Sunday, May 27, 2012

Barbie Roundtable

C.I.: As many have noted at their own sites, we've long planned a Barbie roundtable here. Barbie is a fashion doll, a little over 11 inches, put out by Mattel beginning in 1959.    I'm C.I. of The Common Ills and The Third Estate Sunday Review and I'm moderating. Participating are Rebecca of Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude; Betty of Thomas Friedman Is a Great Man;  Kat of Kat's Korner (of The Common Ills); Marcia of SICKOFITRDLZ;  Ann of Ann's Mega Dub and Mike of Mikey Likes It!  Ava, of The Third Estate Sunday Review, is kindly taking notes for this rush transcript piece and she'll get to have closing thoughts at the end.  As a new father, Mike has entered the world of Barbie with his five-year-old daughter.  We're especially glad to have Mike because Barbie is not just a toy that girls play with.  Elaine, of Like Maria Said Paz, told me that while attempting to locate commercial to prove a dollhouse was not a Barbie dollhouse, she came across many commercials of the 70s -- a time where gender roles loosened somewhat -- where boys were included in the commercials such as with the commercials for the Mego Farrah Fawcett doll and the Dyna-mite doll.  We had hoped that at least one of the men who regularly participate in these roundtables here would have played with Barbie as a child but none had.  We do want to stress, however, that Barbie -- despite advertising -- is not "a girl's toy."  Boys and girls have played with Barbie and will continue to.  In this community, Barbie bloggers include Trina, Kat, Marcia, Betty, Ann and Mike.  I want to start with a photo.  Trina, you just got one of those for the granddaughter who lives with you.  Tell us what that is.

barbie dream house

Trina: I won that on E-bay.  My version doesn't contain the bathtub, the bed, the vanity, the sofa, endtable or coffee table.  The kitchen fridge, stove, dishwasher and washer and dryer are built in so I have that as well as the also built in second story bathroom features of toilet, sink and laundry basket and the third story -- I laugh at that that -- room's stereo system which folds down into a bed.

Betty: Why do you laugh at it?  I think I know because I know that dollhouse.

Trina:  Because, as you know, that room comes loose and you can put it elsewhere, like on the ground next to the kitcehn.  If the roof was flat, I could see an argument for a third floor more. You could set up deck chairs, for example and it would be a sun roof.  But, as it is, I really don't see it as a third floor.

Betty: I agree with Trina on that.  This is the Mattel Barbie 3-Story Dream House and it came out around 2006.  They no longer make it new.  One of the good features here is that Barbie can go up the stairs.  There's a 'floating step' that you can attach her legs to, turn a wheel and she will go up the stairs without you holding her.

Marcia: This was a very popular dollhouse so I'm surprised they stopped making it.  But I will point out that the first floor reminds me somewhat of the apartment Mary had on most of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  I noticed that with Hannah Montana's Malibu Beach House as well, with its sunken living room.  And what I wonder, just tossing it out there, don't expect anyone to have an answer, if the people designing these dollhouses aren't influenced by early TV homes they fell in love with?

C.I.: That's a very good question.  If someone reading knows the answer, our e-mail address is  Now Betty noted that they aren't making that one anymore and I want to talk a bit more about that but before we do, the Barbie Townhouse was introduced by Mattel in the early seventies.  A three-story structure that looks like a set of plastic shelves quite honestly -- buy your own furniture and paint backdrops and you can grab a three story plastic shelf from a store and have everything but the elevator.  Marcia had one of the first  and wrote about it two weeks ago in "Townhouses, country kitchens, mansions and pads."  You loved it when you were little.  You think the ones they make today are better.  Why?

Marcia: The Barbie Townhouse was a major thing.  There were only the vinyl dollhouses that were carrying cases and folded out.  Some were one room -- a bedroom for example.  Some were two.  Some were actual homes.  But other than that, the only thing that might have existed was the wooden Barbie Dollhouse.  If it existed before the Townhouse, I never saw it but after I wrote my post, a friend at work swore to me she had a wooden dollhouse before the townhouse came out.  The Townhouse was everywhere.  In the big toy sections of big stores and even in the cheaper toy stores.  And it was a big deal because it was three stories.  It was permanent.  You didn't fold it out.  You set it up and wherever in your room it was, that's pretty much where it stayed.  If you moved it, you risked looseing parts.  It had an elevator which was so great.  I had a Maxwell Smart and 99 doll that a neighbor had given me -- they were characters on Get Smart, and I'd pretend like they were spying on Barbie and have them be on different floors.  I'd have Barbie on the first floor in the kitchen, for example, and have them on the second floor listening.  Then she'd go to the elevator and I'd have them ride on top of it so that when she got off at the second, they'd get off at the third.  Eventually, they'd be on the roof.  And it was a flat roof.  It was a boxy look.  And, C.I.'s comment about book shelves, that really is true.

Mike: In eighth grade shop, we made a number of things.

Trina: Including a foot stool that is still used as a chair.  That thing is so hugely popular.

Mike: Thank you, Mom.  And one of the other things we made was a bookcase.  It was just two stories.  The shop teacher then asked us if we had a use for a two story book case.  Those who did were allowed to take it home.  Those who didn't or who had younger sisters, this included me, were told we had just made the basic structure for a dollhouse.  And so those of us who wanted to, continued working only how we added a backing to it and we made windows in that.  We created a wall on each shelf to divide it into four rooms as well.  I have one younger sister and when I took it home, she loved it.  I forgot about that until C.I. talked about how they were really like bookcases.

Marcia: And that was even more true with the first Townhouse.  The third floor had a flat roof all the way across.  Now days, they've changed it so that it has a half roof, half of it is covered.  That does break up the boxy feel to it.  So did moving the elevator from the side to the center of the house.  And I have to repeat, the colors -- and I'm not a fan of pink -- are much better today.  When I got it decades ago, it was woodsy and yellows and all this other ugly colors.

C.I.: Does anyone need a Barbie house?

Ann: I think you do.  If you're playing Barbies, I think you do.  I can remember my Barbie days and I've seen it echoed with other young girls.  You start out with one Barbie.  She's your favorite in the world.  But she needs some friends.  So you get another.  And maybe she needs a boyfriend.  So you get that.

Ava: Jumping in -- Maybe she needs a boyfriend?

Ann: Ava's the only one who knows this story.  I'll get to it quickly.  But to answer the question, you add Barbies and Kens and doll clothes and maybe you even get a Barbie car -- you can get one for less than 20 bucks at our Toys R Us currently, I don't know about elsewhere.  But at some point, you really do want a place for Barbie to sleep and to eat with friends.  And maybe you have free standing furniture that you set out on your bedroom floor but you really do want the walls, I don't know why, but you do.

C.I.: And to grab the point Ava raised?

Ann: I had gay Kens.  I had a Ken who dated Barbie.  And that was all I wanted.  But I was the first kid for my aunts and uncles so when I got my Ken and they heard they rushed to get me Kens.  So I ended up with a ton.  I had Kens who were boyfriends.  I didn't call them Kens.  In fact, I tended to rename almost all of the dolls.  My Black Barbie was Regina.  That's the name I gave her.  I had one blond Barbie that I called Barbie but all the others had different names.  I gave the boys dolls different names as well.

Marcia: When you say they were gay, I have to ask, what did you know at that age and also were there lesbian Barbies?

Ann: Betty has a brother who's gay. I have an uncle.  I'm sure that for Betty it was just the way things were growing up.

Betty: True.

Ann: And that's how it was for me as well.  Did I know where everything went when having sex?  Not when I started playing Barbies but that was true of male and female coupling as well.  The most they did -- the gay Kens or the Barbie and Ken pairings -- was kiss.  And live together.  Again, being the first meant I had aunts and uncles with spending money who were very sweet to the first niece in the family so I had a ton of dollhouses.  And my gay Kens had one of the dollhouses.  As for lesbian Barbies. Nope.  But I'd never heard or thought of that at that time.  If I'd had a relative or a neighbor who was a lesbian, I'm sure I would have had that coupling.  I didn't have dream jobs, for example.  My Barbies and Kens worked jobs that my parents and uncles and aunts and people I knew did.  Did you have your Barbies in same-Barbie relations?

Marcia: No.  But I didn't pair her with Ken so maybe that was an early tell -- that I was gay.  I got a Barbie with a wedding dress from a grandmother one year for my birthday mainly because she couldn't understand why I wouldn't pair up my Barbies with my Kens.  I took scissors to the dress and turned it into a mini-dress.  I turned the veil into a cape.  I had no interest in marrying my Barbies off to Kens.

Kat: Did they live together in the Townhouse?

Marcia: When I got the Townhouse, Ken, Steven -- that was the Black Ken I believe -- and some other guy were relegated to my vinyl fold-out house and my Barbies took over the townhouse. They would visit.  They would throw parties and invite each other.  But they did not date and they did not marry.

C.I.: And, in contrast, Rebecca made her Barbies have sex.

Rebecca: That's a for-real story.  C.I.'s heard that from me and from my sisters.  When I was 9, I had all my Barbies taken away by my mother when she caught me with Ken and Barbie having sex.  Which means, they were stripped naked, on the bed in the Barbie Dream House -- one story vinyl foldout case that had one space that was a bedroom, kitchen and den.  And they were naked, on the bed and rubbing against each other. "What are they doing!" That's what my mother said suprising me because I hadn't heard her enter the room.  My guilty look made it impossible to pretend I had no idea what she was talking about.  So she packed everyone up until I told her how I knew what I had those dolls doing.  I'm not joking. She thought my sisters had told me about sex.  Or that someone at school had.

C.I.: But you knew because?

Rebecca: I'd swiped one of my mother's paperbacks.  One of those 'romance' stories.  So when I told her that, she was embarrassed but I got all my Barbies back.

C.I.: With your young daughter now, she has a number of Barbies and Barbie clothes and homes, etc.

Rebecca: Right.  Thus far, her Barbies haven't had sex.  That I know of.  If they do, that's between Barbie, Ken and the person acting out the story.  But seriously, Kat had a great post a little while back that I loved called "Skipper with boobs, Skipper without, what the heck?"  Kat, talk about that.

Kat: I was an adult and no longer playing with Barbies.  But my second oldest niece had gotten a Skipper doll.  I think it's called Growing Up Skipper.  And you turned the arm clockwise and she grew boobs.  You turned the arm all the way around counter-clockwise and they retreated into her chest.  My oldest niece saw that as proof that Barbie had jumped the shark basically.

Rebecca: Right.  And I loved you point about what was that supposed to be?  And what was it supposed to teach?  I'm serious.  Once we enter the phases where we're starting to get breasts, they're there.  We might want them to go away -- I was huge from an early age and I certainly wanted them to disappear -- but they didn't.  So, and maybe this is just me having always had big breasts, I just wonder what the thinking behind that doll was?  If it was to teach about transitions, getting breasts is a one-way transition.  You get them.  They do not grow back into you and disappear.  I know no one hear can answer this but I would really love to know who came up with that toy and what their thinking was.

C.I.: That would be interesting to know.  Mike, you and Elaine have a daughter now and she's into Barbies.  What stands out to you about her playtime with them?

Mike: Hmm.  I'm seeing one thing but she sees something else.  One thing I'm learning to do is to get into the creative mind-set she's going into.  I don't just mean that fact that she holds Barbie and she's talking and that's supposed to be Barbie talking and I'm supposed to talk through whatever doll she's given me.  I get that.  But she's using the toys and everything for this full blown story.  I did that with some little Planet of the Ape figures in first and second grade.  I can remember being in the sandblock with Tony and another friend and we'd create this big mound of dirt and then hollow out tunnels and we'd play with the little Planet of the Ape figures -- they were about an inch tall -- and we wouldn't be seeing a sandlot or mound of dirt.  And she's like that.  You really have to keep up and I had no idea.

Betty: You're right about that.  C.I. has a Barbie room.  And she and my daughter play there on Saturday and  Sundays and my daughter all during the week.  They have storylines that they pick up.  It's like a soap opera.  I always play the new Barbie anytime I play.  And if there's not a new Barbie, I have my assigned Barbie say, "I'm sorry, I just got back from vacation and I forgot what was going on."  Because it's so hard to keep up.  I'm guessing that your daughter has continuing storylines.

Mike: Yes, she does.  And if you don't get into that mind set and clear your head of everything else, forget about following along.

C.I.: Trina, each Friday you take the granddaughter that lives with you to get a toy.

Trina: That's right and if Mike and Elaine's daughter, my other granddaughter, is there, then I take her also.

C.I.: And that brings up a point that we've gotten e-mail on here and that some of you have also had at your sites.  There's a feeling that Mattel isn't really focusing on children.  That they are focusing on collectors and that children are being cheated.  When Marcia, for example, was a little girl, there were tons of Barbie clothes she could buy at the store, individual outfits.  Now days, the selection is very small -- this despite Barbie supposedly beating Bratz in the market -- and usually overpriced.  There used to be Barbie cases.  Now those are important if you play with Barbie.  Probably more so now then when Barbie started in fact.  In its early days in the fifties and early sixties, the carry case existed so you could take Barbie to school or to a friend's house to play.  Now days with joint-custody being more common, children probably have a greater use and need for carry cases.  But the Barbie carry case that exists today isn't the fun one that Marcia was talking about that folded out into a house.  Or even the bedroom.  Those were very popular, a carrying case with a slot for Barbie on either side of a closet and the fold out was two beds and a table between them.  Those were fun and highly popular.

Trina: Right.  That's actually what I started going to Ebay for after I'd looked all over for new ones at Toys R Us and Target and elsewhere.  I couldn't find one.  I finally found a case that's supposed to be a fashion runway but that my granddaughter uses as a bed.  Fashion runway?  What age was that case made for?  Come on.  As Ann's story pointed out, kids play what they know.  So a carry case that's also a bedroom is always going to be more popular with kids than a carry case that's a fashion runway.  The clothes aren't just costly though, they're also inferior.  Since I started Barbie blogging, I hear that so often.  If you played Barbies, you've probably tried to make one dress yourself while you were a little kid.  And most likely, after you failed, you tried again the easiest way possible, taking a sock and cutting a neck hole and arm holes in the top of it and sliding it over Barbie's head.  Now that's a cheap dress.  So when I see dresses that Mattel's made that remind me of that, I think, "Oh, that's so tacky."  I prefer the 70s clothes because they had sleeves and so many of the new outfits don't, Elaine and I have talked about how nearly every outfit is a dress and Barbie rarely wears pants anymore, certainly not long ones.  What's up with that?  What message is being sent?  And then you have all these dresses with ends you tire because the dresses don't have sleeves.  It's just cheap.  By contrast, those 70s outfits really do look like clothes that were worn at that time.

Kat: And Goldie Hawn.

Betty: I was just about to say that.

Kat: The Goldie Hawn doll is cute.  I like it.  I like Goldie Hawn.  It's capturing her Laugh-In character.  And that's fine though I do wonder why it's not capturing her Private Benjamin character or another.  But if that's a doll for little kids and not another attempt to make money from collectors, why did they include all that writing on the doll?

Betty: My daughter did not get it.  She thought it was Tatto Barbie.  That's what she called her.  And other little girls who'll come play with her won't pick up the Barbie doll.  That writing doesn't come off the Goldie doll and it's all over her body.  If that was made for kids, big mistake because they don't like the writing all over the doll.

C.I.: But maybe collectors is the way to go, maybe that's how Mattel intends to stay in business.  I don't know.  But I know Rebecca's got some ideas about collector dolls that they should be doing.

Rebecca: Right.  I want a Carly Simon doll.  I want a Joni Mitchell doll.  And I want them from the 1971 and 72 period.  Meaning I want Joni with long blond straight hair -- no bangs -- in some funky clothes.  I want Carly from the cover of No Secrets including that wonderful floppy hat.  And along with the clothes that they're sold in, I want a whole line of soft, romantic early seventies clothes -- peasant blouses, bell bottoms, flowing clothes, hats.  If you're going to do special collector sets then why don't you do some that people want.  And I love Goldie Hawn and would buy a Private Benjamin doll or a Goldie and Julie Christie Shampoo dolls or Goldie and Meryl Death Becomes Her Dolls, etc.  But I don't want a doll with writing on it.

Betty: And if they do those dolls they need to look those women did in that 70s period.  I'm less concerned about the body.  I get that for the dolls to be able to wear lots of clothing, you're going to have to use the standard Barbie body.  That's fine.  But the face needs to look like them.  I had a badly beaten up Diana Ross doll growing up.  It was a doll my aunt had and she gave to me.  My brother glued new eye lashes on it and also painted it because it had some marks on the face.  That was a Mego doll from before I was born.  And it looked a little like Diana.  Explain to me why, around 2003, Mattel releases a Diana Ross doll that's looks nothing like her.  The hair was solid but the face doesn't look a damn thing like Diana Ross.  I know Diana's very in charge of her image.  So if the doll's look is her fault and not Mattel's, fine.  But if it's Mattel's they need to do a better job.  That is the worst celebrity doll of the last ten years.  Mattel has done a Barbra Streisand doll that looks like Barbra but they can't do a Diana Ross that looks like Diana?

C.I.: Okay, so Rebecca wants to see Carly and Joni.  And I'll add that Rebecca's noted if they sell well that Mattel should follow up with other singer-songwriters of that period including Roberta Flack.  And I do like that idea and Rebecca's got this whole 'soft seventies' slogan for the clothes and the dolls.  I'm summarizing what Rebecca and I have talked about outside the roundtable because we need to wind down.  Betty's noted that celebrity dolls need to look like the celebrities.  And I think we can also all agree with that.  Trina's pointed out the need for better clothing and that's certainly agreeable as well  I'm going to toss to the rest of you to see if there's anything you would like to see Mattel do?

Marcia: I'll start.  Vinyl foldouts.  They need to return to making those.  Those are holdovers for a lot of little kids whose parents can't afford to spend over a hundred dollars for a Barbie home.  Now you give them vinyl foldouts at a reasonable price and you keep them as potential customers.  Otherwise, you're really not marketing to them.

C.I.: Give us an example of what type of foldouts you mean.

Marcia: I had the Barbie ocean liner which was just two rooms.  But you folded it out.  I also had the Barbie airplane which you folded out.  Both were vinyl.  In addition, they could be doing the sleep carrying cases like we've talked about, that fold out into bedrooms.  Out of vinyl.  Especially in this economy, I worry about the huge cost of a Barbie house.

Ann: Right.  We were at Target, Cedric and I, looking at toys mainly because it was raining hard so we didn't want to leave the store yet.  And there's a Babie Beach House now that's not that great, four rooms, and I'm looking at the price and it's fifty bucks.  To its credit, you can carry it out of the store in the box.  I could carry it myself.  It's not like the Townhouse or the one Trina got off Ebay.  I wouldn't be able to carry those.  But here was one you could carry and it was fifty bucks and I thought first, "Oh, thank goodness, it's not a hundred dollars."  And then there was this little girl who was on the aisle, the only one there besides Cedric and me.  And her mother came up at some point and she asked her mom for a toy and her mom told her no more than $20.  She'd been eyeing that Barbie Beach House.  And she asked her mom please but her mom that they didn't have enough for that.  She said twenty was the limit.  So I butted in and said there was a kitchen and something on the other aisle.  I led them over to the Liv Playset.

C.I.: We'll put a picture of it in here.  Go ahead and describe it.


Ann: It's  vinyl foldout.  You've got a wall with a stove and fridge and sink on it -- doors open on all.  Then the other wall has a small shelf on it and the rest of the stuff is painted except for a window.  You've got a hammock that hangs off that wall onto a pole so the dolls can sleep there. And you've got a sleeping bag, a table with two chairs and some sort of chair or cushion plus cooking utensils.  Now to be fair, that was normally thirty bucks.  It was on sale for $17.99.  The little girl had just been looking on the Barbie aisle.  She saw that and loved it.  And her mother told me thank you.  And I'm sorry but you're kidding yourself if you think parents are going to be splurging year round.  Barbie needs to be regularly putting products into the store that children can play with and that parents can afford.  The Dream House?  It's a dream, a gold to strive for.  In the mean time, provide toys that parents can afford.

C.I.: That's a very good point.  And it's on sale online at Toys R Us for $19.98 currently. Which leads us into Kat's point.

Kat:  Yeah, I was talking about this to Wally, Ava and C.I. on the plane ride home.  I go to Target or Toys R Us and I can't believe what I see.  Two small aisles of Barbie -- with at least one aisle being Barbie Disney?  We had more Barbie toys in Woolworths when I was a kid.  With big box stores supposedly dying, Mattel needs to be more aggressive in their placement.  And I'm talking about Kroger now and Walgreens, etc.  I was at a Wal-Greens Thursday that, on their toy aisle, had only one Barbie doll.  And no Barbie clothes and no Barbie car and no Ken.  Just one Barbie.  Similarly, grocery stores are moving away from toys.  Mattel needs to be on that because we are probably getting to a point where the stores that are most visited -- physical stores -- are going to be grocery stores. And the idea that Barbie is so poorly featured and displayed at Toys R Us and Target is something that Mattel needs to deal with immediately.

C.I.: Mike, you're up.

Mike:  I'm the overindulgent father so my issue isn't the price.  My issue is what's up there.  And I don't really care for me.  I understand what my mom's saying about the clothes and I agree with her and Elaine on this.  But if that's what my daughter wanted, that's what she'd get.  But I'm taking her to the store and she doesn't like the Barbie clothes.  We're actually the Liv clothes -- and wigs -- for Barbie instead.  And that's not because I'm insulting the clothes.  And Elaine and my mom do not run down the clothes around her.  This is just that those clothes are not attractive to her for whatever reason.  There's an exception, sorry.  There's something called Barbie Basics.  And they've got on blue jeans and stuff like that.  We buy those dolls just because she likes the clothes.  She'll play with them but it's the clothes that make her want those dolls.  So my suggestion would be that they need to be clothes kids will like.

C.I.: I agree with you Mike and this can be tied in to something else.  I'm going to toss that to Rebecca.

Rebecca: I know what you mean.  We're going back to Ann played careers for her Barbies based on the careers adults around her had.  By the same token, children will want to dress their Babies up in clothese that they see on adults around them.

C.I.: Thank you, Rebecca.  Good points all and this is a rush transcript.  As agreed upon between us before we started, new mom Ava gets the last word.

Ava:  Okay.  Jess and I are new parents.  Our daughter's not going to be playing Barbies for a few years.  One thing we are doing is looking at what's out there and what has been.  Trina's had some great scores on Ebay and Craig's list.  And I do like the townhouse.but that's really it of what Mattel's putting out now.  The Glam Vacation house is a joke. And though I'm not going to be limited in what I buy, it's also overpriced.  So what I'm doing is going through the toys I like.  The Dream House that Trina found?  I'm getting one of those right now.  And there's also an A-Frame House that's three pieces, two stories, from the 70s that I love and I've gotten it and gotten the more recent version of it that's on sale currently and called the Barbie Beach House.  But what I really wish Mattel would do is start making some quality things for Barbie again.  It's very telling that people are spending hundreds of dollars on Ebay to get Barbie houses that are no longer made by Mattel while the houses that Mattel now makes largely sit on the shelves at stores and no one buys them.  Mattel really needs to be reconsidering their production and design unit because it is grossly out of touch.

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