Monday, April 23, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll's History and Her Impact on Us by Tanya Lee Stone

Standing at a mere eleven and a half inches tall, Barbie has been the center of countless imaginative play sessions as well as the center of some heated debates. However, it doesn’t matter if she finds herself in the hands of a young girl or a woman’s rights activist, she remains one of the most famous figures in the world—not bad for a molded piece of plastic.

Published shortly after Barbie’s fiftieth birthday year, Tanya Lee Stone takes a look at the elven and half inch icon and her creator in her book The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us. The story has to start somewhere and instead of beginning with the moment the first Barbie was produced, Stone takes us back to the story of Ruth Handler, the very un-Barbie like creator of the now famous doll. Interestingly, Ruth did not like or play with dolls, though that would not stop her from designing a doll that would become synonymous with the childhood of little girls everywhere.

Another chapter chronicles the beginnings of Mattel, a clever combination of two of the founders’ names, and its time before its biggest moneymaker, Barbie, was born. After the groundwork is laid, Barbie finally makes her debut. Placed within the historical 1950’s context of her creation, the book explains how the idea was given shape and even how she got her name. Barbie was named after Ruth Handler’s daughter Barbara, while her male companion Ken was named after Ruth’s son, Kenneth.

The book also covers some of the more controversial aspects of Barbie, such as her relation to body image and race issues. Barbie has proportions that could never be replicated without being plastic, and Black Barbie was not introduced until 1980, a full 21 years after Barbie’s debut. Barbie also induces some more, how shall I say it, inventive play sessions, where she often ends up naked, hairless or even decapitated, another issue the book spends a chapter discussing. Ever the popular girl, Barbie, or at least parts of her, has been the subject of some interesting and creative artwork, which Stone lightly touches on in a short, yet interesting chapter.

Overall, Stone does a great job re-counting the history of a doll that has had more nationalities, careers, and certainly more outfits than any other doll. She incorporates the biography of Barbie’s creator and the historical context in a way that truly completes the story of Barbie and what she has meant to, now, more than fifty years worth of children. This book is a great read for anyone interested in the history Barbie and her legacy. However, I will warn you, if you are interested in the more controversial issues surrounding the doll, I would look elsewhere. This book comes off less critical and more celebratory of the plastic icon. I would recommend this book anywhere from 6th grade and up.


cstephens said...

This book has a lot of potential in the classroom. I can see it being taught in a history class as well as an English class. It could be interesting to anyone with a fascination about the changing culture in America in the 20th Century as well as women's history and consumerism. I, personally, have very little interest in Barbie, but your review makes me want to read this book for the reasons I mentioned above.

ashallard said...

While I agree with the comment above on how easily this could be incorporated into a YAL class room Barbie has also been talked about in some of my college classes as well. In Women and Genders studies it was talked about in the ways of body image, race, and culture expectations. I think it would be a great book for young girls to help with image issues and other insecurities..not to mention the history aspect is pretty interesting as well.

Freddy in the Chi said...

I wonder if this book would have an impact on young girls wanting to get over-sized fake boobs, remove certain things from their body which are meant for health reasons and date blonde boys with blue eyes and big buff muscles. Or do reality t.v. shows do this enough already?

Marisela said...

This book would fit perfectly in a young adult class because everyone can familiarize with who Barbie is. Also, Barbie is part of our culture and it can provide a way to discuss inequality, racism, and gender definitions in the classroom. I want to read it now!

Tom Philion said...

terrific review, demitra--really appreciate the links that open as separate windows. bravo.