Articles
The Washington Post, March 22, 1987

1987 The Washington Post
The Washington Post
March 22, 1987, Sunday, Final Edition
    

 

SECTION: WASHINGTON POST MAGAZINE; PAGE W36; IN STYLE
HEADLINE: Guise and Dolls: Fashion Action Invades the '80s Playroom
BYLINE: Gerri Hirshey

I'VE 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 Minoans.

Even 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.

I 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 toystyle.

"You 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."

B.H. 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.

"So," I ask B.H. "Action figures aren't into fashion?"

"They do stuff." For She-Ra, B.H. explains, "stuff" is chasing the evil Catra and combing her hair.

"And Barbie?"

(I'm 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.)

"C'mon, you BananaHead. What's Barbie? A rocket scientist?"

"Um . . . She dresses up."

Aha. 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.

"Don't ask me that," snorts B.H. "Just pick up Perfuma and pretend she's having lunch with She-Ra. They're having tortellini."

We 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 dad.

His 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.

Was 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?"

Once 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.

Plenty 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!

Right-on, 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 . . .

"We girls can do aaaanything . . ."

"Right, Barbie."

"Today 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?"

"They've still got me talking infant kidnapping with Oprah . . . hair and nails with Mariette Hartley . . ."

"Just a packaging problem, babe," Barbie assures her. "We'll fix it chop-chop."

Barbie 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:

"It's about these accessories. We have a problem."

The 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.

"I 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!"

She is Barbie, hear her roar. Then silence on the other end as Barbie brings it home: "Lose the comb, babe. And then let's talk."

"Sure, sweetie, we'll look into it," says the toy man. "But remember, I HAVE THE POWERRRRRRR."

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