Brace yourself for the new Barbie, a collector's edition called Lingerie Barbie. Barbie is wearing a garter belt connected to a frilly two-piece set of ladies undies. She is whiter, taller, and snobbier than she's been for years-and more carnal, with a sexual semiotic cue for every generation: a Cindy Crawford mole, stiletto high heels, an I-Dream-Of-Jeannie hair and panties and stockings with a seam down the back.

Aimed at the adult market of Barbie collectors, she appears on the penultimate page of a catalog that features mostly $85 dollar figurines (as opposed to the $15 dollar price for a regular Barbie), Abandoning the hyper-happy, smiley California girl Barbie of recent years she bears the heavily lined, half-lidded bedroom eyes of her earliest incarnations.

The last, great observation about Barbie was that the original doll Mattel created in 1959, if expanded to the scale of a real-live woman, with measurements of 39-18-33 on a frame 9 feet 10 inches tall, would be unable to stand on her own. Given the place Barbie came to hold in our culture, that 80 percent of the nation's ll-year old girls would be on a diet, or that plastic surgery would become a routine healthcare expense, seems to us now to follow logically.

None of this could have been imagined by Barbie's inventors. Ruth and Elliot Handler had watched their daughter playing with cut-out paper dolls and wanted to allow her, and all our young women, to imagine life as a grown-up. But it turns out that while outwardly empowering our daughters to seek career success and adventure, the Handlers' creation was subtly crushing their target audience's sexual confidence. Yona Zeldis McDonough, writing in The New York Times Magazine, remembered that at age six, "I inchoately understood Barbie's appeal: pure sex." The cramp was that Barbie pushed the standard of sexual fitness impossibly high.

Nothing points this up better than the fact that porn stars commonly "sample" the Barbie image by dubbing themselves Barbie: Barbie Blake, Barbie Eden, and the inevitable Barbie Dahl. Pouring the plastic into their bodies, they create a Barbie-like effect, absolving them of the need for clothing altogether. One film vision, whose 18 surgical procedures produced a breast cup size of 58 F, told an interviewer, "I hate reality. I want to be wholly artificial."

Barbie's shape, from the beginning, has been artificial construct, but not an especially innovative one. Hers is the figure of the corseted female (minus the corset): an expanded chest and sucked in tummy. It's the same artificial "ideal" American woman offered in the Miss America beauty pageant, or Playboy. (Christie Hefner, when she took over her father's empire, said, "We wanted it to be a Disney World for adults.") The thread that connects pornography to Miss America, with Barbie as a common term, is this artifice, this plasticity.

Mattel maintains a posture of deep denial. In September of 1997, Mattel filed suit against MCA, the U.S. record label for the Danish rock band Aqua, who had written a song called "Barbie Girl," claiming the song infringed on Barbie's trademarks and contained lyrics that "associate sexual and other unsavory themes with Mattel's Barbie products." The song itself is a suggestive pop tune that uses historically accurate Barbie dialogue from Mattel's own advertising campaigns"

"Hi, Barbie!
Hi, Ken!
You wanna go for a ride?
Sure, Ken!
Jump in!
Mattel has defended Barbie's sexual innocence in no fewer than six lawsuits in the 90's alone, one of which required defendant Paul David to sign their stipulation that Barbie may only be portrayed as "wholesome, friendly, accessible and kind, caring and protecting, cheerful, fun loving, talented and independent." Lingerie Barbie brings a piquant meaning to a choice few of these traits, and seems to betray the rest.

In MCA's countersuit against Mattel, they threatened to introduce expert testimony that would reveal Barbie's historic origins in the Lilli doll. "Mattel's idea in 1959," said their expert, "was to peddle a...grown-up sex doll to little girls by dolling it up in designer clothes. What Aqua has done in 'Barbie Girl' is not to make Barbie into a 'sex object'...but to point out...that she has been one all along."

Lingerie Barbie, in fact, is closer to the actual historical origin of the doll, which isn't quite as sweet or innocent as the corporate propaganda on Mattel's website would have you believe. The Handlers may have designed Barbie's soul, but the inspiration for Barbie as we see her today was a German doll named Lilli, who was inspired by a risque comic strip which was often punctuated by "mildly sordid double entendres," according to a new book called Barbie: Four Decades of Fashion, Fantasy, and Fun. The Lilli doll, who had significant breasts and saucy clothes, including skimpy lingerie and tight sweaters, was aimed at an adult male audience and was initially sold in smoke shops.

In other words, Lingerie Barbie is probably the most honest Barbie that Mattel has yet produced, Barbie come full-circle. What's most poignant about her is not that she is a cynical admission that MCA's expert was right. Rather, it's that Lingerie Barbie makes all the blatancy of our postwar sexuality seem positively innocent. This Barbie is not pretending to be something she's not.

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