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The secret to Barbie's enduring appeal? She can fend for herself

Barbie's original swimsuit featured a black-and-white chevron stripes.
Craig Ruttle
Associated Press
Barbie's original swimsuit featured a black-and-white chevron stripes.

It's a late afternoon in the summer of 1962 in Sunnyside, Queens. People are coming home from work in "the city," exiting the nearby subway and walking by us, four little girls sitting on the sidewalk in front of my apartment house. We have our Barbie carrying cases all lined up in a row, the way we imagine our houses will be someday, when we grow up. None of us have Barbie's Dream House yet, but, pooled together, we have lots of clothes, those now "vintage" clothes.

Our pony-tailed Barbies were always trading outfits with each other: the iconic black-and-white bathing suit, the dress with a white chiffon portrait collar and the black strapless evening gown with long white gloves.

The grown-up passersby sometimes stop to comment on our sidewalk tableau. Later on, I'll read the work of urban activist Jane Jacobs and realize these kind of random exchanges were part of what she called the "ballet" of the streets. But back then, they were just annoying intrusions into our play.

"I used to sew my doll clothes out of handkerchiefs" sniffed one woman. We ignore her. A man stops to boast that he's been on the Sing Along With Mitch [Miller] show, which was filmed in Rockefeller Center. Big deal; we ignore him, too.

The only interruption we respond to — and quickly — is Ken. One of us has a frisky Ken who likes to knock on the imaginary doors of our doll-case houses and try to kiss the Barbie who's foolish enough to answer. Eeew. Ken's naughty behavior surely was some sign of pre-adolescent sexuality bubbling up, but back then pushing "kissing Ken" out the door is our way of solidifying the all-girl world of pink and possibility we want to remain in for a good long time.

Greta Gerwig's Barbie movie is funny, smart, and nuanced from its opening moments which nail the source of Barbie's enduring appeal, especially to girls like me whose childhood was spent in a scratchy-skirted pre-feminist world. In that opening, a God-like narrator, voiced by Helen Mirren, observes that from the beginning of time girls have played with dolls, but, before the advent of Barbie, those dolls were all babies who needed tending.

So right. My Betsy Wetsy always needed a diaper change; my Chatty Cathy needed to be taught not to interrupt; and my walking doll — whose name I've forgotten — always needed assistance lumbering around the living room. Before Barbie, playing with dolls was akin to running a combination nursery, rehab and assisted living facility.

But Barbie could fend for herself. Like Nancy Drew, she drove her own roadster and lived in her own dream house — Virginia Woolf's room of one's own painted in pastels. Barbie didn't teach girls to be of service; she taught us the giddy pleasures of a seeming autonomy — "seeming" because Barbie's autonomy, which the film hilariously depicts in its opening version of "Barbie Land," is limited to the gender norms of pre-second wave feminism, encased in pink bubble wrap.

The already celebrated — or notorious, depending on your politics — monologue towards the end of the film is delivered by actress America Ferrera, who plays a harried "working mother." She addresses the Barbies now under the boot of a Ken-driven, patriarchal counter-revolt, and her take on the contradictions and limitations of gender equality in the real world is the wised-up version of what I thought Barbie was showing me as a kid. Yes, Barbie is a beautiful image of ersatz freedom; but it's a freedom we non-plastic women must still fight for.

Eventually, my childhood Barbie's world expanded and so did mine. She bounced from job to job — doctor, astronaut — and acquired lots more fabulous clothes — many of which can be seen in the recent reprint of a wonderful book, Dressing Barbie, by Carol Spencer, who was one of the doll's early fashion designers.

I was about 13 when my mother told me I had to give my Barbie away; she said I was too old for dolls. When the Barbie movie opened this weekend, my husband, adult daughter and I nabbed tickets for a 9 a.m. show on Sunday morning. Afterwards, we talked about whether the film's feminist politics was undermined by its commercialism.

Even while I was happy to be with my family, deep down I was fantasizing about what it would've been like to see the film with my old Barbie. She would have loved it and wouldn't have needed me to explain the insider jokes. We could have even shared some plastic popcorn and talked about what outfits to wear to the next phase of the feminist revolution.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.