Thursday, January 15, 2009

Barbie Exposed

What we all suspected, it turns out, was true. The designer of the Barbie Doll was a pervert. Jack Ryan, who died in 1991, is described in a new book as "a full-blown Seventies-style swinger" with "a manic need for sexual gratification." In Toy Monster: The Big, Bad World of Mattel, author Jerry Oppenheimer claims that Ryan held wild orgies at his mansion in the exclusive Los Angeles suburb of Bel Air and surrounding himself with busty prostitutes hired because of their resemblance to Barbie.

The book suggests that Ryan's sexuality played a role in the design of the popular doll. "When Jack talked about creating Barbie, it was like listening to somebody talk about a sexual episode," the designer's friend, Stephen Gnass, reveals. "It was almost like listening to a sexual pervert." Oppenheimer quotes Gwen Florea, the voice of Barbie in a line of talking dolls: "Jack once said he loved me being so tall so he could stick his nose in my boobs when he hugged me." John Walsh in the London Independent described the toy Barbie as " a doll whose unfeasibly long legs are matched by the unfeasibility of her huge bosom."

The book poses a challenge to Mattel just as the giant toymaker prepares to celebrate Barbie and Ken's 50th birthday in March. According to Oppenheimer, Ryan took calls at Mattel from a madam and patronized "high-class call girls to streetwalkers," including a "very thin and child-like" hooker. He writes that Ryan "somehow rationalized that he was the only man in her life" until he was diagnosed with gonorrhea.

Barbie and Ken were named after the kids of Mattel founders Ruth and Elliot Handler. Ruth got the idea for Barbie from a 1950's German doll called Bild Lilli, a three-dimensional representation of a fictional prostitute named Lilli in the comic-strip of a German newspaper, Bild Zeitung. According to Walsh, "She serviced German businessmen and was cheeky to the cops. Platinum-haired and tarty, she would do anything with sweaty clients, provided the money was right." This was the doll Ryan encountered in 1955, and "he adjusted it for the consumption of American children, by tidying up her lips and filing off her nipples," Walsh wrote. Being the model for Ken was an honor that troubled the Handler's son, who "grew up embarrassed and humiliated by having an anatomically incorrect boy doll named after him . . . [with] no hint of genitalia." Despite marrying and fathering three children, Ken was a closeted gay, Oppenheimer says. "To all those who knew him Ken Handler was a wonderful father, a loving husband . . . But there was another side to Ken. And in 1990 he was formally diagnosed with AIDS. His parents and wife were shocked." He died in 1994 in Greenwich Village, but obits didn't mention the disease.

Walsh writes that in the new issue of Harlot magazine, Tracy Quan, the author of Confessions of a Manhattan Call-Girl, claims Barbie as a role-model for her generation of prostitutes, because of the way she concealed her murky past beneath Attorney Barbie respectability. "Marketed as a harmless plaything, the all-American prom queen turns out to have been a foreign whore on the run," Quan writes. "Somehow, the kind of girl your brother couldn't take home to Mom became a role model for millions of young girls." Elsewhere in the magazine, reports Walsh, a San Franciscan writer called Cintra Wilson shockingly recalls how she used to arrange for her Barbie doll to have sex with a gruff and violent GI Joe. "Barbie is no unconscious sexual icon to children," she writes. "Even at seven, we knew she was a wanton, submissive bimbo."

But Wikipedia reveals another side to Ryan, a much-married Yale grad who included Hungarian sexpot Zsa-Zsa Gabor among his wives. He worked for Raytheon designing the Sparrow and Hawk missiles for the Defense Department before being lured away by Mattel to engineer Barbie where he labored for 20 years as a paid consultant rather than an employee. His income came from royalties on marketed products and patents, including the voice unit used in the Chatty Cathy and later in Talking Barbie. His Bel Air mansion featured two large stone lion heads at the front drive with voice units and draw strings. Ryan later sued Mattel, arguing that he was the primary inventor of Barbie, but ultimately lost in court (presumably Ruth Handler's claim was upheld).

Given Oppenheimer's revelations (the book will be published next month), the Wikipedia article ominously mentions that Ryan "was also known for providing room and board to UCLA students who would in turn work at the many charity events he held at his house." How many of them looked like Barbie? Or Ken?

The slaughter in Gaza continues while much of the world wrings its hands and waits for Obama's inauguration, as if that might solve something that has defeated negotiators and diplomats for forty years. It will be very surprising if Obama and Hillary abandon years of blind bipartisan political support for whatever madness Israel deems necessary to its survival (including killing children). People around the world marched in the streets last weekend to protest what is obvious to most are war crimes. But the popular demonstrations of millions never stopped George Bush's rampage through the Middle East. According to the astute Chris Hedges in Truthdig, the Gaza invasion is no less than the "final phase of the decades-long campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestinians." Like many commentators, Hedges believes Israel cannot win. " The Israeli assault, by destroying Hamas as a governing force, has opened a Pandora’s box of ills. Life will become a nightmare for most Palestinians and, in the years ahead, for most Israelis." Saying much the same in Haaretz, the liberal Israeli newspaper, Bernard Avishai and Sam Bahour argue that the attack on Gaza "cannot succeed in achieving Israel's stated aim of degrading Hamas' long-term capabilities and motivation. It will certainly not undermine Hamas' appeal, especially since the electricity and water infrastructures are also inevitably targeted." What it will do is produce another generation of radical militants. On Aljazeera's web site, UC Irvine historian Mark Levin asks "Who Will Save Israel from Itself?" His conclusion: "Israelis are clearly incapable. Their addiction as a society to the illusion of violence-as-power has reached the level of collective mental illness." He reiterates the opinion of many investigators, starting with Jimmy Carter, that Israel was responsible for breaking the fragile cease fire, and not Hamas. A good source of, admittedly biased, information can be found on The Palestine Chronicle web site, and also on the blog now recommended on the right side of this web page. Free Palestine Now!

A cold wind is blowing through Bangkok and Thais are chilled to the bone. Overnight lows are in the teens (celcius) and the 50's (farenheit) which still is the more meaningful standard to me. There was frost on Doi Suthep, the tall hill up north next to Chiang Mai, and a friend sent me photos of ice-covered roses in the northeast of Thailand. With the door to the balcony and the bedroom window closed, I keep warm enough. During the day the temperature stays in the mid 70's and I'm in heaven. The BBC and CNN is filled with scenes of snow-jammed traffic in the U.S. and Europe, and I chuckle.

Weather, then, can be a matter of perception rather than numbers on a temperature gauge. When we are loved it can be warm, and when alone the chilly winds blow. As I look at the red roses I bought Monday for Bee's visit, already dead in the vase, I shudder at the thought of my son Luke in Boston. It's not the New England blizzard that is making his life difficult but the fall from sobriety. I learned from a mutual friend who visited him on Christmas that he has been drinking for six months, up to two bottles of wine a day. I wanted to believe that the sobriety that began in October 2006 after my visit to see him and celebrate his 39th birthday had continued. But apparetly he has been in and out of the hospital lately for alcohol poisoning and threatening suicide. When he found out I had been told, his cover had been blown, he was enraged. He charged me with being judgmental and taking a holier-than-though attitude toward his "slip" (an alcoholic's word that minimizes failure). And he was particularly angry that I said goodbye to him. I have sat beside Luke too many times in the hospital while he recovers from an overdose or seizures caused by his drinking. I cannot watch him slowly commit suicide. I can only hope, from a distance, that he will eventually choose life rather than death. But at the moment that hope seems frozen.

When my son was very young I abandoned him by leaving his mother. I've tried to stay in his life but whenever he gets angry at me he pushes the abandonment button and I cringe. My sins as a father are very large. At the moment, my daughter is not communicating with me because I wrote to her after Christmas that she only tells me about herself and her life when she needs something from me (like the guarantee of a school loan that I provided a year ago). My youngest son is also an intermittent correspondent, but he responded immediately when I expressed my sadness at Christmas that I did not hear from him very often (every three months is not enough). He told me that he wants to come visit me in March or April. This blog, among other things, is a way to keep my family informed of my whereabouts and my thinking. I hope to receive some kind of a response back, but I have been frequently disappointed. I am not making judgments but rather am trying to express my feelings (trying to stay warm amidst the cold winds), which are mostly about sadness.

To top it all off, the newsstand near my house that has saved a copy of the Bangkok Post for me every day for six months has been without it on three different occasions this past week. Since we can't communicate easily, I don't know whether it's because they didn't receive it from the distributor or if they sold the single copy they get to another English reader. Whatever the case, it feels as if a lifeline has been taken away. I was so happy to have at least one neighborhood friend, and now I feel rejected.

Thank the goddess for my teaching. Yesterday, while my students were preparing their class presentations on what they can and can't do (on the topic of abilities and talents), I padded in my socks (shoes outside the door) down to the Humanities office where I chatted with Dr. Subodh, the visiting teacher from India who lectures on psychology in English to undergraduates in the Sociology department. He comes from near Mumbai and we talked about "Slumdog Millionaire," the Golden Globes-winning film made in India by Englishman Danny Boyle (director of the cult film "Trainspotting"). It was filmed in Mumbai and much of the dialogue is in Hindi. I saw "Slumdog" last week and think it by far the best film of the year; it's a love story with some shocking scenes and a terrific Bollywood ending. I heard music across the room and saw a Thai teacher huddling over a laptop with one of the monk secretaries. They were listening to what sounded like a traditional Thai song and I saw that it was a karaoke with Thai letters streaming across the screen. I went over to watch and they asked me to join in. When the flip was switched to English, the song turned out to be "Waterloo" by Abba with both Thai and English lyrics. So, having seen "Mamma Mia" not that long ago, I did my best Meryl Streep imitation.

Rest In Peace: Arne Naess, father of Deep Ecology; Patrick McGoohan, star of "The Prisoner," and Ricardo Montalban, of "Fantasy Island." And also philosopher Richard Rorty, one of my heroes, whom I just discovered died over a year ago and a half ago.

This British WWII poster is always relevant:

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