Barbie Millicent Roberts' surprising announcement last week that she is running for president set off a firestorm of controversy that is raising difficult questions about feminism, politics and the culture of celebrity.
Like Hillary Clinton and many prominent women, Barbie (as she prefers to be called) is a Rorschach test of American values. She's either an affront to womankind or the poster-woman for post-feminist individuality. She's either setting women back 30 years or moving them forward by celebrating, rather than muting, her femininity.
"What is the `Barbie for President' message?" former Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder wrote in yesterday's New York Times. "I'm afraid it's, `You can be president if you look like a 10!'"
Barbie's appearance is likely to overshadow her ideas about equality or education. She's 41 years old but looks as she did at 22. (There are the usual whispers that she's "had some work done.") Her hair never moves; she has a chiseled, almost plastic, face; and until recently she couldn't bend at the waist. Potential negatives, yes, but if Al Gore can overcome them, Barbie can, too.
"Whatever you think about her, she's the most-watched woman in America," said Peggy Orenstein, author of the upcoming "Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World." "It was big news when she had breast-reduction surgery and got a belly-button."
Such icon status should serve her well, but can Barbie withstand the scrutiny that comes with running for political office? The butterfly tattoos she sported last year surely will become an issue. Her five siblings -- Skipper, Tutti, Todd, Stacie and Kelly -- might finally go public with the much-guarded details of her childhood in Willows, Wis.
But nothing is likely to fuel more gossip than Barbie's longtime relationship with Ken, which the press had largely left alone. Why all the wedding gowns but never a wedding? What's the power balance in the relationship anyway? Barbie has ownership of the house and cars, and she is always center stage with Ken supportively in the background. (So far, Ken's not talking.)
The candidate also is raising eyebrows with her clothes. Despite her well-known affinity for outfit changes, she has been seen in the same blue suit and pumps at every campaign appearance. Is it a Pat Nixon cloth-coat kind of statement? Or a carefully packaged message that the woman who has been a cowgirl, a gymnast, a Hula-Hoop queen, an Indian princess, a NASCAR driver, a WNBA player, a model, an actress and a Malibu surfer girl is also -- like the boyish George W. Bush -- a person to be taken seriously?
Emily Katz Kishawi, director of communications for Equal Rights Advocates, sees the omnipresent blue suit as a cagey move. "She has forestalled the pressing issue of her candidacy by pre-releasing her wardrobe choices," she said.
Indeed, Barbie has already chosen and released details of her inaugural ball gown, showing what some call an "unearned cockiness" but others characterize as "a healthy acknowledgement of her power in American society."
Political experts say Barbie, despite her mostly frivolous past and her knack for attracting controversy, could emerge as the perfect candidate for the new millennium. She says nothing, and thus TV's talking heads can tell us her motives and hidden agendas without the pesky step of actually listening to the candidate herself.
And perhaps Barbie's most attractive feature of all, especially to those disgusted by the Clinton years: no genitalia.
Joan Ryan is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Send comments to her in care of this newspaper or send her e-mail at email@example.com.