I’m a Barbie Girl, in a Fallen World

Few things give me such pure, long-lasting happiness as finding a treasure trove of vintage Barbie clothes, as I did yesterday at the Happy Valley gift shop in Northampton. I’m counting the months till the Hadley flea market opens, when I can once again wander the muddy pasture, eating corn dogs and searching for Kens to squire my fashionable girls around. And don’t get me started on the Brimfield antique fair…the only thing that will get me out in the sun in July. (This cold-weather gal even skipped the second half of her Harvard graduation.)

Today, Barbie turns 50. Canada’s CTV has a good history of Barbie’s unusual careers (paleontologist? NASCAR driver?) and photos of how the doll has changed through the decades. Check out SkyNews for “German Chancellor Angela Merkel Barbie” and highlights from the tribute to Barbie at New York Fashion Week.

Of course, Barbie has her detractors. Some feminists argue that the doll, like the fashion industry generally, promotes unhealthy and unrealistic standards of beauty and perpetuates the problem of women being valued for their looks alone. Not so, says Courtney E.Martin, author of a well-regarded book on anorexia, who says girls are influenced much more by whether the adult women in their life have a positive self-image.

Why do I love Barbie? She represents pure femininity, with all its contradictions, pushed to the point of campiness and playful self-parody — as this video shows:

When I’m with my Barbies, I can simply enjoy being a girl. I can pretend that I’m working on narrative structure by inventing elaborate storylines for them — TV show producer Barbie, transgender fashion designer Barbie, 12-step rehab Barbie, closeted evangelical gay teen Barbie, Korean radical feminist ex-stripper Barbie, and the rest. But the truth is, I just love clothes. Frilly, tiny, pink clothes. Gender is performance, and Barbie puts on the show of a lifetime.