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Valley of the Dolls

Island Life

There is some comfort in residing somewhere between jaded cynicism and wonderment- it allows one lots of options. Take, for example, my lack of surprise the other day when I turned to The Current Cinema pages in the New Yorker and read the line: "…all the women have the same body- tall, with small, high breasts, long waists, long legs, and full, rounded rumps." It was a description of a scene from documentary filmmaker Robert Wiseman’s latest offering, Crazy Horse, about a sixty year old strip club in Paris. That one line description in some ways summed up a part of a recent afternoon which had just been spent running a video camera through what seemed to be endless cardboard canyons of boxes filled with all things Barbie, and then some. It is not the first time my life has run semi-synchronous with that New York rag, and without being too cynical or unduly self-assured about it, I’m sure it won’t be the last.

It may perhaps come as a shock and surprise to the uninitiated that this was not my first dalliance in or near a massive convergence of Barbie-mania. While my sister, back in the day, had her share of Barbie related figurines and paraphernalia, her collection paled in comparison to what has been transported each year to Black Rock City and assembled in greater and grander scale at the Barbie Death Camp and Wine Bistro. My photographic record of BDCWB from 2004 up through to last year’s iteration at Burning Man shows a steady and massive increase in the quantity of long-legged inmates. The earliest photo shows perhaps a hundred or so Barbies encircled by militarily garbed and heavily armed Kens, all in a solitary march toward a single, dust covered microwave oven. Last summer’s snapshot portrays uncountable 1000’s of Mattel’s beauty queens on a massed and congested death march between pink arched walls and headed toward two ramps leading up to the gaping doors of two full electric kitchen range/ovens. It will be interesting to see what is on display there this year, as word had it that someone, in less than gift economy fashion, pilfered the entire ensemble after it had been packed for transit homeward. I would say something like- what is this world coming to- but I already have a number of answers to that question and, for the most part, it just seems relatively pointless to ask.

An equally unnecessary question to ask would be why someone collects something- anything- in the first place. Through many years in assorted gardens, I don’t recall ever hearing someone ask why we were obsessed with gathering flats of variegated this or white flowered that, we just did it. More often than not, the self-questioning over what we called "the disease" rang the loudest, especially in gardening. It occurs most emphatically during the months after the acquisition when unplanted small pots or bags of bulbs have gone unwatered and untended. Some are even proud of having killed more plants than others have planted. In many ways, it is easy to appreciate collecting something where, with little attention and a minimum of care and protection, the collection can grow or shrink and remain relatively unspoiled.

While he does have an interest in plants, Ken Hostetler seems to have put most of his collecting energies into a gathering of Barbies. A guided foray into two outbuildings as well as multiple cabinets and old suitcases scattered throughout his house revealed a vast legion of Barbie-ism ranging from $1 and $2 thrift store bargain bin rescues to elaborately boxed and costumed collector’s edition supermodels. There is a certain humor to the dolls and mannequins in evidence all around, with varying degrees of clothes, props, wigs and coloring adding a certain life to their stillness. But in many ways they are a subtle tip to the iceberg that might some day swell to a full room doll display. Having laughed for years at the mock mass slaughter in the middle of a desert of a plastic American icon, I now know that there are much greater depths to what I always presumed was just another girl toy. I even did my homework before going to this Barbie school, and learned that Barbie was actually a borrowing of a German doll, purchased by Ruth Handler on a trip abroad in 1956 and brought home to her husband and the R&D team at Mattel toys, only to be unleashed to the American girl in 1959. Ruth and Elliot Handler’s children were named, of course- Barbara and Kenneth. Now you know, too.

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