Cynthia Jackson).

And, of course, the book explores why so many young girls have spent so much of their childhood with Barbie: The aspirational nature of the doll, and the way that Barbie can be an astronaut on Monday and a fairy princess on Tuesday.

And, yes, a nudist on Wednesday.

As the Danish pop group, Aqua, sang in “Barbie Girl,” their biggest American hit, “Life in plastic, it’s fantastic.”

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on October 10, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.