The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie by Tanya Lee Stone

barbieCindy: Full disclosure. I consider myself a pretty strong feminist and also a Barbie fan so I was intrigued by Stone’s latest nonfiction offering, The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us (Viking, 2010). She begins the book with basic biographical information about Ruth Handler, Barbie’s “creator,” and readers who are not familiar with Barbie’s history will learn that Ruth and her husband and another partner were the founders of what would become the major toy company, Mattel. Ruth’s children’s names were Barbara and Ken, lending their names to the famous dolls. Ruth watched girls playing with paper dolls, remember paper dolls? She wanted a fashion doll that would hold up to clothing being put on and removed repeatedly. A doll with a figure that would allow girls to project themselves into teen and grownup roles. But those plastic bullet breasts would cause controversy…initially in sales and later in accusations that Barbie was bad for girls’ self esteem.

Most of the book examines the social context of Barbie and its impact on the girls who play with her. Is she just a doll or is she a bad role model? Tanya sought input from girls famous and not and those quotes enhance the text throughout as all sides of the Barbie mystique are explored. Myself? I had an elaborate Barbie Palace of my own making, cardboard walls, etc. in a crawl space in our basement. I cut out light switch plates from the Sears Catalog and glued them on the walls, and my father made step ladders with brass hinges and any furniture I needed from his wood scraps. My grandmother wore plain cotton dresses and she made her own potholders, but she made elaborate Barbie clothes for me and my cousins: hot pink and orange psychedelic fur jackets with matching hats, gold lame bikinis, bell bottoms and halter tops. My friends loved my homemade clothes. But most importantly, I role-played relationships with Barbie and Ken. When my parents fought, I reenacted their fights in the way I wanted them to go…and if Ken didn’t shape up, GI Joe was always waiting in the wings. Barbie helped me through some tough years. What’s your take on Barbie?

barbie-art-necklaceStone covers all the bases. Some people celebrate Barbie in art…like Margaux Lange who creates fabulous jewelry with Barbie parts. Others personalize their Barbies to better reflect their own personalities while others torture their Barbies to deal with their angst. Still others (more than a bit crazy if you ask me) have plastic surgery again and again in an effort to remake themselves into real life Barbies… um, yeah. Put me in the camp that believes their are many influences on how girls develop their self esteem, career goals, and body image…it’s a little too facile to blame Barbie for it all….although I wish I could have had the full size pink Corvette that Barbie drove.

Lynn: I was in sixth grade by the time Barbie arrived on the scene and moving on from dolls to other interests.  I never had a Barbie and don’t even remember my younger sister having one.  I certainly played with dolls and mine were beautifully dressed thanks to my mother who is a talented seamstress but I couldn’t tell you what kind of dolls we had.  I’m the mother of sons who had no interest in dolls  –  Legos anyone?  So I came to this book without any particular emotional connection one way or the other and was fascinated by the deeply felt responses Barbie has evoked over the years!  Gracious, what a fascinating fuss over a toy!

Stone does an admirable job at presenting an unbiased examination of Barbie and the impact she has had.  The inclusion of personal comments from adults, teens and young girls was a highlight of the book for me making this far more than the usual straightforward history.  The cultural history was nicely integrated too, placing both the doll’s development and the controversy in the context of the times.  An early chapter provides a somewhat glossy biography of Ruth Handler but Stone circles back around in the last chapter to briefly mention some of the difficult issues in her life.  While I wish these were a little more fully explored, this IS Barbie’s story after all and an extensive bibliography provides additional resources for those who want to know more.

I really liked this book but I do have a quibble or two.   My main concern is the shift in the narrative voice from generic authoritative to an adult-woman-to adult-woman narration in the later chapters – discussing “kids”  and what they do and feel.  To me this change shifted my sense of who the audience was from a young reader to older teens and adults which contrasted with some of the other choices in depth and language.

The photos are fabulous and the choice of title is brilliant!  This is a book that is going to jump off the shelves.  Barbie lovers OR haters are going to be talking about this one to all their friends.

nonfictionmonday1Thank you to Playing by the book for hosting Nonfiction Monday.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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  1. mkurwa@gmail.com' marya says:

    This would be a good book to recommend when I sit at the desk in the children’s room at the RPL . Even to Moms who bought Barbies for their children and didn’t play with them whilst growing up.M

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