Welcome to WWAC Game Section’s summer Barbie series. These months are often the time that children are free from commitments, away from their friends, and ready to let their imaginations take over. For many of us that meant playing with Barbies, and over the next few weeks you’ll see the many different ways Barbies affected us. Enjoy!
I’ve never been much of a Barbie-ist. As a child, I was more excited by trying to capture the tiny flying hamburger that I was convinced lived in our apartment complex. All of my Barbie dolls were gifts or prizes, and my few forays into Barbie play were usually met with my mother’s dismay. I was forbidden from taking my Barbies into the bathroom after she discovered me playing “pool” with them on the edge of the open toilet. Real-hair Ken totally needed a hot tub!
There were also incidents of hair cutting, hair washing, tattooing, and general tomfoolery that left my gifted Barbies looking like proto-survivors from a Mad Max movie. Then there was the crocheted clothes phase. A distant relative began sending me packages of tiny, exquisitely crocheted, but shapeless doll garments. Newscaster Barbie went to her first day of work on her pink broadcast set wearing a bulky beanie, a too wide and too short garish sweater, and pastel green bell bottoms. Perfection!
While I was a really bad Barbie-ist in the traditional sense, one could say that I was really good at making that prepackaged, prescribed doll conform to my own terms. While researching Barbie dolls for this list, I was very surprised. There has been a lot more imagination jammed into the Barbie universe since I won a fancy Barbie sporting a pole on her head that facilitated elaborate up-dos at a Halloween costume contest. (I swear this existed even though the Internet doesn’t seem to think so at this moment.)
There are now enormous numbers of Barbies to commemorate various celebrities, films, TV shows, and Americana moments. However, there is still a pretty big lack of diversity overall. Newer dolls are often available in versions dubbed “African American,” “Asian,” and “Hispanic.” The lack of a “Caucasian” signifier on a white Barbie gives this gesture an icky air of tokenism. If Mattel can produce the Barbies on this list, they can surely add more meaningfully diverse dolls to their line-up!
The Addams Family Giftset (2001). Morticia Barbie and Gomez Ken belie little of the stone cold creepiness that launched The Addams Family to fame, first in comics (1938-1988), then television (1964-1966), and then on the big screen (1991 & 1993). Their love for each other was morbid, but equal with family duties split between them. The Addams Family has always been a big reminder to do things your own way and not to give a shrieking werewolf about anyone who thinks you strange.
This X-Files Gift Set (1998). Dana Scully became a role model to countless viewers of The X-Files (1993-2002) with her hard-nosed skepticism, ready scientific knowledge, and splendid pantsuits. This Scully Barbie is sporting a pretty small shouldered pantsuit, but does look ready for action! (The real X-File is what’s going on with bulky Ken Mulder’s neck!)
The Wizard of Oz Wicked Witch of the West Barbie Doll (2008). The Wicked Witch of the West was named the #4 Movie Villain on the 2003 AFI 50 Best Movie Villains of All Time list (which was the highest female villain ranking). Margaret Hamilton’s reputation as the Wicked Witch followed her the rest of her life. She often made young children cry when they spotted her in public. Mattel’s Wicked Witch Barbie does little to capture the unbridled joy Hamilton brought to the role. This Wicked Witch isn’t throwing fireballs at anyone with those stiff Barbie hands!
Barbie as Lt. Uhura (2009). A Barbie based on Star Trek: The Original Series’ Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) would have been the more exciting doll. However, this modern version of Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is a nice way to pay tribute to this groundbreaking character. In the original role, Nichols became one of the first African American actors to portray a scientist and commanding officer on television. Also, during her time on the show, Nichols was involved in the first filmed interracial kissing scene between Lt. Uhura and Captain James Tiberius Kirk (William Shatner).
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Effie Doll (2013). The Effie Trinket of the Hunger Games trilogy books is a vain puff of a character. Elizabeth Banks’ portrayal of Trinket in the Hunger Games movies has given the character whole new dimensions. She often still appears to be a vapid pawn, but offers support and information that aid Katniss and the resistance. Also, quite simply, has there ever been a character for suitable for dollhood?
The Ladies of the ’80s Collection: Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, and Cyndi Lauper (2010). All of these musicians are noted feminist icons. Debbie Harry is the lead singer of new wave band Blondie and has acted in over thirty films. Joan Jett is best known for her bands Runaways and Joan Jett & The Blackhearts with three albums going platinum and/or gold. Cyndi Lauper belted out the girl power anthem “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” the first of many certified hits from her debut album “She’s So Unusual,” which has gone on to win a Grammy and a Tony. She is also a noted LGBT activist. These tribute dolls’ styling is reminiscent of the costume versions one could have worn to a church Fall Festival in 1987. Still, it’s exciting to know they exist.
The Mad Men Set: Joan Holloway, Roger Sterling, Don Draper, and Betty Draper (2010). Peggy Olson really should have been included in this set! Throughout the series run (2007-2015), Mad Men often served as a reminder that there has been progress for women in the workplace and at home while at the same time showing us all the ways we’ve continued to be stuck.
Barbie Doll Inspired by Gustav Klimt (2011). Klimt was often criticized and deemed a pornographer for his intimate portraits of the female body. This beautifully ornate and oddly styled doll could not be considered lurid in any way. But the inclusion of a tribute to Klimt, accused degenerate who depicted feminine sexuality, amidst Barbie’s collections seems a little gleefully subversive.
Ken Doll as Mr. Spock (2009). Earlier this year, the world lost Leonard Nimoy, originator of the Mr. Spock character and all around special human. He was also known as a photographer, often tackling feminist subjects in his books The Full Body Project and Shekhina. It seems fitting to include a doll inspired by Nimoy. (Real hair Ken dolls should have never existed. Case in point, this doll would have been pretty much perfect with a slick, plastic Vulcan bowl cut!)
Barbie Doll as Galadriel in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2004). The Lady of Lothlórien, is one of very few female characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s male laden Lord of the Rings and Hobbit books. She is certainly the most powerful elf encountered in these tales.
Starring Barbie Doll in King Kong (2002). Fay Wray Barbie is way more relaxed sitting in a colossal gorilla palm than her human counterpart ever was! Fay Wray was one of the first scream queens of American cinema despite being Canadian born. Her career spanned over seventy years!
Supergirl Barbie Doll, Wonder Woman Barbie Doll, Batgirl Barbie Doll (2008). Supergirl was first introduced in 1959, as a female counterpart to the insanely popular Superman. However, she has formed her own distinct identity over the years in various incarnations in numerous comic books. Created in 1941 by writer, psychologist, and bondage enthusiast, William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman has only gotten stronger as the years pass. She is often in turn or all at once seen as an Amazonian warrior goddess, whip-smart business woman, and fierce defender of love, peace, and gender equality! Batgirl first appeared in 1961 as a superhero alter-ego of meek Betty Kane. Since her debut, the Batgirl identity has been adopted by numerous bad ass Gotham ladies. Most notably, Batgirl Barbara Gordon’s brutal paralysis at the hands of The Joker prompted Gail Simone’s Women in Refrigerators project.
Barbie Doll as Cleopatra (2010). This is a gorgeous, fantastical rendering of the last Egyptian pharaoh! The details of her outfit, headpiece, and staff are Egyptian themed rather than historically accurate. I guess the Barbie makers wanted more glitz than Cleopatra’s historically recorded curly hair and frequent toplessness. Would have made a hell of an interesting Barbie though!
Catwoman Barbie Doll (2013). I much prefer Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman (1968) on the original Batman TV series. However, Julie Newmar’s Catwoman (1966-1967) is a close second. This portrayal first meshed together the agile cat burglar, campy vamp, and smart nemesis identities that I love. Meow!
Went With the Wind! The Carol Burnett Show Doll (2009). This irresistible reproduction of Carol Burnett’s iconic send up of prissy Scarlet O’Hara’s curtain dress is just one of the memorable sketches from her show. Before the debut of The Carol Burnett Show, Burnett was told that variety shows were a man’s domain. She proved that thinking wrong with an eleven year run (1967-1978), twenty-five Emmys, and an avid fan base that remains alive today.
Captain Jack Sparrow Doll (2011). Everyone’s favorite pile of hair, scarves, and leather comes to Barbie town. This doll’s face is sculpted into a likeness of Johnny Depp’s face and features real dingleberries on his chin. I feel this is a doll of note among Barbie’s very hetero normative holdings—a male doll obviously wearing mascara. It’s not as gender-bendy as one would find in the real world. However, this seems like a pretty big deal when placed next to Ken’s perrenial smooth machismo.
Barbie Doll as Samantha from Bewitched (2001). During it’s original run, Bewitched (1964-1972) became one of the most progressive TV shows on the air. It regularly addressed the timely issues of racism and sexism through Samantha’s magical interactions with the human world. In the product’s copy, Mattel reminds you: “Doll does not fly.”
Barbie as Athena (2010). This is some old, old girl power! This portrayal of Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, is a powerful looking doll with silver and gold armor, enormous stark headpiece, and Greek detailed shield and spear. Yes, the armor is the boob accentuating kind, but it’s a Barbie step in the right direction.
Miss Astronaut Barbie Doll (1965). Always the trendsetter, Miss Astronaut headed to space two years after the first woman in space—cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova—and eighteen years before America’s first woman in space—astronaut Sally Ride.