When Mattel released Barbie in 1959 they hardly could have known the plastic doll’s impact. She was revolutionary, she was a career woman who had no man, she was modelled after a buxom German blonde pin-up, and she was now decidedly America. As Pearson and Mullins point out: “Unlike the mass of baby dolls populating toy stores, Barbie was an “adult” doll marketed in a box illustrated with designer fashion sketches of Barbie outfits [. . .]. Barbie’s stylish consumption, idealized labor discipline (i.e., in her modeling “career”), and clean-cut middle-class values found a mass of eager consumers among girls and their parents alike” (230). Barbie’s clean-cut values have ensured her survivability, but also adaptability through the decades.
To go back to Martin Kemp’s ideas on what makes an icons: “An iconic image is one that has achieved wholly exceptional levels of widespread recognizability and has come to carry a rich series of varied associations for very large numbers of people across time and cultures, such that it has to a greater or lesser degree transgressed the parameters of its initial making, function, context, and meaning (3). Barbie’s recognizability draws people in, whether to critique her or love her. Her varied associations allows for varying interpretations for whoever gazes upon her hard plastic shell.
Since 2002, there has been a group in San Francisco dedicated to Barbie and her image. They deal primarily in altered Barbie. Journalist Chris Cadelago writes of the altered Barbie art show: “At the center of this burgeoning summer institution is Barbie, a kind of three-dimensional blank canvas that allows artists to display their reverence, humor or biting satire. Barbie is used to create stories about contemporary culture, and also used as a yardstick to measure American progress” (SFGate). Because of her blank canvas, Barbie has vaulted so far beyond her initial inception of fashion-maven for young girls to admire in the United States of the ‘50s.
She’s now been mashed together with other worldly icons to create a sort of icon-chimera-hybrid, a super icon (if you want to think like that).
Mattel has certainly capitalized on Barbie’s adaptability. Using blank canvas Barbie as inspiration, here are some of Barbie’s mashed iconic iterations using our classes’ syllabus as the framework:
Released in 1997, Patriot Barbie and Colonial Barbie are the closest we get to a Betsy Ross figure. The Barbie Collection describes Patriot Barbie as: “Lovely Patriot Barbie® doll brings us back to revolutionary times in her elegant gown and navy military jacket. She wears a navy tricorner hat with a feather and carries a golden liberty bell.” So here we have both the Revolution and another one of our classes’ icons, the Liberty Bell, being memorialized by Barbie herself. Colonial Barbie comes with a “framed” embroidery with an eagle design on it! She also has a book discussing the new nation of 1776. Perhaps this book mentions Betsy’s flag.
Frontier Barbie poses an issue because the Frontier itself is vast, both metaphorically and in actuality. Do we look for Cowboy Barbie? There are countless versions, including an entire collection known as the “Western Fun!” collection. How about Native American Barbie? As Maureen Trudelle Schwarz points out there is many versions of this Barbie, all with their own degree of difficult interpretation and misinterpreted and presented backstories. See above Princess of Navajo Barbie and Way Out West Barbie.
Dorothy was deemed worthy of study in our own class. We had discussed perhaps the ruby red slippers were the iconic image from the Oz world, and Barbie comes equipped with them. In fact, Disney has released multiple versions of the Dorothy doll, all with the slippers, and interestingly Toto as well. For the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, Mattel released an entire series of Oz-inspired dolls commemorating the event. Pictured above is the 75th Anniversary Wizard of Oz Dorothy Barbie modelled after Judy Garland.
Interestingly, none of Barbie’s official Disney versions are featured on the Barbie Collection website. This is because Mattel has recently lost its exclusive Disney contract to Hasbro due failing sales and inability to do justice to Disney’s princess brand image (Bloomberg.com). However, a cursory Google search can bring up hundreds of hits for Barbie and Mickey being used together including 25th anniversary collector’s editions and a Disney Fun! series with Ken.
Barbie, the ultimate canvas. Her ability to portray anything the designer wants allows her to transcend her original purpose of fashion-doll. My definition of an icon included the addendum of “not without their contradictions,” and Barbie certainly fits this as well. However, her image continues to change and resonate. Her appeal allows her to fit any mold, even though she’s made of hard plastic. Her chameleon-like capability to change to support her surroundings ensures Barbie’s longevity and iconicity.
Martin Kemp, Christ to Coke, 3.
Marlys Pearson and Paul R. Mullin, “Domesticating Barbie: An Archaeology of Barbie Material Culture and Domestic Ideology,” 230.