The Washington Post
The Washington Post
March 22, 1987, Sunday, Final Edition
WASHINGTON POST MAGAZINE; PAGE W36; IN STYLE
HEADLINE: Guise and Dolls: Fashion Action Invades the '80s
BYLINE: Gerri Hirshey
BEEN HAVING TROUBLE following kiddie cosmology lately. Got
lost in the Cabbage Patch. There's a bewildering passel of
new dolls -- action figures, the packaging corrects me. He-Man
and She-Ra, Perfuma, Mermista (good guys and gals). And there's
Skeletor, Hordak, Evil-Lyn and Scratchin' Sound Catra (bad).
They have castles, Fright Zone dungeons, Slime Pits, winged
unicorn steeds and more confusing mythology than the ancient
classics have mutated. That standup guy G.I. Joe has shrunk
to a Rambo-compatible 5 1/2 inches. Barbie -- a standard 9
1/2-inch doll -- has changed her style. Mattel has given her
a groovy van and a backup group (the Rockers), a Hot Rockin'
stage and what the music industry calls "product"
-- a real cassette.
wondered if these plastic sophisticated ladies and lads had
changed the style of play. So I made something the under-6
set calls a "play date" with my 4-year-old friend
BananaHead (not her real name) to figure out the latest in
can dress Barbie up, but She-Ra just has these kinds of clothes
-- unless you have Starburst She-Ra. Today let's play She-Ra."
had dumped a basketful of the tiny plastic wenches onto her
bedroom floor. She-Ra sports gold boots, a tiny strapless
bodysuit with gauzy bits attached. He-Man's torso and thighs
are great slabs of molded plastic beefcake; all the parts
swivel on a risque' mini-kini of simulated fur. But none of
this is kinky: The power-pair are kinfolks. She-Ra and He-Man
are brother and sister with alter identities (Princess Adora
and Prince Adam). Actually, they're twins. Oh, they were separated
at birth, by the evil Hordak but . . . never mind.
I ask B.H. "Action figures aren't into fashion?"
do stuff." For She-Ra, B.H. explains, "stuff"
is chasing the evil Catra and combing her hair.
being a bit coy here. I've seen the ads, have heard the Barbie
theme song: We girls can do anything, right, Barbie? I know
Mattel has taken great pains to make Barbie an astronaut,
an aerobics instructor and, recently, an entrepreneur with
a combination Home & Office, computer, credit cards and
a Day-to- Night business suit that reverses to va-va-voom
evening wear. Doubtless B.H. has seen all this, but she's
slow with her reply.)
you BananaHead. What's Barbie? A rocket scientist?"
. . . She dresses up."
I guess it's that simple. Wardrobe and height separate fashion
dolls and action figures in the toy catalogues. But in kids'
tiny noggins, there doesn't seem to be much difference. B.H.
is barely tolerant when I wonder why She-Ra needs no closets
in her Crystal Castle.
ask me that," snorts B.H. "Just pick up Perfuma
and pretend she's having lunch with She-Ra. They're having
nibbled on the imaginary stuff al fresco on the patio furniture
of She-Ra's pink and gold enchanted condo, but I was still
confused. As luck would have it, TV ads, cleverly tucked into
the He-Man cartoon hour, announced the rrival of the He-Man
and She-Ra Masters of the Universe Power Tour in B.H.'s home
town of New York -- just a week before they beamed down here
at the Patriot Center. We packed some peanut-butter sandwiches
and apple juice and headed for Radio City Music Hall, the
lobby of which was fiendishly disguised as Toys 'R' Us. B.H.
was deciding between a plastic Power Sword ($ 5) and a He-Man
figure ($ 6.95) when I struck up a conversation with a befuddled
5-year-old had caught him mixing up the lore of He-Man with
the legends of the Thundercats, the cartoon/action-figure
TV show that comes on after He-Man.
all this pre-fab fiction necessary for a kid to interface
with his toy? "I think kids today are suffering from
mystical overload," the dad said. "Imagine the cultural
accretion. In 20 years, is Skeletor going to be more vivid
than brave Ulysses?"
the show started, I had to admit he had a point. Songster
-- some caped dude with a laser guitar and a Vegas-y patter
-- dished on He-Man's homeland, Eternia. Lotsa lore. B.H.
zoned out over her battery-powered star wand ($ 5) while I
tried to parse the lineage of King Randor and Queen Marlena,
their twins (you know who) and tribes of wizards, warriors,
mutants like Snout Spout, Snakeman, Nin-Jor, Blast-Attack
and Man-at-Arms. There was some murky Arthurian claptrap about
the mystical Power Sword that turns namby-pamby Prince Adam
into invincible He-Man.
of pre-school attention spans were fraying when the narrative
gave way to action. Poof! The wimpy prince became He-Man in
a puff of stage smoke. Suddenly, 3,000 kids were raising their
cheezo facsimile Power Swords and screaming that terrifying,
oh-so-yuppie chant you hear all over playgrounds these days:
I HAVE THE POWERRRRRRR!
Thunder Thighs. But why cloak this '80s assertiveness training
in all that legend? As we filed out of Eternia and past the
still-besieged toy stalls, I had a thought: If toys must be
merchandised with cosmologies and extended families, why not
use '80s reality? It's stranger than fiction anyhow. Let's
transport some of those action figures out of Eternia and
into the board room. Let them represent the ways of men and
commerce, and teach our children well. Try this. In time for
next year's Toy Fair, Rockin' Barbie will give up the road
for job security and a fixed-rate mortgage on her A-frame
balconied Dream House. She'll become a publicist. She'll have
a Memphis-style office with 1-by-2-inch glossies of the clients:
Skeletor, He-Man, She-Ra, Perfuma, Entrapta -- a stable that
Hollywood agent Sue Mengers would ransom her Rolodex for.
Barbie's red Ferrari will have a wee cellular phone with conference-call
capability between here and Eternia. Barbie will be wearing
a flashy PR gal's boutique togs. Let's drop in as she's taking
a meeting with She-Ra . . .
girls can do aaaanything . . ."
we have to handle this image thing, She-Ra. He-Man's still
getting the power bookings -- Carson, Rivers, making Snout
Spout do Stupid Pet Tricks on Letterman . . . And you, She-Ra?"
still got me talking infant kidnapping with Oprah . . . hair
and nails with Mariette Hartley . . ."
a packaging problem, babe," Barbie assures her. "We'll
fix it chop-chop."
puts in a call to the Coast, to The-Man, CEO of Mattel. They
chat for a minute; he'd just been with Skeletor at Spago,
was working on a Giorgio tie-in for Perfuma. A few more pleasantries
and Barbie goes for it:
about these accessories. We have a problem."
toy man blusters while She-Ra opens two little plastic bags
on Barbie's desk -- dumping the actual accessory contents
of your She-Ra and He-Man blisterpaks.
see an ax for He-Man," Barbie is saying. "I see
a sword and a shield. And for She-Ra, Princess of Power? Yes,
a shield. A sword . . . and a comb. A comb!"
is Barbie, hear her roar. Then silence on the other end as
Barbie brings it home: "Lose the comb, babe. And then
sweetie, we'll look into it," says the toy man. "But
remember, I HAVE THE POWERRRRRRR."