Love her or hate her, there’s no escaping Barbie. Sibert Award winner Tanya Lee Stone tackles the American icon in her latest book, The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie. Tracing the doll’s origins, as well of those of her creator, Stone offers a thorough investigation of Barbie and her resounding impact on American society and beyond. Here, the author talks with Kirkus about the controversy surrounding Barbie’s figure, why the doll inspires such simultaneous loathing and love, and her own experiences with Barbie growing up.
What inspired you to take on one of the most iconic figures in American pop-culture history?
It’s certainly been interesting to hear people’s response to my latest book. Since I have a tendency to write about feminist topics, people were curious as to why I chose to write about Barbie. But this is an extremely interesting story within that feminist scope. Ruth Handler, the woman who invented Barbie, co-founded the giant toy company Mattel with her husband. He was an artist, she was a self-made businesswomen. The whole thing about how some people love Barbie and some hate her? It’s shrouded in pop-culture imagery. I wanted to dig deep under there and see what was really going on. Why did a woman like Ruth Handler choose to invent a doll like Barbie in the first place? The book is part biography of Ruth Handler, part history of the invention of the doll and part people’s reaction to the cultural phenomenon that is Barbie.
Barbie’s such a polarizing figure. On the one hand, she’s decried for setting unrealistic standards of beauty for young girls, and on the other, she’s lauded for her ability to break gender barriers. What side of the fence do you fall on?
I wasn’t a fan before I did all the research and wrote the book, but now I [see] she’s a doll, and she’s whatever we put on her. It’s sort of what we bring to the table that colors how we see her, each of us. What was interesting to me about some of the anecdotes that I collected [was that they] divided themselves almost perfectly, evenly weighted between love and hate. Again, she’s 11 and a half inches of plastic and we put on her whatever we have going on for ourselves and whatever we think she should be or shouldn’t be.
Did you have Barbies growing up? How did you play with them?
I didn’t. My sister did, but I didn’t pay that much attention to them except when I wanted to annoy my sister. Then I’d hide her Barbies. I felt that made me a pretty objective person to look into researching her. I wanted to immerse myself in this whole world and find out what all the fuss was about. When I was younger, I read books and climbed trees. I grew up at the beach and collected rocks. I wasn’t a doll kind of girl, was much more of a tomboy. I have a daughter now, and she does like Barbie. She has about three or four. But she doesn’t value Barbie any more than any of her other playthings.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned about Barbie in your research?
I think what interested me the most was the really benign way her figure came about. We sometimes think about her figure and mistakenly think about evil corporate messages of how girls should look. But if you look at the context in which Barbie was invented—in the mid-1950s in Hollywood—the ideal body type of that time was Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. Not to mention that she was conceived as a teeny-tiny mannequin. Barbie was all about the clothes. So, Barbie’s figure actually came about because Marilyn Monroe was the figure of the day, and haute couture looks best on mannequin dimensions. For me, that context demystified the entire [controversy].
Tanya Lee Stone’s favorite feminist books for teens:
“I picked my list based not on what one might necessarily categorize as feminist but based on what I felt was important for me to read [in my development as a feminist].”
Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons: “This book was actually written for adults, but I think it’s a really important book for teens to read. They need to know that it’s OK to deal with conflict, and that there is a quiet aggression that girls perpetrate on each other. Girls should learn how to handle that, be on the lookout for that.”
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi: “The first adventure book that I read that had a heroine in it. She was so unstoppable, fearless and brave. She made a really big impression on me when I started reading historical fiction.”
Daughter of Venice by Donna Jo Napoli: “Again, a really strong heroine. I thought, yes, this is an excellent representation of a daring girl.”
Our Bodies, Ourselves by Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and Judith Norsigian: “This was a must have for every teen girl when I was a teenager, and it still is. It’s completely updated now, too. This was an incredibly groundbreaking book. It had a lot to do with the movement of women being aware of their own bodies and being empowered about them.”
33 Things Every Girl Should Know About Women’s History: From Suffragettes to Skirt Lengths to the E.R.A. by Tonya Bolden: “Just a nice little primer on women’s history.”
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare: “Here’s the book I loved as a 12-year-old. This book was for me—long before I read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle or Daughter of Venice—the book that said ‘Look at that incredibly brave girl, risking her life to speak out.’ ”
The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us
Tanya Lee Stone
Viking / October / 9780670011872 / $19.99