Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of A Real Doll
by M.G. Lord
325 pages, 2004
Out of the Dollhouse
Reviewed by Sienna Powers
Adoration for Mattel's Barbie series of dolls has never been universal. Forty-five this year, Barbie has seen much controversy throughout her lifetime. In her preface to the 2004 edition of her popular 1994 book, Forever Barbie, author M.G. Lord summarizes the politics around Barbie in a way that is both telling and inflammatory. "When it comes to parental ill will toward Barbie," Lord writes. "I believe femininity is the toxin; Barbie is the scapegoat."
Forever Barbie is the smartest book one could imagine on this topic. It is a book both Barbie's detractors and her fans should put near the top of their to-be-read list. Forever Barbie lacks both the sycophantic drooling of a fan piece and the militant battle cries of a feminist dissertation. Rather it's a respectful, thoughtful and evenhanded look at the completely bizarre phenomenon that's grown up around this doll.
At age forty-five, despite that body, Barbie has become a traditional toy -- not a bad girl, but "Mrs. Smarty-pants," as one nine-year-old recently called her. I watched this girl and her friends play with the 2003 Christmas season's must-have dolls, a street-smart bunch called Bratz, not made by Mattel. But as soon as there was trouble -- one of the Bratz got sick -- Dr. Barbie was summoned. She was a professional, an authority figure; the girls gave her an English accent.
Like any good biography. Forever Barbie covers the roots of its subject as well as her development and later rise to fame. In the case of Barbie, this includes riding the rising and falling crests of popularity she's been subjected to as well as the scandals that have rocked Mattel, her corporate parent.
Although Barbie's sales have never substantially flagged, Mattel has been a financial roller coaster. It nearly went broke in 1974, when the imaginative accounting practices of Ruth Handler and some of her top executives led to indictments against them for falsifying SEC information, and again in 1984, when the company shifted its focus from toys to electronic games that nobody wanted to buy.
Lord takes her subject beyond biography, however, delving into the aspects of popular culture that have shaped Barbie as well as those aspects of Barbie that have, indeed, shaped our culture. | November 2004
Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.