Question: What little girl grows up without owning even one Barbie doll?
I was just never that into her— American Girl dolls were always more my thing. (Mom and Dad, I’m still waiting for that American Girl doll you promised me oh, 20 years ago…) So I surprised even myself when I offered to interview author (and full disclosure, Stef’s aunt) Tanya Lee Stone about her new book the Good, the Bad and the Barbie.
While I may never have owned a Barbie doll growing up, Barbie has affected my life, and arguably every other little girl’s life in America, since Ruth Handler introduced her to the world in 1959. Recently, I sat down with Tanya to chat about Barbie the icon, why she wrote a book about such a polarizing figure and whether or not Barbie is Jewish.
Oy!Chicago: What is your background?
Tanya: I was a children's book editor for a long time, but when we moved to Vermont 14 years ago, I took that opportunity to try my hand at writing professionally. I have always written, and was an English major at Oberlin. That, combined with my editorial experience, made for a nice transition into a writing life. I have been steadily publishing books for kids and older readers for more than a decade now.
How did you come up with the idea to write a book about Barbie?
I was thinking about icons in our culture and how they come to be. Around the same time, the editor of my book Up Close: Ella Fitzgerald (Viking) had asked me to think about doing another book in that series. When I thought about the criteria for the series—an American icon, 20th century figure, someone that kids would know...I thought Barbie fit the bill pretty well. She laughed, but when I told her I was serious and that there was a really interesting back story there about the woman who invented Barbie and all kinds of meat to get into in terms of topics related to the doll, she realized I was on to something!
As a self-proclaimed feminist writer, why write a book about such a polarizing and some would say anti-feminist figure?
Things that are polarizing are always interesting and thought-provoking, otherwise they wouldn't be controversial. I like to dig underneath and find out where the controversy is coming from in the first place. What's the back story, the origin of the invention, the context of the inventor—why did a woman invent Barbie, and why this woman—this Jewish entrepreneur, Ruth Handler? I was never a Barbie girl, but that is not because the doll struck an angry chord in me. I was just too much of a tomboy to be interested in dolls. And I always thought it was interesting that people could be so up in arms about a bit of plastic. I wanted to explore why a plastic doll could be so vilified and thought of as anti-feminist. What lies beneath such strong feelings? The little I knew about Ruth Handler did not fit in with the urban myth that Barbie was created to make girls feel badly about themselves. I wanted to examine Barbie's beginnings and see for myself what all the fuss was about.
Do you think Ruth Handler realized she was creating such a powerful icon?
I suspect she had a pretty good idea, and it was certainly her intention to create something spectacular for her company, but she may not have realized the full extent of what Barbie would become, and how influential she would be. Ruth was a very powerful person in her own right. Her picture should be next to the word chutzpah in the urban dictionary.
Why do you think Barbie is such an icon?
I think that Ruth's original intention—to create an attractive yet malleable fashion doll that little girls could pin their hopes and dreams on, and let their imaginations soar—is still at the root of why the doll appeals to kids. Even though Barbie's face and outfits have morphed and changed, she is actually still kind of bland-looking, if you ask me. And that's what Ruth was going for. I don't know, maybe it's the Jewish perspective of both Ruth's and mine, but I find the more ethnic-looking dolls much more interesting and appealing than the regular blonde Barbie with the perky nose. And honestly, I think that's how Ruth saw her, as a kind of blank slate on which girls could impose themselves.
What do you think Barbie says about our culture?
Well, I think the consumerism Barbie triggers is the part that bothers me the most about our culture. It's not enough to have one Barbie, is it? The materialistic machine is in full gear here, driving the desire for kids to collect more and more and more and more. It's not really about the doll itself, it's about the accessories—all that stuff. I think that says a lot about our culture.
I found the chapter about Barbie as art particularly interesting, what do you think it is about Barbie that inspires artists?
I loved researching that chapter! I was amazed at how many different ways artists manipulated the doll and how she inspires a variety of artists to rethink what she means to them. I think artists are drawn to playing with the stereotypes about women and body image, and re-shaping them to fit their own visions. It's a creative and powerful way to make a statement about feminism, culture, icons...the list is long. And she most definitely brings out the mischievous side in artists. "You want me to play with Barbie? Oh, I'll play with Barbie!"
Is Barbie Jewish or Jew-ish?
Ha! Well, since both of her parents were Jewish, I think she qualifies as Jewish—but I don't think she's very Jew-ish!
Were you surprised by all of the responses you got from people about Barbie? Did it change the direction of your book? Overall, did you find people to be more pro- or anti-Barbie?
I was surprised by the sheer volume of responses I got—probably about 500 emails within a couple of months. For a nonfiction book request, that's a lot! But I think what startled me most of all was the near even split down the middle between love and hate. Passionate responses from both sides of the fence, but even within age groups, the anti or pro was spread evenly. I had 16-year-old girls write and tell me that Barbie never made them feel badly about their bodies, and 16-year-old girls who said they could never live up to the perfection and that it damaged them. And stories came in from people ages 6-70 and from both genders, so I think the 50/50 element was the most surprising of all.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to our Oy!Chicago readers?
I personally took great pleasure in learning that one of the biggest toy giants in the world was founded by a newly married Jewish couple who simply wanted to create their life the way they saw fit. He was an artist, she was a savvy entrepreneur with no lack of confidence whatsoever. She looked at his creations and said (paraphrasing)—those are beautiful and I can sell them. And voila—a toy giant was born. I also love the fact that Ruth never apologized for who she was. She was certainly aware of criticisms of the doll but always stood her ground. She knew her intentions, she knew her goals, she knew what she wanted girls to take from Barbie. Agree or disagree with her, Ruth Handler was one strong woman who shaped her own life and continued to until the day she died.