PRINT March 1995


the Other American Princess

IN THE CENTURY of Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Dinah Shore, need we ask who but a Jew is best at packaging unwhiny blonde fantasy figures? I don’t know about you darlings, but ever since I found out that Kathie Lee Gifford was née Epstein, I don’t assume anything. Why be surprised then that Barbie, the ultimate shiksa goddess, was invented by a nice Jewish lady, Ruth Handler (with her husband, Elliot, cofounder of Mattel)? Indeed the famous snub-nosed plastic ideal with the slim hips of a drag queen is in fact named after a real Jewish princess from L.A., Handler’s daughter Barbara (who must have been hell to know in junior high school!). What would it be like, I imagined, if Barbie’s Jewish roots were to show? A Barbie High Holidays kit would be a welcome addition to the multicultural rainbow that is the contemporary doll scene, where the shelves of our community toy-outlets are integrated with dolls of color. How about Hanukkah Barbie (with a little bush)? Nose-Bob Barb (with preop detachable beak)? Bat Mitzvah Barbie—stunning! Barbie looking for a Bargain . . . NOT!

Conspiracy Theory still believes in the “Big Other,” like a shadow government organizing everything according to some kind of coherent agenda, but actually we’re all just slacking along in contingency. Nevertheless, when Barbie was born, in 1959, another Barbie emerged in a parallel universe. She had all the qualities repressed from the Barbie we have come to know in our own reality system: Barbie—blonde, Jewish Barbie—brunette or frosted; Barbie—no thighs, Jewish Barbie—thighs; Barbie—mute, Jewish Barbie—whines incessantly about perceived injustices. Jewish Barbie is not evil, merely repressed; the conscious system we call “reality” can’t recall where it has stored her information. UnErase©, developed by computer tycoon Peter Norton, is a retrieval system for deleted computer data. The computer does not destroy this data, it simply “forgets” where it filed it, much as the conscious mind “represses” material it would rather not recognize (due to unconscious conflict or whatever). Thanks to Norton’s software device we are now able to retrieve the Jewish Barbie files from the disarray of the reality system we consciously know. It is strictly a coincidence, by the way, that “repression” was discovered by Freud—a Jew.

Here then are some highlights, retrieved by UnErase©, of the life led in a parallel universe by Jewish Barbie, who exists, but is repressed, by the defensive layer of the ego, by society, and most cruelly of all by Barbie herself.

Early trauma: in 1969, at the age of ten, Jewish Barbie goes to see Ali MacGraw playing a “young, beautiful, and very spoiled Jewish princess” in Goodbye, Columbus. She admires pert nose-bob heroine Brendy Potemkin and is shattered to learn later that MacGraw is a shiksa, her nose, real! A foreshadowing of many betrayals.

During her teen years, Jewish Barbie stars in the teen division of Shaynah Punim Models, run by the velvet oven-mitt of Mrs. Gottlieb, who launches her to the cover of Jewesse Today with a dazzling promotional technique: “Jewish Barbie, I can’t get a latke into that girl. She’s too thin—you’ll love her.” Jewish Barbie blazes through the limelight. In the early ’70s it’s Jewish Barbie in Hebrew Vogue, Jewish Barbie in The Punim (a trendy British mag), Jewish Barbie in Modern Shaynah dazzling a public as This Year’s Jewgirl, partying down with David Cassidy. Stunning.

Yet within her glamorous and always well-made-up exterior stir the longings of a complex creative soul, craving intimations of immortality available only through the less popular arts. As a young diva, Jewish Barbie looks to Barbra as a beaconness of Jewish glamour in a world hostile to multitalented strong women who should be worshiped. Inspired by the body art of ’70s women artists, she expresses her esthetic urges—between modeling gigs—by fashioning exquisite chopped-liver sculptures of Barbra in her various movie roles and album-jacket looks, from Je m’appelle Barbra—bohemienne ingenue in black turtleneck and armful of ethnic bangles cleverly rendered with colorful rings of pepper—to Season’s Greetings from Barbra: before festive holiday tree, chopped-liver Barbra wholesome in pert reddish pageboy done in carrot slivers, with white collar and cuffs in mashed potato. Also stunning.

Not surprisingly, as both talented sculptress and Young Hadassah Beauty 1973, Jewish Barbie alienates her peers, mostly with modeling stories (which she loves to tell, in detail). “She was like Jewgirl-cover-shoot this, Yeshiva Covergirl 1974 that,” remembers an ex-friend from Young Judea, Jill Schwartz, still seething somewhere in New Jersey. Longing to trade war stories from the top of the glamour heap, Jewish Barbie repeatedly tries to reach her estranged twin, Barbie, who never returns her calls. Jewish Barbie wwwwhines and wwwwhines: Why is the b-i-t-c-h snubbing me? She must think I’m fat . . . I wrote to her when I made my summer-camp drama debut starring in Katz, about Jewish cats who work in the garment district. I thought she’d be so cute as a cameo mod shiksa cat from London, but did I get even a postcard? Nothing. A couple of years later, Cats, the Anglicized version, becomes a huge hit on Broadway.

At age 19, soon to be runway geezer-material, savvy Jewish Barbie plans for her modeling golden years—her 20s—as the face for a fragrance. Her people at Shaynah Punim approach Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren but they aren’t havin’ it. According to Calvin (strictly off the record): “We can’t have Jewish Barbie selling Eternity, no way.” Ralph Lauren, same: “Jewish Barbie on Safari? Forget it. I can’t work with her—she always calls me Ralph Lipschitz.”

As a further slap in the face, during the enlightened-marketing heyday of Barbies of color a friend brings her back a chocolate bar from Israel—with Barbie on the wrapper! Barbie, she discovers, is working the Israeli market—as a blonde, obvious shiksa. “They have Barbies of color like Sun Lovin’ Malibu Christie,” complains Jewish Barbie, “they have ‘Fiesta’ Hispanic Barbie—and they totally ignore me! Talk about chutzpah!” As repressed material in a parallel universe, it is nothing but tsuris whenever Jewish Barbie tries to surface in our mainstream reality system. Exasperated, she blows her bangs out of her eyes and looks her destiny in the face. She thinks, “I totally need a haircut . . . ,” and bemoans the hell that is her life as repressed material.

Her parents nudge her: “Enough with the modeling already. When are you going to marry Jewish Ken, a doctor? Daddy and I are going to Aruba. We made out our will. When are we going to see our grandBarbies?” Now in college, studying art history at Boston University, Jewish Barbie flouts her family through an excessive interest in the Virgin Mary. She rebels against her plastic background, cramming her apartment with central American textiles and effigies of the Virgin. “Up until now,” she writes in her diary, “I’ve been a puppet for Shaynah Punim and my parents. . . . Barbie hates me. Everyone thinks I’m annoying. Where can I turn? I will console myself by studying the decay of communities under capitalism.” Spiritually adrift but strangely exhilarated, she starts a new life, looking for answers and new (lucrative) outlets for the glamour that is all her own. . . .


Rhonda Lieberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum. Based on real facts from M. G. Lord, Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll (William Morrow & Co., 1994).