In 2002, Mattel lost a trademark lawsuit against MCA Records over the song “Barbie Girl,” an irritating hit that Mattel claimed tarnished the images of its classic doll. Surprisingly, this isn’t covered in Toy Monster: The Big, Bad World Of Mattel, Jerry Oppenheimer’s latest sensationalist journalistic effort. Although Oppenheimer claims in his acknowledgements that he wrote an objective history of Mattel, Monster is clearly a hatchet job that favors some targets over others.
Oppenheimer does offer many interesting bits of historical information, such as the fact that the iconic Barbie was probably ripped off from a German fashion doll named Bild Lilli, and stories about early Mattel designer Jack Ryan, who had an endless appetite for women and drugs. But the book’s strengths are overwhelmed by Oppenheimer’s seeming desire to take Mattel’s female execs down a few pegs. Mattel co-founder and president Ruth Handler takes a drubbing, as does a successor, Jill Barad. By contrast, current Mattel CEO Bob Eckert is treated with kid gloves, even though he was in charge during the company’s recent rash of recalls, and may have intentionally suppressed information about dangerous toys. Handler and Barad were clearly no picnic; Oppenheimer claims Handler vehemently denied Ryan’s involvement in creating Barbie, and eventually screwed him out of royalties, and both CEOs were charged with cooking Mattel’s books to please Wall Street. But Oppenheimer seems particularly interested in picking apart the women’s personal lives—Barad was a woman trying to “have it all,” meaning, gasp, a job and children—while mostly leaving Eckert’s alone.
Monster is more compelling when it covers the toy recalls of 2007 and 2008. Stories about kids who almost died after accidentally swallowing poorly attached magnets from Polly Pocket toys are powerful, almost a Fast Food Nation for toy consumers. But these chapters come at the end and are fairly brief; Oppenheimer’s interests lie elsewhere.
As journalism, Toy Monster is sloppy work. The interviews are there, but Oppenheimer constantly attempts to manufacture suspense by using a contrived “But that is a story for another chapter” style, trying to make details seem more interesting than they are. If the book were more fun to read, it could stand on its own as a pleasant piece of trash. But the He-Man Woman Haters Clubattitude gets tedious. Journalism is on a deathwatch, and most pundits claim the Web is the main culprit. But if Oppenheimer’s work qualifies as journalism, maybe technology isn’t the problem.