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Written By: Clare Ryan
January 11, 2015
A treasure chest lies at the bottom of the ocean, hidden from view. Inside lies a trove of golden doubloons awaiting discovery. This image of treasure inspires the imagination and has been the cornerstone of fictional games of pirates, maps and battles for centuries. Once unveiled, the golden coin will shine in the light and open a world of discovery and riches. Similarly, the treasure chest of a toy box lies in wait in a child’s bedroom. For the expectant child, their favourite toy is the doubloon, the shiny treasure that can travel through time and space in their imagination and buy them whatever they dream; a new outfit, a new game, a new identity. However, like the doubloon, many toys have two sides, and the poisonous trash of one may be concealed by the alluring, glimmering beauty of the other. In the world of toys, plastic is both treasure and trash and it pays to know the difference.
Ruth Handler, who observed her daughter making paper dolls and giving them adult roles, designed Barbara Millicent Roberts some 55 years ago. At the time, dolls in stores or markets were usually babies. Ruth saw this as a gap in the market which she intended to fill. Mattel, a toy manufacturing company, quickly adopted the concept and thus was born “Barbie”, the seventeen-year-old fashion model and first toy super star. They dressed her in a black and white, one-piece swimsuit, complete with heels, sunglasses and a full face of make-up. In her first year with Mattel, Barbie made today’s equivalent of 1.5 million dollars. Today, she attracts more than 11 million likes on Facebook and the average number of Barbie dolls owned by a female toddler is 9. Barbie is a familiar face to many, a friend to many, an idol to millions. Barbie is beautiful, blond haired and blue eyed. Barbie is whatever any little girl wants her to be.
Being the world’s most popular doll has its perks. She started out as a teenage fashion model but Mattel quickly realised that children desired more than just a clothes-horse. Barbie began to explore new careers! Soon she was designing fashion, not just wearing it. Things grew even more. As the world changed, Barbie changed with it and was soon flying planes, winning American Idol and teaching deaf children sign language. And it was revolutionary. Girls across the world believed that Barbie was important because she was showing them that they could be anything, from a baseball player to a zoologist. When little girls hold her in their hand, they too are Barbie. They can be anything, do anything. They hold Barbie in their hand and step into their Dream House. She is treasure beyond compare.
But sometimes, treasure isn’t all that it seems. Plastic and polyester can create dazzling illusions and the allure of a glamorous mirage can lead an impressionable child to trash. Barbie’s factory mould body can’t physically hold her head up because her neck measurement is anatomically impossible. In order to strut the catwalk, Barbie would have to crawl on her hands and knees because her ankles are too thin to hold her body weight. Barbie dream girl only has half a liver – her waist is too thin to fit a whole one. She can’t exist in reality! She is a plastic mould and an impossible idol. In the treasure field of jewellery, she would be known as costume, trash or junk. Sure, she can complete any imaginary career trajectory but she completes them as a bizarrely sexualised and improbable creature of fiction. Mattel is so focused on creating an illusory image that Barbie’s treasurable qualities are overcome by the trash of her truth; Barbie’s body is a lie.
When a person buys a Barbie doll, they buy her successful life and her superficial appearance. When a child plays with a Barbie doll, they play with her accomplished careers and her factory moulded body. Barbie is not trash or treasure, but rather, she is both. You can’t reverse Barbie’s idealistic looks. But you can polish the treasure. We can flip the doubloon and confirm which side it lands on for our little girls. We can teach them Barbie’s message, reinforce her golden wisdom. Barbie is trash and treasure. But the experience of our youths can only be one.
This piece was originally written for the Rostrum Voice of Youth Public Speaking Competition, for which the topic was 'Trash or Treasure.' I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing and delivering it.