Bonjour, Barbie! An American Icon Packs Her Heels And Heads To France

Aug 25, 2016
Originally published on August 25, 2016 10:50 am

Barbie at the Louvre?! Sacré bleu! But it's true — the impeccably dressed blonde bombshell has her very own exhibition in Paris. As a '70s feminist, I've always disparaged that doll — a wasp-waisted, clothes-horse, sex pot. But for all the Barbie lovers out there, I paid a visit to the lavish exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs at the Louvre Palais.

Up the elegant marble stairs, past pink walls, onto a pink carpet, the visitor is met by a barrage of 700 Barbies. They reflect changes over the years, in size, shape and color. For decades, Barbie was white and "one size fits all," but today she has 27 hair colors, 14 skin tones and several different figures.

"Beauty is also about diversity," says Anne Monier, curator of the museum's toy department. "Today you cannot give a child one doll and say, This is a beautiful doll. You need to show the child different models of beauty so they can pick the one that they want to identify with."

Sure, Barbie changed as time went by. But why bring this pointy breasted, perpetually smiling, tippy-toe-ing miss to Paris?

"She is the embodiment of every change of society," Monier says. "You can see that between 1959 and today Barbie has evolved a lot."

We've come a long way since Malibu Barbie; over the years, she's been a flight attendant, a surgeon, an office clerk, a cheerleader, a presidential candidate, a Royal Canadian Mountie, a nun and a dentist, just to name a few. In 1965, astronaut Barbie beat Neil Armstrong to the moon by four years.

When Kristen Wiig played Barbie on Saturday Night Live, she was unabashed about her unstable job history; asked about why she couldn't hold down one job and stick to it, she seriously replied, "Almost, if not every, job requires elbows."

Barbie was created by Ruth Handler in 1959. She'd noticed that young girls had only baby dolls to play with, which let them play mommy — but not much else.

"Handler realized that little girls wanted to picture themselves as adults," Monier says.

Young girls look up to older girls. They want to imitate them and imagine their own futures. The very first Barbie fans were older — girls in their early teens. Today, girls start playing with Barbies at age 4, and quit by 8 or 10.

These days, you're just as likely to accessorize your Barbie with a computer as a handbag, and Mattel's business reflects these shifts. Barbie sales were plummeting but turned back up after the new, more diverse line of dolls came out in the spring.

There's Mattel money behind the elaborate Paris exhibition. It's a big and busy show — lots of sound and spectacle. Exhausting, for mature visitors — feminist grandmas, say, who still wouldn't buy Barbies for their little ones ... although they may leave with just a bit more respect.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And the blonde bombshell from America is having her day in Paris right now. She's glamorous, unusually well-dressed, almost 60 and very quiet. This gal has her own exhibition right now at the Louvre Palace in Paris. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg takes us there.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: It's the Barbie doll. That's right - Barbie at the Louvre. Sacre bleu. As a '70s feminist, I have always disparaged that doll, a wasp-waisted clothes-horse sex pot. But I just spent a vacation morning in Paris at the Arts Decoratifs museum because I knew I would hear this from visitors.

JEANNE: Barbie, Barbie, Barbie.

STAMBERG: Jeanne is 8. So is Capucine. Capucine has 32 Barbie dolls plus a Barbie horse.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking French).

JEANNE: (Speaking French).

CAPUCINE: (Speaking French).

STAMBERG: Up elegant marble stairs, past pink walls, onto a pink carpet, into the lavish exhibition.

This is a barrage of Barbies, 700 of them in various outfits - in one case, a few naked Barbies.

And three new ones with today shapes.

ANNE MONIER: One of them is curvier - so bigger legs. One of them is shorter. And one of them is much more taller and thinner.

STAMBERG: Anne Monier is curator of the museum's toy department.

MONIER: And it tells us that today, beauty is also about diversity. And today, you cannot give a child one doll and say, this is a beautiful doll. You need to show the child different models of beauty so that they can pick the one that they want to identify with.

STAMBERG: There are almost as many choices as Barbie has handbags.

MONIER: You can have 27 colors of hair, 14 colors of skin. And everything is Barbie.

STAMBERG: She says kids usually pick the curvier ones - wider waist with blue hair. Sure, Barbie's changed over the years. But why bring this pointy-breasted, perpetually smiling, tippy-toeing missy to Paris?

MONIER: She is the embodiment of every changes of society. You can see that between 1959 and today, Barbie has evolved a lot.

STAMBERG: Monier thinks she has come a long way since 1971's Malibu Barbie.

MONIER: (Laughter) She has had so many jobs. At first, she was a flight attendant, a nurse, an office clerk...

STAMBERG: A cheerleader, a Royal Canadian Mountie, a dentist, a dominatrix. Really? Well, a Marlene Dietrich type - black-knit stockings, long gloves, come-hither stare, sitting backwards seductively on a chair. An Army Barbie in 1965, an astronaut Barbie.

MONIER: She was the first on the moon.

STAMBERG: Four years ahead of Neil Armstrong. So many jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

KRISTEN WIIG: All I've ever had are jobs. I've been a nurse, a stewardess, an astronaut.

STAMBERG: When Kristin Wiig played her on "Saturday Night Live," Barbie was unabashed about her unstable job history.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

WIIG: I got fired from all of them.

SETH MEYERS: Why do you think that is?

WIIG: Almost, if not every, job requires elbows.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: She's run for president of the United States.

MONIER: Yes.

STAMBERG: Did she ever win?

MONIER: No. But she's also running this year.

STAMBERG: (Laughter) And how is she dressed this year?

MONIER: (Laughter).

STAMBERG: As Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?

MONIER: (Laughter) If the competition is about hair style, I think she might win.

STAMBERG: Ruth Handler certainly won big when she created Barbie in 1959. She had noticed that young girls only had baby dolls to play with, which let them play mommy but not much more.

MONIER: Ruth Handler realized that little girls wanted to pictures themselves as adults.

STAMBERG: Young girls look up to older girls, imitate them, see their own futures in them. The first Barbie fans were 13, 14 - older girls. Today, they start at 4 and quit by 8 or 10. Now computers trump tiny skirt and sweater collections.

Manufacturer Mattel's business reflects the shifts. Sales were down. Then they soared back up. And there's Mattel money behind this elaborate Paris exhibition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARBIE GIRL")

AQUA: (Singing) I'm a Barbie girl in a Barbie world. Life in plastic - it's fantastic.

STAMBERG: It's a big and busy show - lots of sound and spectacle. Exhausting for mature visitors - grandmas, say, who still wouldn't buy Barbies for their little ones. Although, they may leave with just a bit more respect. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARBIE GIRL")

AQUA: (Singing) I'm a Barbie girl in a Barbie world. Life in plastic - it's fantastic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.