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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Depending on age and point of view. Women have mixed feelings about a female icon who's turning 49 today: Barbie. The doll had it all - cool jobs, dream house, clothes, car, long-time companions and decades of publicity.

For this week's profile in NPR's In Character series, Kim Masters explores the life of Barbie and the roles this plastic plaything has filled for girls, feminism and the American Image.

(Soundbite of music)

KIM MASTERS: I don't know any other toy that has generated so much discussion and so much passion and so much, usually, ambivalence. Author Peggy Orenstein has written extensively about issues affecting girls. And she's right - Barbie has been analyzed, politicized and demonized. She has inspired art and powerful emotions.

Ms. PEGGY ORENSTEIN (Author): You either see her as the embodiment of oppressive, Teutonic standards of beauty, or you see her as all that is good and sweet and innocent about your childhood, but you can't - not have a relationship with Barbie.

MASTERS: Joe Blitman is collectible-doll dealer who specializes in Barbie. His Hollywood home is packed with Barbies of every era.

Mr. JOE BLITMAN (Collectible-Doll Dealer): This is the first Barbie. She's wearing the very famous black-and-white striped swimsuit. Comes with sunglasses, shoes. She came brunette or blond. And these originally sold for $3.

MASTERS: Today, a doll like this could fetch as much as $12,000.

Why would an adult want to pay that kind of money for a Barbie? Most of the customers are women, and they Blitman the same thing:

Mr. BLITMAN: Barbie was their best friend growing up, because she always agreed with them. She didn't talk back. She always looked great. And they always envisioned her being 5 to 7 years older than they were, no matter what their age was.

MASTERS: Barbie sprang from the mind of Ruth Handler, whose husband was a co-founder of Mattel. She was watching her daughter Barbara playing with movie-star paper dolls when Barbie was born. The first version was based on a German doll named Bild Lilli. She had been inspired by a cartoon character with a fondness for sugar-daddies.

Mr. BLITMAN: They basically copied the face. So it's very hard. I mean, this is not the face of a 17-year-old. This is the face of a 40-year-old woman who's seen a lot of action.

MASTERS: Mattel declined to be interviewed for this story, but Blitman says the company expected controversy from the start.

Mr. BLITMAN: It was clear to psychologists that the doll was going to be a hit with children, because it really filled that need of having a role-playing toy. And the parents were destined to absolutely detest it, because of the breasts.

MASTERS: And parents did respond so negatively that Sears, the key retailer of the day initially refused to sell the doll. Mattel soon gave Barbie's face a softer look. But the problem was not the face. If Barbie were human sized, she would had a relatively modest 36-inch chest, but a waist of only 18-inches. Research at a hospital in Finland said she lacks the body fat required for menstruation.

Name another doll who invites that type of scrutiny. Mattel widened Barbie's waist in 1992. And Barbie had a sideways glance until 1971 when her eyes were adjusted to look straight ahead. Blitman believes that was an acknowledgement of the feminist movement since the direct gaze seems less demure. But tilting her eyes didn't make her into a real girl, says author Peggy Orenstein.

Ms. ORENSTEIN: Barbie is a blank.

MASTERS: At one time Mattel tried to give Barbie a back story. Her full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts. She is from Willows, Wisconsin and her parents were George and Margaret. But those details didn't catch on. And Orenstein thinks the fact that Barbie is stubbornly amorphous may explain one of the more common activities that children engage in with Barbie; torturing her.

Ms. ORENSTEIN: It's fun. Didn't you do it? It's fun.

MASTERS: Orenstein says a friend told her about a child who lined her Barbie's in the driveway and then had her mother drive over them. And she was really gleeful about it. I just can't imagine any other toy where you'd, first of all, take the time to do that, where an adult would do it, and where you'd be so happy about it.

Director Todd Haynes, whose films include "Far From Heaven" and "I'm Not There," thinks girls may torture Barbie because they're ambivalent about the feminine ideals that she embodies. Haynes cast Barbie in the role of Karen Carpenter in his 1987 film "Superstar," done entirely with dolls.

(Soundbite from "Superstar")

Unidentified Man: I mean Karen, you look really thin.

Unidentified Woman: I like the way I look.

Unidentified Man: Karen, you starved yourself. All you ever eat is salad and iced tea.

Unidentified Woman: I really don't why you're making such a big deal out of this.

MASTERS: For Haynes, casting Barbie in the role of an anorexic young woman was an obvious choice.

Mr. TODD HAYNES (Filmmaker): The use of dolls and the use of Barbie dolls in particular had all of these sort of layers of meaning that I think people really understood without it feeling like an academic exercise.

MASTERS: Over the years, Mattel's tried to make Barbie into a positive role model. She became a pilot instead of a flight attendant, a doctor instead of a nurse. But the really popular Barbie's now are princesses, or at least princess-like. Barbie has starred in her own version of Swan Lake and in Rapunzel.

(Soundbite of Barbie Film)

BARBIE: You are here (unintelligible) invited to the masked ball in honor of the Prince's birthday.

Unidentified Man #2: It's tonight, will you come?

BARBIE: I'd love to.

MASTERS: These days girls play with Barbie's when they're very young. By the time they're six, most of them have moved on. Barbie is facing stiff challenges. She's competing with the powerhouse Disney princesses and with toys like Webkinz, which have a big presence on the internet. Orenstein thinks Barbie may be diminished, but she isn't going away for a very simple reason.

Ms. ORENSTEIN: If you sort of put aside all the theories and the feminism and the hype and everything, I have to say that, you know, deep in my bones, I still think Barbie's kind of fun.

MASTERS: Compared with the more overtly sexualized dolls in stores today like the tarted up Bratz, Orenstein says Barbie seems almost quaint.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

HANSEN: What great American characters inspire you? Nominate your favorites on our in character blog. Go to npr.org/incharacter. We may put your suggestion on the radio.

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