Secret Agent Barbie

Well, Barbie’s gone and done it again. Yes, the petite, plastic plaything has proved, once more, that she’s hardly a retrograde relic. Far from it. Barbie’s on the cutting edge—where, as a matter of fact, she has been since her inception in 1959.

Coming this summer, Mattel will bring out the Barbie Photo Fashion, a brand-new doll with an LCD implanted in her impressively toned tummy. A lens in her back allows her user—almost always a girl—to take pictures with the doll. In a word: Brilliant. Instead of the bimbo blonde who passively receives the male gaze, this new Barbie channels and harnesses nascent female power, by encouraging play of an entirely new kind. Yet again, Barbie has become a vessel and conduit, tapping into the inchoate desires of girls, and giving those desires a comprehensible form of expression in the world.

But to those of us who have known and loved her over the past five plus decades (and I count myself at the top of this list), there is nothing fundamentally surprising about this news. Barbie has always been a secret agent, a force for subversion and empowerment masquerading as a harmless, leggy pin up.

In her fifty-odd years on earth, Barbie’s been a kind of über-Jewish girl (her “mother,” Ruth Handler, was Jewish, making Barbie a bone fide shana maydele) who’s done stints as an athlete, astronaut, physician, veterinarian, rock star, singer, model, CEO and president—and these are just a few of her many chameleon-like adaptations. But let’s probe a little deeper here. Barbie, it must be said, flies solo. Her parents? Emphatically off-stage. She has friends by the Barbie busload, cousins, and siblings too but although she’s been a bride many a time, she’s never, ever been a wife. And to anyone who’s followed the Barbie story as carefully as I have, it’s abundantly clear that Ken has never been—and will never be—anything more than an accessory. He’s her boy-toy, her arm-candy—fun, to be sure, but most definitely a notch—or two—below her. Barbie’s at the center of her own universe, and is a satellite to no one.

Even more to the point, though, is the kind of free-wheeling, creative play she promotes: put her in the hands of a child, and the child must animate her, coming up with the stories and context that will give her a true purpose in play land. Back in my day, my friends and I created complex ongoing stories for our Barbie dolls. These stories, which went on for weeks, involved romance and sex (or our incomplete, childish understanding of it anyway) as well as sibling and family dramas, mystery, and espionage. I cannot remember the twists and turns of these highly elaborated plots, but I do remember how compelling they were, and how painful it was when we had to stop our play because dinner or homework beckoned. I feel as if I got my first real experience of constructing and shaping a narrative through these games; it was through playing with Barbie that I had my introductory lessons in becoming the novelist I later went on to be.

So when I learned that now Barbie can truthfully and accurately say, I Am A Camera, I can’t help but gloat. Of course you are, Barbie. You’re a camera, a mirror, and a role model all rolled into one. So what if your USB cable is a glittery pink? All the better to disarm your detractors, throw them off the track. They won’t guess at the fierce and abiding power that you’ve always had: to ignite the hearts and minds of little girls as they pick you up and begin to play.