Barbie, no warts and all, comes to Paris

Barbie, no warts and all, comes to Paris

PARIS – Agence France-Presse
Barbie, no warts and all, comes to Paris

AFP photo

For decades, Barbie has encouraged girls to reach for the stars, showing them through her endless reinventions that anything is possible. Now the girl who beat Neil Armstrong to the moon has brought a lifetime of fine outfits and accessories to Paris to show them off to the world at the city’s Musee des Arts Decoratifs.

Though in many ways Barbie has lived a charmed life, she has also been dogged by controversy notably because girls could never hope to grow into her impossibly slender body shape.

In the exhibit, magazine covers from the 1960s down the decades are juxtaposed with the Barbie of the day, showing how closely she has been in step with each passing fad.

“Barbie was a mirror of her time,” said the exhibit’s curator, Anne Monier, adding that the show offers a “cultural timeline” through the countless iterations of the iconic American miss.

It is not Barbie’s first trip to France; in 1984 she toured the country aboard a high-speed train, wearing fashions by leading Paris fashion houses including Yves Saint Laurent.

That tour was the brainchild of jewelry designer BillyBoy, a muse of pop artist Andy Warhol who boasted the largest collection of Barbie dolls in the world, 20,000 of them.

The Paris exhibit, which opened March 17, contains no fewer than 700 Barbie dolls, the all-time best-selling product of U.S. toymaker Mattel, dating back to 1959.

While it seems she cannot hold down a job for long, Barbie has built up an impressive CV, dabbling variously as a flight attendant, surgeon and police officer.

On one outing as an astronaut, Barbie stepped on the Moon even before Neil Armstrong; at least in the universe according to Mattel.

The leggy blonde has even run for president no fewer than four times, maintaining her sunny disposition despite never reaching the Oval Office. And while smashing gender stereotypes in the world of work, Barbie’s ultra-feminine persona is never in doubt when it is time for play, whether for a day at the beach, an afternoon at the gym or an evening out in a designer gown.

But beneath the veneer of glamorous go-getter lurks an ambiguous figure combining girl power with sex object, and one with a body shape that is literally unattainable: to-scale models have proven that her legs and feet would be unable to hold her up.

The Barbie doll, which hit one-billion sales in 1997 and is today bought at the rate of one every three seconds worldwide, has long been under attack as promoting an idealized notion of beauty, a stereotype of the woman as sex object and one engaged in mindless consumerism. 

And although black Barbies have existed since 1968 and many other ethnic variations have been added since, the iconic Barbie remains a willowy, blue-eyed blonde; as the one depicted in a Warhol painting that enjoys pride of place at the Paris show.

But Monier says critics are unfair to pick on a defenseless doll.

“It’s easier to attack an object than to attack society,” said Monier, who heads the museum’s toy section.

“Fashion magazines are more to blame than Barbie” for anorexia, she added.

Mattel designer Robert Best, in Paris for the launch of the exhibition, said, “When you have this kind of recognition the world over, you’re going to have very strong opinions for and against and create conversations that we at Mattel can’t control. People are going to form opinions and write articles and dissertations.” 

Barbie’s special place in the fashion industry (many designers say she inspired their career choice) has helped keep her relevant amid declining sales.

Vintage Barbies and other special editions are prized by collectors who are thought to number around 100,000. But this year Mattel has addressed the body issue head-on, rolling out three new silhouettes: “tall,” “petite” and “curvy.”

“Now can we stop talking about my body?” was the headline on a Time magazine cover highlighting the new lines.

The choices also include no fewer than 27 skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 types of hair.

Mattel, the world’s largest toymaker whose brands also include the Fisher-Price line, suffered eight consecutive quarters of declining sales before recovering in the fourth quarter of 2015 with a net profit of $215.2 million, a jump of 44 percent.

However its net profit for the year, at $369.4 million, was down 26 percent.

“In the past perhaps Barbie was idealized [but] that is no longer the case,” Best said, adding that Mattel wanted to promote a “wider, more inclusive idea of what is seen as beauty.”

Today Mattel’s view is that “girls of every different shape and size and color and hair texture are beautiful,” he said. “Barbie will now reflect that more than ever.” 

The show runs until Sept. 18.