Barbie, the American fashion doll, was launched in 1959, but Joan never owned one herself. For some reason, however, in 1961 she got the “Barbie Queen of the Prom” game as a gift. Once she outgrew the game, her parents shelved it away down in their basement until it was resurrected for grandchildren to play with. Now it is stored in our attic. As our thoughts turn back to the Sixties in this blog, the game has again been resurrected, this time for a reflection on what the game says about the “ideal life” of a teenage girl then and now.
The object of the game was to become “Queen of the Prom.” The cover promised “Shopping,” “Dating,” and “School Activities.” It declared itself “a fun game with real-life appeal for all girls.” To become queen you had to buy a formal dress, get a steady boyfriend, and become a school club president. According to the rules of the game, these goals could be achieved in any order.
Among the dresses you could buy, there were four possibilities: “Enchanted Evening,” “Solo in the Spotlight,” “Let’s Dance,” and “Silken Flame.” Each dress cost a different amount; to girls playing the game in the 60’s, the cost of the dress equated with its desirability. Everyone wanted “Enchanted Evening” which at $65 was the most beautiful and elaborate of the outfits. Second most desirable was the $50 “Solo in the Spotlight,” also long and elegant, with matching long gloves.
For a more contemporary take on the “Queen of the Prom” game, we asked three “millennial” members of our family about the dresses. All 3 rated “SOLO IN THE SPOTLIGHT” as their last choice. “ENCHANTED EVENING,” a Sixties top choice, was rated third. So, tastes in fashion, at least, have changed.
Now, dress in hand, a girl had to obtain another important accessory, one of four possible boyfriends: Ken, Bob, Tom or Poindexter.
As Joan remembers it, Ken was always the players’ first choice, the handsome, fashionable boyfriend of Barbie herself. Bob came in second as a kind of athletic-looking alternative. Tom, looking the part of an intellectual—a nerd in today’s parlance?—came in third. No one, ever, wanted poor Poindexter. He provoked groans from the unlucky girls stuck with him as their prospective date to the prom.
Our three millennials were also asked to rate the boyfriends. They rated Ken lower than their compatriots of 50 years ago. Perhaps in these “edgier” times he has just gotten too boring? Or maybe it’s just the bowtie and checked sport coat! Tom, however, was second choice for one of our millennials and top choice for two of them. That seems like a positive sign, doesn’t it? Maybe after all these years of jocks ruling the high school halls, the “nerdy is the new sexy” movement is making headway. Even after fifty years, however, Poindexter still doesn’t seem to excite. He was the last choice for one of our millennials and third choice for two of them.
It wasn’t enough, however, to capture a boyfriend—you had to “go steady” with him before the prom. Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s “going steady” meant that you and your boyfriend had made a commitment to date one another exclusively. Once a boy asked you to go steady (and it was the boy who always did the asking), he usually gave you some token of his affection, perhaps his class ring to wear around your neck.
The last requirement on the road to becoming queen was to become a club president. Again, there were four possibilities: Athletic, Drama, Music, and Scholarship. Joan’s memory is a bit dim on which presidency was considered the most desirable, but she thinks it was the Athletic Club presidency. The least desirable was Scholarship. Among our three millennials, Scholarship was still rated low, either a 3 or a 4. This seems to contradict their preference for Tom as a boyfriend. On the other hand, what exactly is a “Scholarship Club?” We don’t remember any such club in our schools, or in our childrens’ schools. This is a game flaw, we think! Drama or Music presidencies were the top choices of our three millennials.
If a player had collected a steady boyfriend, a dress, and a club presidency, they could then enter the path to the prom and have a shot at landing on the square marked with the Barbie Queen of the Prom “crown” before any other player could get there.
Playing the game is like stepping back in time. Gender stereotypes abounded. Boys were more interested in cars. The word “jalopy” is used on one of the cards—does anyone even use this word to refer to a car anymore? Girls then were apparently only concerned with looking beautiful and pleasing their boyfriends. While that can still be true even now, unfortunately, at least many young girls today realize it isn’t their only option. Some game references are to things that are now anachronisms: typewriters, meeting at the snack bar or soda fountain. Here is a small selection of some choice, dated phrases from the game squares and cards:
“HE TALKS ABOUT CARS WITH DAD. WAIT HERE.”
“YOU ARE VOTED THE MOST POPULAR GIRL IN YOUR CLASS.”
“HE CRITICIZES YOUR HAIR-DO. GO TO BEAUTY SHOP.”
“YOU GET A TELEPHONE CALL FROM THE LADY IN CHARGE OF THE FASHION SHOW. ONE OF THE FASHION MODELS IS ILL. YOU MAY TAKE HER PLACE.”
“YOU ARE NOT READY WHEN HE CALLS. MISS 1 TURN.”
“TYPE LETTERS FOR DAD. GET $4”
“TOO BAD! YOUR HEM’S DOWN. GO TO DAD’S CAR AND PIN IT UP.”
The Queen of the Prom game is a snapshot of an era that seems long past. When one plays it today it provokes a lot more laughter than the creators ever imagined or intended. It seems dated, funny, a little bit ludicrous, and quite obviously sexist from a modern perspective.
As our little millennial poll indicates, some things have changed. Yet, sadly, much has not. Young girls may still be too caught up in fashion and clothing styles, in having the right kind of “look” and the right kind of body. They may find it difficult to be accepted if they show an interest in things intellectual (science, mathematics) or anything out of the ordinary. While the high schools of today are clearly more heterogeneous than those Joan and Greg attended, and tolerance for difference is more widespread, there are still many important battles for girls and young women of today to fight and to win. And we haven’t even brought up the fact that Barbie, her friends and their boyfriends in “Barbie Queen of the Prom” are all white and heterosexual.