Independent - 19th December 1993
'WHAT DO you like about Barbie?' I asked seven-year-old Sara Thorp from Lancashire. We were standing in the Barbie Dolls department on the top floor of Hamleys toy shop in London. She looked thoughtfully at the 'Happy Holidays' Christmas Special Barbie which she was clutching fiercely between two chubby hands. 'Well, she's really pretty and she's got lots of nice clothes and she's got long golden hair which I can plait.'
We surveyed the shelves which were groaning with Barbie dolls and Barbie accessories of every description. There were Barbies in ball-gowns and Barbies in bomber jackets, 'Teen Talking' Barbies and Barbies with pink spray-on stars in their ankle-length hair. 'What else do you like about her?' I enquired.
'Well, she's very kind,' she said seriously, 'and she's got lots of friends and she works really hard.' Happy Holidays Barbie, dressed in a frothy confection of sequinned silver nylon, stared out vacantly through the plastic packaging.
'Do you think Barbie has a nice life?' I asked Sara's five-year-old sister. 'Oh yeth,' she said unhesitatingly. 'She goeth on boat tripth and she'th got lotth of nithe carth and she goeth thcuba-diving, and getth to meet famouth people.'
'Would you like to be like Barbie?' I asked.
'Oh yeth,' she said with a blissful smile.
'And how many Barbie dolls have you got?'
FORGET Nintendo and Sega, Barbie is the number one toy this Christmas. She may only be eleven-and-a-half inches tall, but Barbie Doll is big. When she was launched at the New York toy fair in 1959 they said she'd never catch on, but since then this flesh-toned vinyl icon of miniature womanhood has dominated the toy markets in over 100 countries. Over the last 34 years a total of 700 million Barbies have been produced and sold - put them end to end, and they would circle the planet almost four times. She's had her imitators, but Barbie has remained top doll.
With her cascade of blonde hair, huge blue eyes and startling physique (life-size she would be over 7 foot tall and 39-18-32), people have seen in her shades of Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe. But the real prototype was the German Lilli doll, inspired by a saucy newspaper cartoon character of the same name.
If Barbie was conceived in Germany, she was born in California, springing fully-formed, pouting and pony-tailed from the drawing board of Ruth and Elliot Handler who named her after their own daughter, Barbara Millicent. In the intervening 34 years, she has earned her creators, Mattel, over dollars 1bn.
Barbie is the ultimate American consumer. She shops, therefore she is. She has more shoes than Imelda Marcos (approximately 1 billion pairs) and more frocks than the Princess of Wales (20 million new ones every year). She has been dressed by top designers, including Balenciaga, Yves St Laurent, Hermes and Kenzo.
But most of her clothes these days are off-the-peg. She is the world's biggest purchaser of dress fabric, buying more than 20 million metres every year. And this is where Mattel clean up. For while the dolls themselves are relatively cheap - they start from as little as pounds 3.49 - outfits can cost anything up to pounds 9. And it's not just a question of shoes and clothes. Barbie has 'dream kitchens' and 'dream houses', 'dream theatres' and 'dream shops'. She has photographic studios and hamburger stands, safari tents and poolside arrangements, a paddock full of ponies and a whole menagerie of animals.
She seems to lead a life of unremitting leisure, staggering from beach party to barbecue to ball. But Barbie is no shallow socialite, she is a Serious Working Woman, which is how she pays for her expensive lifestyle. She's been an air hostess (for all three American airlines), and a doctor (her white coat cunningly converts into a ball-gown); she's been a nurse, a pilot, a vet, a television executive, a fashion editor, and an Olympic gold medallist.
Barbie is a trend-follower, rather than a trend-setter. In 1969, at the heart of the American Civil Rights movement, she suddenly acquired a black friend, Christie. In the early Seventies, when Christian Barnard performed the the first heart transplants, Barbie became a heart surgeon. When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, Barbie went into outer space. Admittedly there hasn't been a Los Angeles Riots Barbie (complete with looted video), but the essential social history of America has been represented in this plastic doll.
Some feminists argue that she can be seen as a positive role model for small girls because she doesn't depend on a man for her wealth and possessions. The critic Marina Warner is not so sure. 'I don't think that Barbie is independent of men,' she says 'because each year the highlight of the new Barbie fashion collection is the wedding dress. Just as it is in the couture houses, so the idea of marriage does underlie the doll and all her possessions.'
Barbie has more wedding dresses than Elizabeth Taylor but she's never tied the knot, although she's been going steady with her boyfriend, Ken, for the past 32 years. Tall (12 inches), dark and handsome, Ken was the perfect escort for Barbie at fraternity dances and drive-in movies. They did get engaged at the end of the Sixties, but Barbie got cold feet and called the whole thing off.
'I don't think Barbie will every marry,' says 24-year old Philip Andrew, an avid Barbie doll collector, as we surveyed the shelves. Mr Andrew, a designer, had come into Hamleys to buy another doll to add to his 200-strong Barbie doll collection.
'What makes you so sure about that?' I asked.
'Well, she's never had a double bed. All her beds have been single. Sindy's had some large beds, but not Barbie. She and Ken are basically just good friends,' he added, knowledgeably. 'They do everything together but not, you know, that.' Mr Andrew has been collecting Barbie dolls since he was six and freely admits that his hobby raises eyebrows.
'Why do you like Barbie dolls?' I asked, as a small girl pushed past us with a Barbie Golden Dream Motor Home in her arms.
'She's just fascinating,' he replied wistfully. 'She's got everything that I'll never have. She can go anywhere, do anything and still look wonderful. I look dead dodgy some days. But Barbie has this amazing, fantasy life. Basically she just knows how to have a good time.'