Creative: Critique

B-ball Barbie
Politics and image make for a rough and unpredictable business, but this year, with the taint of the Clinton affair in the air, campaigners seemed more bizarro than usual.
Could anyone from the great state of Minnesota, for instance, have predicted a few years back that former wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura would walk in wing tips, sans glitter tights and pink boa, as governor?
And as for Rep. Chuck Schumer of New York–referred to (fatally) during the campaign as “putzhead” by opponent Alfonse D’Amato, when “schmuck” wasn’t good enough–all hail Senator Chuckie!
But when it comes to new names and labels and incarnations, nobody beats Barbie, my favorite molder of social roles–usually of the pink plastic variety.
Like politicians, Barbie’s image changes fairly frequently, depending on the political and social moment. She’s been a teacher, engineer, pet doctor, dentist (complete with pink sink to spit in), lifeguard and president (that in 1992, the year Clinton was sworn in)–and all without breaking a sweat, or a heel for that matter.
And therein lies the essential tension, the contradiction between Barbie’s male-fantasy body and her image as wholesome big sister and career gal. Indeed, her jobs have mostly been hair- and activewear-based anyway. (Verisimilitude has never been her strong suit.)
Nevertheless, her success is unparalleled, and she’s again on the top of Christmas gift lists this season. (The best-selling version of all time is Totally Hair Barbie, with her tresses hanging down to her teeny toes.)
I’d like to see an Imelda Marcos Barbie, or Sad Case Barbie. (Why not, when the doll already has a billion pairs of shoes and some 500 makeovers?)
Collectors are so passionate that Mattel has an active Barbie Web site, with a FAQ (frequently asked question) area. Here, predictable corporate-promotional-type queries such as “Can I purchase Barbie dolls directly though Mattel?” are intermingled with questions from deep Barbie psycho-central, that split in image I referred to earlier. The sexual dark side makes this Q&A sound like “Playboy advisor meets in-house newsletter”:
Q: “My Barbie doll didn’t come with panties. Are they missing?
A: No, only a Barbie doll wearing a short skirt comes with panties. Some collector dolls also wear underwear. All dolls without cloth panties have molded-on panties.”
Q: Is there a Barbie fan club?
(I don’t want to even think about the mixed messages of the Harley Davidson Barbie, due for reissue this year at Toys R Us and Harley dealerships.)
Again in her “We girls can do anything” mode, Barbie is having a proud new moment. She’s got moves, and she’s using her skills to pay the bills. She’s got her hair up, I Dream of Jeannie style, to keep her neck dry as she goes for a layup in shorts and kneepads: That’s right! WNBA Barbie is here. And she’s got a mean jump shot. (“Two points!” says a girl in the new commercial.)
The 30-second spot, which takes place outdoors on a basketball court, features, appropriately, an ethnically mixed group of girls (after all, for Barbie, this is urban) running and playing in shorts and jerseys and a sports-like manner.
Barbie’s arm is poseable, so she does indeed shoot and score. I can’t tell whether this is the Barbie with the more teen-like body (i.e., less pneumatic, with hips), but compared to some of her predecessors, like Madame du Barbie, she’s positively Picabo.
The dialogue is not exactly inspired, but it gets the job done, and the girls deliver their lines with what seems like natural excitement.
“Barbie and her team, they rock,” one says. “I’m gonna play basketball in the WNBA,” another says, sweetly. “Someday, we’ll play with Rebecca Lobo!” declares a third. Could this be a foreshadowing of a special celeb guest appearance? The Mao-sized poster of Ms. Lobo–so big that it blocks the sun–is another clue.
So in the midst of the all the dribbling and shooting, who should show up? Lady Liberty herself, in the uniformed flesh.
“Rebecca Lobo!” the girls repeat in shock and unison. She looms weirdly overhead–all the better for Lobo-worship–and says, “Hey, nice shot!” (Well, even Michael Jordan had to start someplace, as a role model and an actor.)
Give Mattel and Ogilvy & Mather credit: There are few commercials aimed at girls during Saturday and Sunday morning cartoon time that stray from the play areas of cosmetology, watering down horses or feeding and burping babies. (Although I hope that on the new Fox Girlz network, the grrrlz will be shown playing at junior Lilith concerts and running their own mini-muffin businesses in their spare time.)
In this Barbie spot, young females actually give each other high fives. If you figure that despite the plethora of ’90s working moms, most toy commercials seem to exist in permanent Brady Brunch time–a parallel universe of the sunny side of the consumer heaven known as the ’70s–this is truly revolutionary.
And this spot will encourage girls to dream of being athletes. Right now, using women in professional sports is the easiest way of conveying a message of strength, independence and, yes, beauty, in a way that’s not forced or preachy, that’s beyond “If you let me play.”
Athletes like Lobo just do it. And if she’s appearing in a conservative culture such as Barbie’s, that reverberates.
When Barbie was introduced by Mattel in 1959 in one of the first ad blitzes ever for a toy, the company had the legendary Dr. Ernest Dichter do motivational research: He knew that mothers would hate the proportions of the Teutonic sex doll. (And why not?) So, at his suggestion, Barbie was marketed as a “teenage model” to “encourage concern with proper appearance.”
And the fact that WNBA Barbie exists shows not that Mattel is ready to make some noise, grrrlz-style, but rather that it knows the culture has changed, that parents approve of their girls playing competitive sports and that being an athlete is indeed something to strive for, perhaps even something heroic.
So does this mean that uber-grooming and athletics are compatible? As “Pothole” D’Amato, or even Alice the kooky housekeeper, might suggest, Swish!