For Christmas last year, when she was 94, my Mother asked for a Barbie doll — not just any one, mind you, but an “Andy Warhol” Barbie® (above). Part of Mattel’s Collector series, this doll is the second (of three) produced in collaboration with the Andy Warhol Foundation. She is dressed in a t-shirt featuring the famous Campbell’s tomato soup can, with a faux-fur coat, black leggings and white “go-go” boots. Andy and Barbie: pop art meets pop culture.
“Now don’t take it out of the box, because this isn’t just another Barbie. It’s a collectible,” I reminded Mother as she gleefully unwrapped the gift. Of course, she knew as well as anyone else that things are worth more as a collectible if maintained in pristine condition in the original packaging. But of course, she didn’t care. “Get these loose,” she commanded my husband as she tugged on the plastic ties that bound Barbie in the plastic clam shell. “I want her out to see her and set her up.” Who can argue with a 94 year old at Christmas?
My Mother had collected dolls most of her life and, once she had a daughter (me), she happily involved me in that hobby. As a girl, I had several Madame Alexanders, including the 1953 Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation robe; a whole series of Ginny dolls, with extensive wardrobe and accessories; and of course, the original 1959 Barbie®, with her blond pony tail (like mine) and blue eyes (like mine), sporting big sunglasses (like mine), wearing her black-and-white swimsuit over a shapley female body (not like mine). By the time she came along, however, I was less interested in playing with Barbie than in emulating her lifestyle.
We kept most of these dolls, Mother’s and mine, for many, many years, finally selling them or giving them away as time went by. As a matter of fact, I sold my perfect 1959 Barbie® for a significant amount of money to an overseas collector right before a big international Barbie convention in Hong Kong in 2009. In 1959, her retail price was $3; today, in pristine condition, she is worth about $8,000. The most valuable, though, was a 2010 Barbie bedecked by Australian jewelry designer Stefani Canturi with a real diamond ring and a three-carat necklace featuring a rare Argyle pink diamond. She sold at auction at Christie’s for $302,500! The proceeds went to benefit breast cancer research. Barbie may not be able to physically run, but she sure can “raise” for the cure!
When my Mother died last fall, we had to dismantle her room and remove all personal effects from the assisted living facility. That meant her dolls, including the Warhol Barbie, came back to my house, where I now have to decide what to do with them. I had anticipated selling the Barbie doll at some point, so had kept her packaging and the original display box replicating the Warhol studio. Since she had only been standing on a shelf and was in almost untouched condition, it was just a matter of getting her back in the box.
I first gave that chore to my son, an architect, who can draw, plan, construct, manipulate and otherwise wrestle any material into any form — except, evidently, a flex-jointed doll into a plastic clam shell. Finally, claiming to have spent more time on the challenge than he had on any professional project that week, he gave up in exasperation. I told him to let it go, that I’d tackle it later myself. “Right,” he mumbled. “My Mom, the paragon of patience.”
A few days later, stumbling again over the bag with Barbie and her loose packaging, I again asked for assistance. This time I enlisted my husband, who truly IS a paragon of patience. He set to work at the kitchen counter, with a determined expression and additional aids including pliers, twist ties and rubber bands And he stayed at it — for quite a while. “She just doesn’t want to go back in that box,” he said, finally giving up.
But then, why would she? Barbie has spent 60 years getting herself “out of the box” of convention and encouraging three generations of girls to do the same thing. Pushing beyond the controversy over the idealized female form and the clichéd accusations of being the vacuous blue-eyed blond, Barbie® has survived it all to be one of Mattel’s top-grossing brands, having spawned a host of other doll friends, play stations, accessories, books, games and movies. She is available in 40 different nationalities, sold in 150 countries, produced in four body types, in seven skin tones, and with every imaginable hair color. In 2017, the first hijab-wearing Muslim Barbie appeared, to honor the American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad as part of the “Sheroes” series. In fact, in sports, medicine, the military, the professions (including architect), the arts, education, exploration (including astronauts), the performing arts, and politics (including President), Barbie has pursued, and dressed for success in, over 200 careers. And interestingly she has never married. At this point, all controversy and ridicule aside, it is safe to say that Barbie (her real name is Barbara Millicent Roberts) has established herself as more than a toy doll: she is an icon, and industry leader, and an American institution.
In light of all these accomplishments, the irony of “getting Barbie back in the box” was not lost on me as I sat down at the kitchen counter and took my turn at trying to repackage her. Women are good at repositioning themselves, I realized, and she was surprisingly malleable. I was able to ease her back into her mold, knowing that it is only one of many she temporarily inhabits, and yet another one that will no doubt be broken one day.