- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2000


Just when it looked as if this year's presidential race was going to be a yawner, along comes the newest in a long line of Barbie dolls: the special "President 2000" edition featuring the by-now familiar Barbie dressed to the nines in a blue business suit, high heels, and a single strand of pearls. She's campaigning on a platform of empowering women, and she's got implicit endorsements from Girls, Inc. and something called the White House Project, an organization out to "create a world in which any woman can rise to the highest level of leadership." It's the words "any woman" that caught my eye because whatever else she might be, Barbie doesn't look like most of the women one encounters in the world outside a doll box. She's not "any woman" by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, she is tall, thin and blonde, with flawless skin and nary a hair out of place. In short, she is perfect as only things plastic all the way through can be.
One need not be a card-carrying feminist to know that there's something very wrong in the picture of Barbie at a lucite podium as the text of her speech about "health, fitness, and education issues" is scrolled down the box. As it so happens, I don't number myself among those who blame Barbie for every ill in western civilization, but I do think that those who market her brand of tissue-thin beauty bear a measure of responsibility for the lousy self-image many girls lug well into adulthood. Eating disorders, for example, probably have many complex causes, but surely heavy doses of high-fashion models and cultural icons like Barbie are a factor. Taken together, they send a message that only those at the Barbie end of the scale need apply whether the object is Ken, Barbie's plastic counterpart and boyfriend, or the Oval Office.
That feminist organizations who surely know better would accept donations from Mattel in exchange for lending their names to a President 2000 edition Barbie doll strikes me as both surprising and just plain sad. Even in an age that believes to its bones that politics makes for strange bedfellows and that nothing beats taking the soft money and running, there are still times when an unqualified "Shame, shame" is called for. This is one of those times. Putting campaign clichs into Barbie's chiseled mouth doesn't change a thing. Here is a case where the sisters should have sent the marketing guys from Mattel packing. But they didn't, and it will be harder, much harder, for them to roll out the rug of self-righteousness the next time a demeaning female stereotype rolls their way. After all, they're now in bed as it were with possibly the most distorted female image of them all.
Because packaging each new Barbie is at least half the sales battle, I paid close attention to the fine print that surrounds all the warm words about how Barbie is in sync with the well-meaning folks at the White House Project and Girls, Inc. Apparently, laws about product safety and truth in advertising required Mattel to warn parents of children under three years that Barbie's pearls, for example, constitute what is called "a choking hazard" and that the podium pictured on the back of the box is not included. But the best line is the small-print one that follows: "Doll cannot stand alone." Indeed, it can't.
Meanwhile, no political race, not even an imaginary one, goes uncontested for long, and in Barbie's case the competition comes from the Margaret of "Dennis the Menace" fame. Designed by Ann Moliver Ruben, a Miami, Florida psychologist and head of Women are Wonderful, the Margaret tee-shirt and doll have been available through special-order catalogues long before the new presidential Barbie got into the act. Some women's organizations, most notably the American Association of University Women, have embraced Margaret as a healthy role model. They are as right about this as Girls, Inc. and the White House Project are wrong. Girls can relate to Margaret for the simple reason that she is them. She is also younger women and older women, as well boys of whatever age.
Moreover, "Someday a Woman Will Be President" makes political sense in a way that Barbie's canned rhetoric just doesn't. She sounds (alas) like the old boy network, even as she contiues to look like the Barbie who once decked herself out in hot pants. By contrast, the earthy, altogether natural Margaret is the kind of girl you can like, respect, and in a metaphorical sense at least, vote for.

Sanford Pinsker is professor of humanities at Franklin and Marshall College.

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