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

The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us by Tanya Lee Stone. Viking, 2010. Currently available.

Genre: Middle Grade Non-Fiction

Face Value: This cover is…well…weird. I have always found the sideways glance of Original Barbie to be mildly creepy, and when you blow it up and put it on a book cover, you’re not really going to win me over. I guess the close-up on coy Barbie is preferable to the possible pink and bedazzled alternative that would be associated with her current incarnation.

There is one awesome aspect of this cover: the big, bold “UNAUTHORIZED” label. There is nothing more tantalizing than a book labeled “unauthorized.”

Does it break the slate? I think that there are two levels to be analyzed when I talk about whether or not this book is slate breaking. First: Does Tanya Lee Stone’s book break the slate? And second: Does Barbie break the slate? I will talk about the book as a slatebreaker here, and then I will tackle the second question in the review. (Just one step at a time – it’s a lot to digest.)

Tanya Lee Stone’s book is truly a slatebreaking endeavor. Stone has taken an iconic symbol of US American girlhood and examined it inside, outside, and upside down. I appreciated that she not only told us the story of Barbie’s creation and first venture into the world of toy marketing, but she also emphasized the feminist tendencies of Barbie inventor Ruth Handler. By the end of the book I had developed a great admiration for Handler’s insistence to work outside of the home and hold a position of authority within Mattel – decisions that challenged traditional gender roles at the time. Stone also took on the cultural issues surrounding Barbie, including race, class, and body image. Each one of these is handled conscientiously, with Stone presenting perspectives from multiple experts as well as girls and women who had memorable experiences with Barbie as children.

Who would we give it to? Girls in middle school (the older end of middle school, maybe 8th grade) who are into dissecting and torturing the Barbie dolls that they used to love when they were younger. I think this book is quite a challenging read, so I would encourage especially precocious young ladies to pick this up if they are interested in popular culture. It would be an excellent book for those astute kids in class who are always making observations about others’ behavior and choices (the ones who will be really snarky and will question every aspect of the curriculum when they hit high school).

Review: Non-fiction for young readers is a tough sell. When I worked at a public library, I didn’t see the juvenile non-fiction getting much circulation outside of the standard elementary school required non-fiction and biography book reports. Reading Stone’s book, I wondered if a student would ever choose to do their biography book report on Barbie. This book would be perfect for that. In fact, when Stone pitched the book to her editor, she said she wanted to write a biography of Barbie. What resulted was actually a cultural history of Barbie mixed with the biography of her creator, Ruth Handler.

I want to note Ruth Handler and HOW AWESOME SHE IS. This woman railed against everyone’s limited expectations of her and proved that she was smart and more business savvy than any of the men working for Mattel at the time. She envisioned a toy that would change the world of children’s play, and she refused to compromise that vision as she searched for the right materials and marketing to make Barbie a reality.

Barbie becomes a real feminist conundrum as we read Stone’s history of her evolution as a toy. When Handler conceived and created Barbie in 1959, she was the first teenage doll. Other dolls on the market were porcelain glamour dolls and baby dolls, limiting girls’ play roles to mother and caretaker. Barbie allowed girls to envision themselves as teenagers. She was (according to Stone’s research) the first doll on the US American market with breasts. This was a huge point of contention between Handler and her husband (they co-ran Mattel). He didn’t think that any mother would purchase a toy for her daughter that had such a “mature figure.” But Ruth thought that girls would want Barbie’s curvy body to dress in the latest fashions so that they could imagine themselves as girls about town, looking cool and being independent. (Ruth was right, of course). After a marketing campaign using the new Mickey Mouse Show, Barbie dolls were flying off the shelves.

So, Barbie of the 1950s and 1960s was mostly slatebreaking. But Barbie of today…just isn’t. Although there is astronaut Barbie and military officer Barbie, she has become a symbol of sexualization, commodification, and consumerism. Stone chronicles the complex and evolving role that Barbie has played in pop culture. She writes about Barbies of color and Barbie’s many and varied careers. Stone also does a really great job of tackling those common Barbie cultural themes that you won’t find elsewhere – she examines how young people often enact their sexuality through Barbie dolls and asks people why they loved to torture and decapitate Barbies when they were little.

Visually, this book has a very appealing layout. Photographs are well distributed and don’t overwhelm the text. I really enjoyed seeing the photographic comparisons of the changes in Barbie’s face, figure, and styling, because to me that is the most telling way to see how Barbie has affected our culture – and how our culture has affected Barbie.

This book is a tough case to review because it is very well written, but…I don’t feel that it was really written with young readers in mind. In libraries, it will probably be shelved in the Juvenile section instead of Young Adult (that’s where it was shelved at my local library). The complex and sometimes theoretical language is more appropriate for teen readers. The layout, though, looks like they are aiming for middle school. And this is tricky, because girls in middle school are almost too close to the age of still wanting to play with Barbie to want to read a critical analysis of her cultural history. I still can’t figure out who Stone’s intended audience is. And that’s a real shame, because this is a very intriguing book, but I don’t know if I could ever find the right young reader to enjoy it.

Reviewed from library copy.

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