Not so fantastic plastic

Emily Maitlis tackles a burning question of our age: why is Barbie a minger?

The Newsnight anchor Emily Maitlis presented Material Girls, a short programme on 50 years of Madonna and Barbie (26 July, 10.30am, Radio 4) with her customary air of a person firmly suggesting to their lover that he have a vasectomy. On Barbie, Maitlis was willing to ponder, but Madonna got short shrift. "No, I'm not going to play 'Like a Virgin'," she said, when someone suggested that la Ciccone was the queen of self-parody and deconstruction. End of.

Maitlis then travelled to the United States to speak to a person called (confusingly) Sindy, but who wants to be Barbie. This desire runs so deep that she has had her whole body torn down and refurbished, possibly with parts moved around and posing as others entirely. Sindy was keen to show Maitlis photographs of her latest trepanning. "Surgical photos aside, I rather like her," said Maitlis.

So did I. Sindy was super-articulate and had no time for the new breed of Barbie, with her crimped hair and pleadingly parted lips. "Barbie didn't wear pink when I was young," she mocked. "She wore black. She wore orange. She had a sidelong glance." There was a rustling as Sindy fished her first ever Barbie out of her handbag. "She's vicious-looking," breathed Maitlis. "She's disapproving." The pair admired her red dress.

"Do you like being Barbie?" asked Maitlis, now entirely won over by a woman able to think in whole paragraphs despite a close working relationship with general anaesthetics. "I have such a Renaissance life!" replied Sindy. "I'm a scuba-diver, an astronaut and a presidential candidate."

Back in the studio, attention was turned to Barbie's breasts. "No nipples," remarked Maitlis. "No," confirmed a breast historian. "Her nipples were soldered off." The original Barbie prototype was fondly recalled - a pornographic doll from Switzerland called Lilly. "Lilly was a tramp," said the historian. Cut to another chat about Madonna.

"When 'True Blue' came out, it had a 1960s feel. I kinda got thinking about role-playing and costumes and romance and Barbie," offered a fortysomething down the line. In the background, Madonna pulsed a disco beat ("I got no boundaries, I got no limits"). There was further mention of Madonna being a dominatrix of reinvention but nobody's heart was in it, not even to make the point that she has remained the same throughout her career despite her desire to be absolutely anyone else: so long as that else has more talent and is fucking famous.

Recently, sales of Barbie have taken a slide, forcing Mattel to invent "Flava Barbie", who hangs out ghettotastically on her own pull-out, graffitied street corner. But little girls don't rate Flava, much preferring Bratz, a range of dolls so blatantly interested in sex, they come fitted with their own IUDs. Barbie, by contrast, is a stiff.

"Why is Barbie a minger?" worried Maitlis. "She's not cool unless you torture her," someone pointed out. "Put her head in the microwave!" Maitlis did no such thing, but instead - possibly - lifted the doll quite tenderly and stood her on a pile of back editions of Smithsonian. "Is she a feminist icon, minger, or just plain show-off?" she asked. The answer was cutting. "She is way too thin to menstruate and no longer has career aspirations. There is something not right with Barbie." Nitpickers.

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Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games