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  1. Life & Culture

Rescued Barbie has a new home for now, far from the shores of Malibu

A chance encounter at a St. Petersburg intersection leads to a new relationship of sorts, questions and the quest for a missing shoe.
Barbie looks at ease here atop the author’s golden typewriter. As you can see, when she was rescued she was missing a shoe.
Barbie looks at ease here atop the author’s golden typewriter. As you can see, when she was rescued she was missing a shoe. [ Roy Peter Clark ]
Published May 26|Updated May 26

When I turned the corner, an object in the street caught my eye. Cars and pickups whizzed by. I doubted what I had seen, so I drove a block and circled back.

I returned to the intersection of 16th Street and 54th Avenue S, right between Lakewood High School and Blessed Trinity Catholic Church, familiar St. Petersburg territory for our family. I timed my approach to catch a red light. (Usually I speed up to beat it.) I stopped. Pulled up the emergency brake. Jumped out of the car.

I grabbed the object before it could be crushed by traffic. In short, I rescued Barbie.

I found her facedown, that familiar blond hair splayed, one leg pointed skyward. She was missing a shoe.

When I got her home, I straightened her out, dusted her off, even tried to comb her hair, which, by the time I finished with it, looked less like Barbie and more like Brigitte Bardot. I had never combed a doll’s hair before.

The next day I drove back to the scene of the rescue. I was determined to find her missing shoe.

Barbie and me

I was the least likely person to rescue a Barbie. I had a long history of animosity toward the doll and what she had come to stand for. For my first two daughters, Barbie was banned from the house.

Where did this hostility come from? I remember an early article in a progressive magazine that argued that Barbie was indoctrinating little girls into the culture of conspicuous consumption. The doll might be inexpensive, but the accessories were endless, from shoes and clothes to that Malibu beach house.

Another line of criticism came from feminist authors, aligned with folks who pay attention to the health of young girls. Instead of Raggedy Ann or Betsy Wetsy, girls as young as 3 were being asked to idolize a glamorous white, blond figure with an impossible body. It has been argued that if Barbie were enlarged to human scale, her measurements would be 39-21-33. Some girls came to prefer Barbie’s body to their own. In doing so, they found a gateway to a poisonous perfectionism, body dysmorphia, even eating disorders.

I wrote more than once about my dislike of Barbie and was lucky enough to find an ally, an engineer in Oregon who had worked with Mattel on the invention of Barbie. His name was Bill Barton.

Back in the late 1950s, in the little town of Oakland, Oregon, population 1,200, Barton took clay into his hands and molded a girl doll Mattel would call Barbie. From his point of view, he invented her. At first, she was a simple doll, unspecific enough to invite girls to use their imaginations while playing with her.

In a telephone interview in 1978, Barton described how he had invented Barbie: “What they had in mind was to create a small doll with reasonably lifelike appearance, and I say reasonable, for both the young child and older girl to use from the standpoint of creativity.”

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But as Mattel grew, so did Barbie.

“They brought her up into a very sexy symbol,” said Barton, “began the whole sequence of clothes for her and that of course was tied into the cosmetic and dress industry.” He kicked it up a notch: “What I witnessed was the conditioning of children’s minds for a very definite purpose, and this was to have a built-in market for the goods to be sold to these children when they reached 3 years hence. I know this was true because I was in on helping to film many of the commercials.”

Barton never earned an extra penny for having invented Barbie and groused until his passing about what Mattel had done to his innocent little lass.

Another side to the story

When I described my rescue of Barbie on Facebook, several women came to her defense. One older lady reminded me that when she was a little girl, only two kinds of dolls were available: baby dolls and bride dolls. Hmm. Talk about social conditioning, those dolls drew their own boundaries on the roles that women could play.

Into the 1960s, things began to change. From the beginning, Barbie had what we call “agency,” some control over her own life. She was independent from her parents. She bought stuff. She owned things. She had fun and adventures. Over decades, Mattel responded to critics. My youngest daughter Lauren owned six Barbies. One of them was Black.

Rescued Barbie turns out to work at a smoothie shop, part of the “You Can Be Anything" collection.
Rescued Barbie turns out to work at a smoothie shop, part of the “You Can Be Anything" collection. [ Roy Peter Clark ]

For $12 I just bought a Doctor Barbie. She wears a white lab coat over a floral print dress. A stethoscope hangs from her neck. Remarkably, her legs, hips, waist and chest appear in normal proportion. She is Black. The package places her in the “Barbie: You Can Be Anything” collection. More than 200 careers are featured in this series.

One of these jobs is for a young woman who works at a smoothie shop, and that turns out to be the identity of Rescued Barbie. She wears a stylish and sporty dress with an orange peel design and has a name tag. I went on Amazon and purchased this Barbie, which comes with 11 pieces, all the elements of making a great smoothie. She is wearing both her shoes.

What happened to her?

The day after the rescue, I returned to the intersection, parked my car and looked for Barbie’s missing shoe. It was nowhere to be found. I drove to Walmart and almost purchased a “shoe pack” until I noticed that it had guy shoes made for Ken. Online, I realized I could buy more than 40 pairs of shoes for Barbie and a handy shoe rack to store them. I had a vision of a Barbie in the Imelda Marcos collection.

Which leads me to two questions: What happened to this Barbie? And what will happen to her next?

A number of scenarios pops into my mind. Imagine a misbehaving little girl (or boy!) waving Barbie out the window, left only with a shoe in their hand. Imagine a tug-of-war with Barbie as the rope, the doll flying out the window, leaving her shoe behind. Maybe a Lakewood High student with a Barbie fetish dropped her out of a backpack while crossing the street.

All I know is that Rescued Barbie is safe for now. She has joined a community of sorts with Doctor Barbie, Smoothie Barbie, six classic Barbies that belonged to Lauren, a Baby Yoda doll and a Pee-wee Herman doll.

Like a Prince searching for Cinderella, I am more than willing to return Rescued Barbie to the person who is missing her. That shoe would be all the evidence I need. If not that, then a good story on how she came to be facedown in a busy street.

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