Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Barbie this Mom Blogger can Stand Behind (I Didn't Say Buy)

I have always suspected Ken of two-timing Barbie, and getting stoned somewhere in the back of a party bus while she was out getting her hair done. But, now that Don Draper is on the scene, the lipstick might as well be stitched onto the collar.

If people want to blow $75 a piece on the new “Mad Men” Barbies, I say more power to them. The four dolls, part of the Barbie Fashion Model Edition to be released this summer, are designed for grown-ups. That should be pretty obvious, considering even Disney would have a hard time pitching debauchery and gin and tonics to kids. They usually just stop at sex.

But, there will be some uber-hip parents who’ll think it’s fun to give their kids these dolls; perhaps even tie them to backpacks, or diaper bags, just so we don’t mistake them for average.

I won’t be buying them, and not just because I’m not cool. It’s not even the booze, or the sleeping around, or the melancholy soul-searching that will keep these characters out of my house. It’s the fact that “Mad Men”, the TV show, is so good it aches. I love peering into the window of that nuanced world. I don’t want that view smudged with the fingerprints of my reality.

Here’s what I imagine happening at my house with Heidi, almost five, and Ava, twenty months. Let’s say we bought all four dolls, Don Draper, his wife Betty, the siren of the office, Joan (Holloway) Harris, and the playboy, Roger Sterling.

Me: Ok, kids, get the “Mad Men” Barbies, it’s time for another round.

Heidi: I’ve got Betty. She’s going to make breakfast.

Me: No, she doesn’t cook. We need Carla, her maid.

Heidi: They don’t make a Carla, Mom.

Me: Oh, right you are. Ok, go grab Blueberry Muffin out of your closet and put an apron on her. Betty should be in the bathroom popping barbiturates.

Heidi: What are barbecue-its?

Me: Barbs, blue birds, tooties, yellow jackets. We went over this, Heidi. Concentrate. Ok, where’s Don?

Heidi: In bed.

Me: Very good. Who’s he with?

Heidi: Um...

Me: Don’t tell me you have him in there alone? He did Sleeping Beauty yesterday and the other princesses are in the dishwasher. You’re going to have to find Smurfette and put her under the covers.

Heidi: O.K. What should we use for the kids?

Me: What kids?

Heidi: They have three, right?

Me: Oh, don’t worry about it, nobody notices them, it’s the 60’s. Ok. What’s today’s theme? The Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy’s assassination, or the Vietnam War?

Heidi: I don’t know.

Me: Didn’t dad brief you on this last night? What did he read you at bedtime?

Heidi: Dora Saves the Mermaid.

Me: Damn it. I told him to start Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days. Ok, let’s just move on. Where’s Don’s office?

Heidi: Daddy recycled it.

Me: Am I the only one who cares about this? Get another box, and the Play-Doh. Remember how I taught you to make the liquor bottles? We’re going to need five. Have you seen Joan and Roger?

Heidi: Ava took them! They’re in her bedroom and she ripped off all their clothes.

Me: Now, that’s what I’m talking about. Excellent choice! Ok, so let’s get Don dressed and, no, no, what are you doing?

Heidi is silent, with scissors in hand.

Me: You are not cutting Betty’s hair, Heidi. We’ve got to wait until ’76 before you can give her a Dorothy Hamill bob. Do you understand? That’s years away. She’ll be in rehab by then and Don will be in Tahiti.

Heidi: I...don’t...I don’t...

Me: Are you crying?

Heidi: I don’t think I like these Barbies. They are so unhappy and nobody loves each other.

Me: You mean.... you don’t want to play with Barbies?

Heidi: Never!

For those of us hoping to keep the real Barbies out of our children’s toy boxes, perhaps these “Mad Men” dolls are just the ticket. Finally, the subtext of the Ken and Barbie world is impossible to miss.

But, the “Mad Men” Barbies highlight another subverted aspect of the Barbie culture that makes me think this alliance is more risky for Mattel than it is to the creative folks behind "Mad Men". Don Draper, after all, spins myths, and every episode reminds us that aspiration and wish-fulfillment are his real commodities. What product, more than Barbie, represents his success? Her raison d’ĂȘtre is consumption. Thomas Hine says it best in his book, Populuxe, a term he coined to describe the decade of insatiable shopping (1954-1964) that merged populism, popularity and luxury.

“The low price tag for the (Barbie) doll itself was primarily a come-on to lure the prepubescent doll owner into a flurry of anticipatory consumption. In true Populuxe fashion, Barbie was important not for herself but for all that could be added to her.... ...There was always something new to buy for her—a more stylish outfit, a new kind of fashion, a different fantasy. She had a pillbox hat like the ones Jacqueline Kennedy wore; a little later she had a space suit. As with most of Populuxe, Barbie seemed only to be a product, but she turned out to be a way of life.”

My father and I got into a debate about the message of the TV show. Does it rip open the myths of Populuxe and let us see the peril of its ways? Or does it sell us another myth—that we, today, are more evolved, less susceptible, can be both nostalgic voyeurs and politically correct disdainers?

I think it’s a bit of both, but more of the former. Because time may not have made us better people, but it does give us more ways to look at the past. We still buy the myths of Madison Avenue, but we know we’re doing it.

So, at the end of the day, I think the “Mad Men” dolls bring to the party an onion dip layered in irony. Even though the debutante of 1959 has changed her wardrobe with each decade, she cannot hide the fact that she represents the height of Mad Men glory. These four new dolls dress the part, but they look at the era from another side of the mirror.

Sooner or later, after a Vodka Gimlet, Old Fashioned, Dry Martini, Greyhound, Bloody Mary, Tom Collins, Screwdriver, or Moscow Mule, one of them is going to start talking, and Barbie, at last, may show her age.


Tim Morrissey said...

Very clever - and cutting - post. This new crop of Barbies is a sign of the apocalypse. :)

meredithp said...

Great post! Makes me wistful for my childhood: Cuban missle crisis-don't remember it-was 4 or 5. But Viet Nam, heck yeah! And Barbie, I loved her, and the ability to spend additional money on her. In the 60's she really did have fabulous clothes (none of the plastic stuff from 70's, 80's et al)

MollyinMinn said...

Fabulous post. I love the last lines. Perfect ending!