Action Figures

Review: The Toys That Made Us Season 1, Episode 2 “Barbie”


Let me be honest with you. When I think about Barbie, Mattel’s classic fashion doll, I usually think first about the dismay my wife and I felt when our daughter received her first Barbie doll.

She was in kindergarten when she got “Halloween Barbie” as a birthday present from a friend. The doll is impossibly proportioned: 11 1/2-inches tall, her waist barely there and her legs absurdly long. She’s dressed in a form-fitting witch’s costume. My wife and I thought the doll embodied all the sexist stereotypes we wanted to leave out of our girl’s childhood.

But – as the second episode of Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us convincingly argues – little girls don’t see Barbie the way some well-intentioned, ostensibly “enlightened” grown-ups (like my wife and I) do. And now, years later, when our daughter is happily having hair-raising adventures or tranquil tea parties, depending upon her mood, with her Star Wars: Forces of Destiny Rey doll and her DC Super Hero Girls figures, Halloween Barbie is often right in the thick of things, holding her own… as Barbie has for nearly six decades.

From Foreigner to All-American Grown Woman

Chalk it up to my lack of historical awareness or my gender or both, but before I watched this episode, I never appreciated the late 1950s toy gap that Barbie filled.

When Ruth Handler, Mattel’s co-founder, surveyed the girls’ toy scene in 1958, she found girls’ options limited to paper dolls and baby dolls. Why, she wondered, couldn’t her own daughter, Barbara (one of two possible sources for Barbie’s name posited in the episode), play with a three-dimensional doll that represented her future as an adult woman?

From the unlikeliest of source material – a German doll based on the star of a saucy German comic strip – Handler and Mattel toy designer Jack Ryan, a former guided missile designer working for Mattel on a 1.5% royalty contract, created the Barbie doll who, against the misgivings of male Mattel executives and middle-class U.S. mothers alike, came to be loved by countless American girls.

Working the Jobs, Wearing the Clothes

Through engaging interviews with such key Mattel executives as Judy Shackleford, Kitty Black Perkins, and Jill Barad, as well as through archival footage of Ruth Handler herself, this episode taught me why Barbie made and continues to make, such a significant impact. In each decade, Barbie showed girls – and boys, too – that they could be more than mothers, and could care about more than clothes… although Barbie’s wardrobes have always been second to none.

Barbie fully participated in whatever society had to offer at the time. Were women’s options more limited in the 1950s and 1960s than today? Yes. In the ’60s, Barbie was a nurse while her perpetual boyfriend Ken got to be a doctor. But she was still a professional. And everytime society has opened more roles to women, Barbie has been ready to fill them.

And as for the body image controversies that have always been part of Barbie’s story? As the episode demonstrates, Barbie’s proportions look much less “outlandish” when she’s fully clothed. As Barad reminds viewers, “She’s not a human. She’s a doll.”

Barbie’s Ups and Downs Revealed

This episode is a fast-paced and entertaining tour of Barbie’s triumphs – for example, the brilliant way Shackleford and her team beat Hasbro to the punch, before it introduced its Jem line of dolls by shipping Barbie rock star dolls first – as well as her missteps – most notably, the “Math class is tough!” complaint voiced by Teen Talk Barbie in the late 1990s. And the less said about “Growing Up Skipper,” a well-meaning but off-target attempt to help girls cope with changing adolescent bodies, the better.

It also charts the twists and turns in Handler and Ryan’s personal lives and careers. Ryan’s lucrative royalties led to a lavish lifestyle that contributed to his ruin (he took his own life in 1991). Handler, under pressure from slumping sales figures in the 1970s, got caught lying about Mattel’s accounts receivable but returned to grace under Barad’s tenure at Mattel’s helm.

Reenactments of Handler and Ryan’s interactions in 1958 are not as entertaining as the reenactment that began this series’ first episode, but that’s my only, minor complaint about an informative and ultimately inspirational installment.

Why Barbie Matters to You and Me

Whatever your gender, if you’ve ever played with a Barbie doll, or if you’ve ever cared about someone who has, you’ll want to watch episode two of The Toys That Made Us. You may end up loving this classic toy even more than before, or – as I did – you may have a brand-new appreciation of why Barbie matters.

The episode never denies that she continues to be a controversial toy, but it does illuminate how she has always been one. Barbie challenges us all, kids and adults, to rethink who we want to be when we finally grow up. She asks us to simply consider all the possibilities… to imagine what it would look like if we refuse to sell ourselves short.

And that’s a magic that doesn’t belong to “Halloween Barbie” alone!



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