First published in The Age on September 12, 1999
The Barbie Q: What to give the girl who's got everything?
After some time spent within the violently pink confines of the Barbie Store in Myer in the city, or the equally bright Barbie Lane in Toys'R'Us, certain inconsistencies start to become apparent.
It is possible, for instance, to buy a human-size Barbie stack-hat, for use when riding a bicycle. It is possible, too, to buy a doll-size bicycle for Barbieherself, complete with a wide range of accessories - including a stack-hat.
And yet: Barbie's stack-hat isn't a Barbie stack-hat. Sure, it's pink, but completely free of the Barbietrademark that liberally decorates its life-size facsimile.
This is disturbing. Could it be that alone among us, Barbie, wee Barbie, lives in a world where Barbiedolls and products do not dominate toy sales? Does Barbie live in a Barbie-world unaware of her own existence and the $5 billion a year she generates globally?
Is Barbie, in short, imprisoned in an ever-reductive, self-referential blindness, the existential terror of which would curl her luscious blonde locks if she ever realised?
Well, no, actually. It is possible to buy a little Barbieplay-scene comprising a counter, some shelves and some merchandise. It is a Barbie toy shop, wherein Barbie can sell miniature Barbies to Barbie.
And just as Barbie herself comes in a range of outfits and cost-brackets, so too do the mini-Barbies that Barbie evidently likes to collect.
It is only natural, after all, to assume that in Barbie-land Barbie buys Barbie products. In the real world, sales of licensed Barbie merchandise are expected to top $50 million this year in Australia alone - a bigger turnover, in fact, than sales of the dolls themselves.
In other words, even in the relentlessly optimistic life Barbie and her friends project, it would be simply unfeasible to imagine them living in a world where Barbie toys didn't exist. We can accept a toy-world where everything is pink, where knees never bend (despite the presence of bicycles) and where chests swell beyond Pamela Lee proportions. But a toy-world with no toy Barbies in it? Unthinkable.
And perhaps, too, the reductiveness of Barbie-world continues. Do the mini-Barbies collect micro-Barbies, who in turn collect Barbies too small for the human eye to see?
Because most certainly there is a macro-Barbieworld, in which Barbie products are lifesize, the profitable objects of desire among countless six-year-olds just itching to imitate their idol.
There are Barbie radios, stereos, clock-radios and portable compact disc players. There is the Barbie"talking online laptop", featuring "lights, music and the voice of Barbie for pretend online play".
This can presumably be used in combination with the Barbie mobile phone, the Barbie boombox (with Barbie singalongs) and the Barbie Super Talking Answering Machine with "thousands of messages for endless play".
All of this can be done in a personal environment decorated with Barbie bags, backpacks, bedspreads and beanies by little girls wearing Barbie socks, shoes, undies and jewellery.
They can pack their Barbie satchels with Barbiepencil cases, diaries, organisers, exercise books and mess-aprons and head off to school - driving themselves, if the path is smooth and the weather clement, in their fully functional battery-powered Barbie cars, four-wheeled motorbike-things or pedal-powered trikes.
At playtime, of course, they can read the latest issue of Barbie magazine - just like the estimated 50,000 other Australian girls who do so each month.
Yet Barbie liberates. Barbie frees young children from the raw risks of popular culture. There is no need, for instance, for Barbie kids to watch The X-Files, at least if they have their very own X-Files Barbie set, with Barbie as Scully and Ken struggling hard to be Mulder.
Ditto Star Trek. There, on the shelf, are Barbie and Ken in USS Enterprise uniforms, standing next to cardboard cut-outs of Captain Kirk and Mr Spock. It is weirder than anything Gene Roddenberry ever managed to dream up.
Shakespeare? No worries. There's Barbie and Ken doing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Strangely, though, there seems no sign of Barbieand Ken re-enacting Titanic. Perhaps it's a licensing problem.
Right now, too, there's a big Barbie competition going on. You buy a Barbie, cut out the barcode and fill in a form. The prize is $10,000. The comp is called Barbie Dream-Maker. "Be anything," the form asserts in big letters.
Because that's the secret of the multi-layered, circular, self-referential Barbie-world. It does, in fact, allow you to be anything. Anything at all. As long as it's Barbie-related.
* Barbie was first introduced in 1959.
* In 1960, Barbie's retail price was $US3.
* Barbie magazine has an estimated 50,000 readers in Australia each month.
* By 1992, more than 700 million Barbies and friends-of-Barbies had been sold.
* If all the Barbies in the world were laid end to end, mothers everywhere would be shocked. The dolls would circle the world almost four times.
* The most popular Barbie ever was Totally Hair Barbie, which sold 10 million in 1992.
* More than 900 million Barbie cossies and one billion pairs of Barbie shoes have been sold worldwide.
* Barbie's horse is called Dallas. He came on the market in 1981.
* Barbie has been many things, but never a proctologist.