- Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour (Collectors’ Edition)
Near the middle of Barbie Nation, the camera sweeps through a “Barbie festival” sales room. This shot powerfully illustrates the mixture of whimsy, giddiness, and raw hunger that distinguishes these passionate doll collectors and thereby reveals why Susan Stern chose to name her subjects a “nation.” The film focuses on the history of the Barbie doll and a range of individual Barbie enthusiasts, though less attention is paid to their “nation” as a whole. The film was originally released in 1998, and the “Collectors’ Edition,” which appeared in 2007, contains additional short films that will make this disc more interesting to folklorists. This new edition adds more content and allows viewers to witness what will perhaps be of greatest value—unstaged scenes of children actually playing with their dolls and with each other, as well as scenes of adult fans, their dolls, and their interactions. In addition to the sales room, festival, and playroom scenes, which seem much too short, the film offers interviews and analyses of the Barbie nation; these will be of varying levels of interest for those who teach or do research on twentieth-century American folklore, material culture, marketing, and U.S. corporate practices from the 1960s through the 1990s.
Stern describes herself as a journalist who learned about video production primarily for the purpose of making this documentary, and her film attempts to explain, with generous humor, Barbie’s hold over segments of the American population. Most of the informants are middle-aged, middle-class women of European American ancestry, though there are also a few younger men and women, most of whom also appear to be white and middle class. The exception to this are the scenes titled “Filipino Boy” and “Franklin’s Hair Job,” which are devoted to collector, doll fashion designer, and “makeover artist” Franklin Lim Liao, whose Barbie attachment took root during his upbringing in Manila.
At all times, Stern’s tone is sympathetic toward her interview subjects and lacks the faint condescension that has sometimes crept into previous studies of adult doll collectors, such as A. F. Robertson’s book Life Like Dolls: The Collector Doll Phenomenon and the Lives of the Women Who Love Them (Routledge, 2003). Even more unusual, Stern’s journalistic approach acknowledges but avoids focusing solely on feminist concerns over Barbie’s influence on women’s self-image. Here, the approach of Stern’s film differs from that of books like Kristin Noelle Weissman’s Barbie: The Icon, the Image, the Ideal: An Analytical Interpretation of the Barbie Doll in Popular Culture (Universal Publishers, 1999) and Mondo Barbie (Lucinda Ebersole and Richard Peabody, eds., St. Martin’s Griffin, 1993). Stern is able to maintain this balanced treatment despite the fact that she began her project out of concern over her daughter Nora’s interest in Barbie.
The film acknowledges the push and pull of the Barbie-consumer relationship over the years. In the pre-title sequence, Stern previews the range of informants in the documentary: adult Barbie fans; protestors in front of the (now defunct) Palo Alto, California, Barbie Hall of Fame; Barbie’s creator Ruth Handler; and participants in a gay pride parade. In the segment titled “Anorexia,” Stern provides a platform for a young artist recovering from that disease to critique Barbie’s influence on American culture, and the scenes “Lilli” and “Barbie Criticism” delve into the most negative aspects of the doll’s physical attributes and incessant marketing. However, Stern spends more time demonstrating [End Page 117] how individual adult collectors and artists carve their own personal meanings and cultural content onto the doll, sometimes doing so in a literal fashion. Treating Barbie’s bland smile as blank canvas, Stern treats the doll (and other members of the Barbie “family” play-line) as a constantly shifting cultural sign. For example, the scenes entitled “Barbie Subversion” and “Sexy Barbies” focus on countercultural appropriations of the iconic doll, including S&M-themed Barbies—with genitalia added—set...