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(Soundbite of Barbie commercial)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Barbie, you're beautiful.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Barbie turns 50 years old this week. I know, I know, she doesn't look it. How does she do it? Plastics.

(Soundbite of Barbie commercial)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I'll make believe that I am you.

Unidentified Man: You can tell it's Mattel. It's swell.

SIMON: Over 50 years, Barbie has been blond and brunette, white, black and Hispanic. She's been both with Ken and splitsville, parodied and put on a pedestal, an ideal for some young girls, and an epithet for some social critics. She's worn spangly gowns and cut-off jeans. She's been an astronaut, a pilot and a flight attendant, a doctor, a nurse, and a veterinarian, a NASCAR driver, and behind the wheel of a pink Corvette.

Barbie ran for president in 2004. Her slogan was: go vote, go run, go lead, go girl. She lost. Well, she might've gotten more votes than Ralph Nader. Saudi Arabia's Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice banned Barbie, saying she is, quote, Jewish with revealing clothes and shameful postures.

But although there have been Disco, Tennis Pro, Fashion Model, Malibu, Valentine and scores of other Barbies, there's never been a Bat Mitzvah Barbie doll. But boy, that'd be a party.

(Soundbite of song, "Beyond Pink")

Unidentified Woman: Think Pink, 'cause you're like no other girl, think pink, and you will discover, girl, think pink, it's your favorite color girl. It's the color of the world.

SIMON: That's music from Barbie's old band, Beyond Pink. Now, for a lot of little girls, Barbie is an older girl doll to dress up with fantasies of their future. For some adolescent boys, Barbie's always been a stimulus package. She's not anatomically correct, she's anatomically fantastic - though Mattel, which manufactures Barbie, has widened her waist just a smidgen in recent years.

My wife and I have two Barbie dolls at home: the Coming Home Barbie that adoptive parents in China receive, with Barbie holding a visibly Asian baby.

Ms. DANIELLE BRESLOW #1: Some of them have (unintelligible).

SIMON: We asked Danielle and Eden Breslow of Washington, D.C., to bring their Barbie dolls into our office.

Ms. BRESLOW #1: There's actually - we don't have this, but there's a little, actual baby Barbie that doesn't - is not that big.

SIMON: We should explain it's amazing because we sent out a casting call to get the two best 9-year-olds in the country we could to talk about Barbie. And amazingly it turns out to be you two, who are the daughters of our senior producer, Peter Breslow. How did that happen?

Ms. BRESLOW #1: I don't think that happened.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: All right, maybe not. So, tell me about all this array of Barbies that you have here.

Ms. BRESLOW #1: Well, some Barbies have wings.

SIMON: That's a pink Barbie with, like, butterfly wings.

Ms. BRESLOW #1: Yes.

SIMON: And pink hair, I noticed.

Ms. EDEN BRESLOW #2: One Barbie has no hair and no foot.

Ms. BRESLOW #1: And if you press a button…

SIMON: One Barbie has no hair and no foot. How did she lose the foot and…

Ms. BRESLOW #2: Our dog bit the foot off.

Ms. BRESLOW #1: I took off her head by accident and…

Ms. BRESLOW #2: This is the one we call the Headless Horseman's wife.

Ms. BRESLOW #1: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: The headless Barbie is the Headless Horseman's wife. Do you dress up Barbies as someday you would like to dress up, or what do you do?

Ms. BRESLOW #1: No.

Ms. BRESLOW #2: Well, like, no.

Ms. BRESLOW #1: No. It's like she had makeup. She went to, like, a makeup salon and got her face in makeup.

SIMON: That's where Barbie…

Ms. BRESLOW #2: And they're very thin, very thin. And they have…

SIMON: They're very thin, yeah.

Ms. BRESLOW #2: The one thing I don't really like about Barbie is that sometimes they're sad, but they always are smiling.

Ms. BRESLOW #1: You can't move their face.

Ms. BRESLOW #2: You can't move their face.

SIMON: But, I mean, isn't that because, you know, even when you're crying on the inside, you should be smiling on the outside?

Ms. BRESLOW #2: Yes, but even if they're serious, she's smiling.

SIMON: Now, tell me, are Ken and Barbie an item?

Ms. BRESLOW #1: What do you mean by item?

SIMON: You know, are they boyfriend, girlfriend?

Ms. BRESLOW #1: No.

SIMON: Really?

Ms. BRESLOW #2: No, yeah, kind of, I guess. Yeah.

Ms. BRESLOW #1: Not all Barbies are named Barbie.

SIMON: Right, not all Barbies are named Barbie. There's Midge, there's…

Ms. BRESLOW #1: Okay, so this one's name is Silver, this one's name is Dandelion, this one's name is Cheetah Woman, this one's name is Cloud Clean, this one's name is Ken, this one's name is…

SIMON: Here's another name, Robin Gerber. She's author of "Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her." Robin Gerber joins us now from Santa Barbara, California. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. ROBIN GERBER (Author, "Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her"): Great to be here.

SIMON: As we've just reviewed, Barbie has done just about everything that a doll can do, but you make the argument that Ruth Handler, her creator, is just about as impressive.

Ms. GERBER: Absolutely as impressive, Scott, and the great American story. Ruth Handler was the 10th and last child of Polish-Jewish immigrants, grew up in Denver, married her high school sweetheart and in 1945 she founded Mattel Toys. And she was a mother at that time, two young children, but she said, I'd be the most mixed-up, crazy person in the world if I stayed home with my kids. So I think that'll resonate today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: And how did the idea for Barbie strike her?

Ms. GERBER: She was watching her daughter play with paper dolls, adult paper dolls, and it struck her that the girls really liked to play at being women and imagining themselves as women. And that they had no doll to do that because in the '50s the only dolls that they were given to play with were baby dolls.

SIMON: I gathered that when she first began to develop Barbie, there were people that warned her that sales could be a problem because, not to put too fine a point on it, Barbie is womanly.

Ms. GERBER: That's right. And they said to her, this is a stupid idea. Mothers will never buy their daughters a doll with breasts. And besides, the plastics of the time, they just won't allow us to make such a tiny doll with all this -nails and hair that you want. And so she had to find a prototype. And it happened when she was on a family trip to Europe.

She was in Lucerne, looking in a toy shop window and there, hanging in the window, were some dolls that you and I would think of as Barbies, but they weren't. They actually had started life as, well, really, from a cartoon character in a tabloid, and the character, named Lily, was actually a prostitute.

The cartoonist had the idea of turning this into a three-dimensional, gag sex toy for men. And over time, it got picked up by little girls who liked to play with it, as Ruth would've known. Ruth brought it back to Mattel and then said, take this and figure out how to make this doll. This is what I've been talking about.

SIMON: Hope you don't mind me asking, I've seen so many permutations, if you please, of Barbie. What's the worst idea for a Barbie you've heard over the years?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GERBER: I do so cringe when I go in there and see the Paint-Yourself-Pink Barbie, who's all about dressing up in pink and doing her hair the right way, and doing her nails and her manicure and her makeup for some great party. But then, right next to it is Pet-Set Barbie. She's a veterinarian. She takes care of her pets.

I personally have Soccer Barbie because I'm a soccer player. And, of course, we've had President Barbie. We may not have had actual president, but we have had President Barbie.

SIMON: Ms. Gerber, I have to address a question to you that I know we're going to get over the email transom to people who will object to us even doing a story about any anniversary of Barbie because they genuinely see this doll as a symbol of objectifying women.

Ms. Gerber: As a feminist myself, I have to agree with them. Barbie does objectify women in this culture and the way we think about and still think about women as not whole people, but simply as sex symbols. But Scott, what is also true is Ruth's original vision was actually a feminist vision.

Her idea is that little girls just want to play at being big girls. And let's give them something to fantasize so that they can imagine being absolutely anything.

SIMON: Robin Gerber, author of "Barbie and Ruth." Ms. Gerber, thanks so much.

Ms. GERBER: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Last week, we asked you for photos of your Barbie modified, cherished, standing in front of the St. Louis Arch, hugging the pot roast, or being hugged by a little girl. Boy, you came through. Last time we looked, there were 1,200 shots. To see a slideshow of some of those, come to our blog, npr.org/soapbox. Of course, you can still enjoy Barbie the old-fashioned way.

Ms. BRESLOW #1: You can put a pocketbook on them, and you can put shoes on them, and you can put coats on them, and skirts and shirts and pants.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Danielle and Eden Breslow. By the way, the William Morris Agency is already on the phone asking, are those girls repped in Hollywood? This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Liane Hansen will back next week.

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