OHIO police are still searching for The Barbie Slasher, so called for his obsession with ripping the clothes off Barbie dolls in toy shops and carving incisions across their chests and between their legs. 'He's caused quite a big shock around here,' says Detective Timothy McClung, who refused to let the Sunday Morning Post Magazine publish a photo lest it spark copycat crimes. During the height of the investigation, Detective McClung says he received at least 100 calls from around the US with names of men suspected of similar Barbie-related offences. In Indianapolis, a man with seven Barbie heads glued to the dashboard of his car was detained. Who would want to hurt Barbie? The FBI's psychological services unit was able to provide a character profile: white, male, 15-35, lacking social skills with women, active fantasy life, Barbie fixated, power/control complex, possibly motivated by shock value or sexual predilections, deeply affected by a relationship with a dominant woman, maybe his mother. 'Did you see Silence of the Lambs ?' says Detective McClung. 'The report was done by the same unit.' It was the FBI's fifth investigation into crimes against Barbie. In previous cases the dolls were either mutilated, burned or blown up. As if there aren't enough ways to have fun with Barbie. What with her fabulous wardrobe, cool friends and that hot tomato Ken, she's the doll who has everything. But that's the issue. Is Barbie a happy and healthy role model with 5,000 pairs of shoes, or another absurd female icon of exaggerated curves? As she enters her 35th year, the myth and meaning of history's favourite doll is undergoing wholesale deconstruction. What message transmits from those blank blue eyes? Those perky breasts? That stiff-limbed perfection? Poets, psychologists, film-makers and editorial writers - many of them former Barbie owners - are intrigued. After all, what other toy can fuel the twisted sexual fantasies of certain adult men and the innocent playtime of little girls? Little girls, however, are capable of vigorous deconstruction themselves. 'People were telling me they used to slice Barbies up, or hang them by their necks from banisters, or chop them up and bury them in the yard,' says Professor Allyson Booth, an American pop culture enthusiast. The confessions came during research for 'Barbie Dolls as Monsters', her thesis on the doll as a physical ideal. Her report also documented an early instance of Barbie backlash, in which the doll fell victim to the bruised and frenzied ego of a McDonald's burger-flipper and ended up wrapped in a burrito - breastless, grilled and covered with condiments - a gift to his former girlfriend, an order taker. Clearly, Barbie has hit a rough patch. 'I think she's into her mid-life crisis,' says Barbara Bell, a California-based Barbie 'channeller'. The quilt-maker, New Age-magazine editor and Dame Edna fan claims to distil the collective spirit of the 700 million Barbies said to populate the world into a mousy squeak she can produce at will. 'I go into a light trance and then I start with my normal speaking voice and then,' she says, changing pitch, 'it goes up like this.' Ms Bell, 44, charges US$3 (HK$23.40) a go for Barbie readings. So far she has made about US$600. Barbie tells Ms Bell she's sick of being treated like a knucklehead (she was recently condemned by The New York Times for being 'not a bimbo, but the bimbo', whose primary values are 'consumerism, popularity and personal appearance') and needs more respect. 'She's more philosophical than everyone's given her credit for. She's so wise because she's seen so much and has had so many different roles thrust upon her in her life.' Up to now, there has been little interest shown in what passes for neuron activity inside Barbie's hollow head. A lot more attention has been focused on what she's like from the neck down. The writer Emily Prager says Barbie looks as though she belongs at the Playboy Mansion. Converted to human dimensions, Barbie's measurements are estimated at 90-45-83 cms (36-18-33 ins). 'I used to look at Barbie and wonder . . . what kind of woman designed this doll?' Prager writes in her essay Our Barbies, Ourselves. Manufacturers Mattel credit Ruth Handler, who co-founded the company with husband Elliot, with the idea. Barbie was named after the couple's daughter, and Ken after their son. But the design was the work of a man, an investor named Jack Ryan who was a consultant for Mattel in the '50s. 'So perfect is she as a trad-fem symbol,' pondered one reviewer in New York's Village Voice. 'The plastic body, the exaggerated curves, the nothingness between the legs . . .' Californian artist Ken Botto, a 'leading practitioner of Barbie noire' who usesKen and Barbie in his photographic tableaux of domestic violence, says Barbie is 'a reflection of what we think of femininity. It's not flattering'. Neither is Mondo Barbie, an anthology of fiction and poetry printed on pink paper. Using titles like 'Twelve-Step Barbie', 'Barbie Wonders About Buying a Coffin', 'Barbie Comes Out' and 'Hell's Angel Barbie', the writers drag Barbie by the hair into a netherworld of strange, adult fantasies. She is variously a speed-freak, a junkie, mashed and twisted during bouts of masturbation, stripped, decapitated and buried alive. And Ken? Try Kendra, there has been an operation. In another piece, poet Gregg Shapiro poses the question: if my boyfriend is Ken, who does that make me? And if you grew up a little poor in a little town in Ohio, and you suddenly turned 30, landed some money and underwent surgery to alter your eyelids, nostrils, jawline, waistline, breasts and knees? Who would you be then? 'I'm the professional Barbie,' says Cindy Jackson, 34, who spent US$100,000 on the conversion. 'There was nobody I wanted to emulate, and Barbie became the only woman I wanted to be.' Based in London, where she works as a photographer, her Barbie fame has allowed her to start a cosmetic surgery consultancy network. Out of 18 operations, Ms Jackson feels lucky that only one was botched: a US$5,000 nose job which left her with the same, albeit bruised, proboscis she had to begin with. Still, she views surgery as part of a 'maintenance programme' and is planning more liposuction later this year. 'Plain women are invisible,' she says. 'I get noticed more. People are kinder to me. You might not like it, but that's the way it is.' Barbie (the doll) has also endured several facial reconstructions, and over three decades she has gone from shifty to startled to happily vacant. In the '60s, her arched eyebrows were softly curved and her irises changed from white to blue to appear less sophisticated and friendlier, although for some reason she didn't smile until 1977. But someone should take a look at her feet. 'I mean, they're deformed,' says channeller Ms Bell. Lucinda Ebersole, one of Mondo Barbie's editors and a specialist in iconography, believes images of the idealised female form are commonly attacked, and Barbie's painfully pointy toes bring out the worst in little girls. 'When you give young women an icon that is in the form of the 'perfect body', then one of the things they want to do is destroy that,' she says. 'Barbie has those bound feet with perfect little arches so she can't stand properly without shoes, and I think that gives a very strong message and a lot of girls will simply move to do away with it.' But her feet aren't her only physical flaw. Ms Bell says : 'She can't close her eyes so she suffers from sleep deprivation. She has to meditate to get any rest.' When Mattel launched Barbie, Teenage Fashion Model, in 1959, she was a sleek, curvaceous departure from the cute babies popular at the time. Here was a doll that didn't need cuddling, it needed a wardrobe. 'Her features were exaggerated for her clothes tohang well,' says Mattel's US marketing director, Lisa McKendall. The move paid off. Generating US$1 billion a year for Mattel in doll sales and merchandise, Barbie is both the biggest-selling doll and the biggest-selling toy in history. 'Two Barbie dolls are sold every second somewhere in the world,' reads a publicity release. The average American girl owns seven. But even among traditionalists, the Barbie backlash is nigh, and late last year a competitor arrived, the green-eyed 'Happy-To-Be-Me' doll with red hair and a 67 cm waist. 'By the time a child is six, she's already developed an image of what she'd like tobe like when she's an adult,' says Peggy Kingston, marketing director for the High Self-Esteem Toy Corporation. 'So you have to start early.' Unlike Barbie, Happy has only a limited wardrobe. She has a round little tummy, broader hips, legs which are in proportion to the rest of her body, and a rib cage - something Barbie lacks. 'Happy represents the end of the unhealthy fairytale which implies that you have to be thin and sexy with expensive clothes and cars to be happy,' said Cathy Meredig, the founder of High Self-Esteem. So far the doll is available only through mail-order and at a dozen shops in Minneapolis, Happy's hometown. Nevertheless, more than 4,000 were sold over a six-day period when the doll was introduced last year, and today supplies have run out. With plans for a US-wide relaunch, the doll's success is due largely to its creators' thoughtful marketing: 'With a healthy, realistic body image, girls can enjoy that warm inner feeling of . . . 'I'm happy to be me!'' reads an advertising brochure. Back at Mattel, executives are sticking by a winning formula. Barbie's female bits, they maintain, were over-cued 'so little girls could relate'. Attacks on the doll's character are met with details of her various fabulous incarnations as a career-gal: 'She was an astronaut in 1965 - nearly 20 years before [first US woman in space] Sally Ride.' Last year, when the first talking Barbie in 25 years blabbed: 'Maths class is tough,' Mattel responded to the public outcry by temporarily stopping distribution anderasing the phrase. 'You have to remember that this is a doll,' says Mattel's Ms McKendall, 'and that kids play in a fantasy. Adults bring different values to things that kids don't care about. We do a lot of research every year and the girls continually say they want pink, pink, pink. They want things to sparkle and glitter. They want a doll they can play with, and a Barbie they can marry to Ken.' The wedding scenario is so popular Mattel revamps the bridal ensemble each year. Officially, however, Barbie is still single. At Mattel there are concerns that a company-sanctioned betrothal might be taken as final by the girls who play weddings time and again, potentially ruining a profitable game pattern. But is Ken the marrying type? Prager says: 'He had no genitals, and even at the age of 10 I found that ominous.' While Barbie had those breasts, 'there was Ken with that truncated, unidentifiable lump at his groin'. She wonders why Ken's equipment is treated with more mystery. Is it thought more powerful? More worthy of the dignity of concealment? The argument ends tragically: despite all those shared water beds and hot nights at the Prom, the couple could never make love. 'No matter how much sexuality Barbie possessed,' writes Prager, 'she would never turn Ken on.' Mondo Barbie's editors, Lucinda Ebersole and Richad Peabody, claim that, as pop icons go, 'Barbie is up there with Elvis'. Ms Bell has received 200 letters from believers, even though she advertises only in the quarterly magazine she edits. There are three magazines in the US which service Barbie fans and collectors; there's a Barbie Hall of Fame (with a collection of 16,000 Barbies) in San Francisco; there's a New York boutique called Barbie on Madison. Even the global community is well connected, with many heading for Baltimore this year for the fifth annual collectors' convention; according to organisers, there have been 5,000 inquiries, and only 600 available seats. 'For so long, Barbie doll collecting was sort of the stepchild of the doll collecting world,' explains Mark Oullette, the chairman of the convention, which is called 'You've Come a Long Way, Barbie'. 'If you were an avid doll collector you usually only collected antiques. And if you collected Barbies you just didn't tell anyone, because Barbies were still being sold in supermarkets and drug stores and that sort of thing.' There are between 100,000 and200,000 collectors in the US, he says, and the value of vintage dolls continues to climb. At current prices, a mint condition Number One fetches US$4,000. A fortysomething interior designer, Mr Oullette says: 'Believe me, we do not sit around playing with Barbie dolls . . . It's about nostalgia and it's a great stress release.' The highlight of four days of talks, banquets and auctions will be the gala fashion show in which enthusiasts dressed as Ken and Barbie parade their life-size designs. Mr Oullette inherited his mother's enthusiasm for Barbie and estimates perhaps 30 per cent of adult collectors are male. At the official fanzine, Barbie - The Magazine for Girls, which boasts a circulation of 700,000 among US girls between five and 11, staff know of only one male reader, a six-year-old who dressed up as Barbie last Halloween. According to Mattel, young boys may play with their sisters' Barbies until they reach kindergarten, but then they usually move on to trucks, GI Joes and other Terminator-type tough guys. The company is experimenting with dolls for boys and has planned a line of figures based on a dog-and-cat cartoon team called Ren and Stimpy: press their tummies and they break wind. When boys do take an interest in Barbie, it often means trouble, anyway, and Professor Booth found males were to blame for most counts of the doll torture she reported. Her brother, for example, now a social worker, recently claimed responsibility for stringing naked Barbies from the staircase as a child. 'I said: 'this is incredible. Why did you do this?'' she recalls. 'He said, 'well, I don't know. She was weak, she was naked and she deserved it'.'