BARBIE, THE "Teenage Fashion Model" doll who went on to become an astronaut, run for president, and get praised and blamed for everything little girls achieve or must overcome in this country, is the center of attention at the Little Theatre this weekend.

Susan Stern's documentary Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour is a fun, informative picture of how much a plastic doll has impacted people over the years, and how slippery its influence can be to pin down (or mount on a stand, if you prefer).

Designed in 1959 by Ruth Handler (co-founder, with her husband Elliott, of Mattel), Barbie was intended to be a healthy change from the de-sexed, adolescent dolls that were children's only choice come playtime. Handler wanted Barbie's breasts to act as a positive inspiration for girls, allowing them to see even early-developing bustlines as normal and healthy.

With over a billion dolls sold, the Barbie phenomenon is as vast and widespread as, say, Christianity or Socialism -- and like those concepts, has been responsible for both good and bad. Stern allows Barbie critics their say, but she also gives time to her many fans, from conventioneers who dress like Barbie to collectors to gay men who found the doll an excellent inspiration during their adolescence. It's all about fantasy, we hear again and again -- sometimes still played out, what with Barbie fans who construct S&M dioramas or nail spray-painted dolls to crucifixes.

Whatever you feel about Barbie, it clearly still inspires artists of all stripes. Playing with Barbie Nation are two witty shorts by Mia Roozen (The Somnambulist) and Rachel Lord (Untitled), which use Barbie to their own ends. Lord has also built an installation for the Little Theatre's restrooms that are worth seeing, along with Bob Allen's Barbie-themed artwork Oreo Splitter Extraordinaire.

Of course, Barbie art already has its own Citizen Kane -- a talented filmmaker's marvelous debut that got in hot water for the portrayal of a certain brother-sister lite-pop duo, using Barbie dolls. It's so hot, in fact, I can't even tell you the title, but it'll be playing this weekend as well.

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