Is Barbie a misjudged feminist icon?

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
The publisher Assouline has released a high-end coffeetable book by Susan Shapiro, "Barbie: 60 Years of Inspiration."

For decades, Barbie has been the toy feminists love to hate. There's her annoying perfection -- the bustiness, the porcelain skin and that absurdly narrow waist. Then there's her vapid consumerism, whether you're talking the Dream House, the convertible, or the closet (neatly) crammed with all those designer gowns, shoes and itsy-bitsy accessories. 

But challenging received wisdom, New York author Susan Shapiro argues in the new coffee-table book from Assouline, "Barbie: 60 Years of Inspiration," that from the start in 1959 the fashion-crazed doll has been a source of empowerment for little girls, and not the suffocating stereotype some claim.

The Detroit News caught up with Southfield native Shapiro last week to talk female autonomy, body image, and her debt to Barbie creator Ruth Handler. 

You've written that you had 68 Barbies. How far back does this fixation go?

Susan Shapiro: "I’ve been obsessed with Barbie since I was a little kid. When I was young, I played like mad with them. I saved all my Barbies -- I always thought they were cool. But when I went to the University of Michigan and then moved to New York, I left them back in my pink bedroom at home."

Author Susan Shapiro has a rich collection of Barbie paraphernalia that's followed her into adult life.

When did Barbie reenter your life?

"When I was doing my master’s at NYU, I wrote a piece that had Barbie in it -- something about leaving things behind. So by 20, I’d already started writing about her. And in 1994, for her 35th birthday, I sold a piece to the New York Times Magazine called 'Barbie, My Mentor.'"

You make the counterintuitive argument that Barbie is a feminist icon. What's up with that? 

"I feel feminists threw out the baby with the bath water. The most important element of Barbie was she was teenage girl with a job, a fashion model, and who had her own apartment, her own car and her own clothes."

That doesn't sound so revolutionary.

"Think about it -- this was 1959. Barbie launched back when a woman could hardly get a credit card without her husband or father signing on. At Mattel, Ruth Handler was making a huge statement about women's autonomy." 

A leather-clad Barbie stands guard in Shapiro's New York City apartment.

In the 2018 Hulu documentary, "Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie," Gloria Steinem said, "I am so grateful I didn't grow up with Barbie. Barbie is everything we didn't want to be, and were told to be."

"Feminists, I think, got very hung up on body image, but in the bigger picture – Barbie was one of the very few empowering toys for young girls. Before Barbie, dolls were all Betsy Wetsy and Chatty Cathy -- all indoctrination to get girls to hold babies." 

I gather you weren't down with Betsy Wetsy.

"I’m one hundred percent sure that the Barbie play and all the careers she had -- fashion model, nurse, teacher, astronaut, presidential candidate -- influenced my image of how a woman could work and be in control. Who cares about the boyfriend? Barbie’s the star."

What motivated Handler to give birth to Barbie?

"She saw that her own daughter didn’t like Betsy Wetsy and the mommy dolls, but did like cutout dolls with adult clothes. She overheard her and her friends fantasizing about going out on dates and to the movies. So she took it to Mattel, saying I want to do an adult doll. But they kept saying, moms won’t buy it -- they won't buy a doll with breasts. But when they finally introduced Barbie, she became their best-selling toy ever." 

From "Barbie: 60 Years of Inspiration."

With its Inspiring Women Series, Mattel just released a Rosa Parks doll commemorating the Civil Rights icon. Was this in part to make up for decades of pushing a blonde archetype?

"No. Ruth Handler's own family had been victimized by anti-Semitism, so she made sure there were black and Asian Barbies way back in the 1960s. I think Mattel's done a really smart job of modernizing Barbie and making her hip. " 

You seem to make the argument that Handler's an overlooked revolutionary. 

"Ruth was a lipstick feminist, and so was Helen Gurley Brown -- feminists who wanted to be rich, brilliant career women in themselves, but also had their own idea of what looks pretty, wanted to wear makeup, and wanted to be married to nice men."

Mattel offered multicultural versions of Barbie, according to Shapiro, as early as the 1960s.

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy