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Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Barbie Part II: The Private Life of a Public Icon

One day the toy designers at Mattel decide to test a new Barbie Jeep with their target audience. Three lucky girls get to play with the plastic pink automobile at the company headquarters, plus Barbie and Ken and some toy designers looking on. When one little girl puts Barbie in the driver’s seat the other grabs her hand: “No!” she exclaims, “The Daddy drives the car!”
The designers look at each other and shrug. “And they say we’re the problem.”
       This anecdote, related by Sherry A. Inness in The Barbie Chronicles is the perfect qualifier for what I’m about to tell you. Toys have an effect on how people see the world. It was made clear in Part I of this study that Barbie is an integrated, significant part of consumer culture, and yet every individual who plays with her brings some of her own bias and experience into the fold.
       Researchers across disciplines agree that to a certain extent, toys socialize children and help to form their conception of the social world around them. Because of Barbie’s cultural prominence, she has become a feature of social organization. Many scholars argue that Barbie may have negative effects on the self-images of the (mostly) girls playing with her, and that she enforces gender stereotypes. Others note that she was the first adult fashion doll on the market, whose character was from the start oriented towards individual gratification rather than domestic duties.

Toys canfacilitate or complicate the social reactions between the people playing with them. In The Cute and the Cool, Gary Cross explores the conflict which emerged when Barbie and other “new” toys debuted in the 1950s, confounding parents whose own playthings (and play) were drastically different, making it harder for them to relate to their children’s play. Toys have a social function as a way for people to interact with one another, which characterize their users in the eyes of those around them (i.e. the woman who scolded my mother in the waiting room all those years ago). Because of Barbie’s prominence as a commodity, she fulfills both these social functions. Susan Stern was inspired to make the film Barbie Nation when her daughter suggested they play the “jealousy game” with Barbie—Stern was instructed to pretend her doll was jealous of everything about her daughter’s Barbie, and the suggestion provided an eye-opening insight into her daughter’s mind. The film itself features a couple who connected with each other thanks to their shared passion for depicting Barbie and friends in elaborate S&M scenarios, an example which illustrates how Barbie can facilitate social relations among her owners.

More publicly, a variety of testimonials express that the extent of a girl’s Barbie collection in the late 20th century could ascribe or detract from her status among schoolmates. Sociologist Brian Sutton-Smith claims that toys can become “an identity around which a child organizes his or her actions and concepts of the world.” If this is true, Barbie was a way for middle or lower class people to identify vicariously with the upper class. One woman remembers, “Barbie was affordable to the middle class, but seemed to have everything materially – associating her subconsciously with the upper class.” (Rogers, 65)

Outside of North America, Barbie has become a totem of the American consumerist way of life. A woman growing up in Nicaragua during wartime recalls, “Barbie was a symbol of status...What having a Barbie meant was that the lucky owner’s parents had access to ‘the exterior’... some little girls had access to the precious blonde doll; most didn’t” (Rogers, 64). Thus the physical possession of the doll signalled its owner to her neighbourhood as one of the “haves”. The doll also served a similar function for her owner internally. The same Nicaraguan woman remembers: “the more our Barbies had, the more we had.” Barbie allowed her owner to vicariously live a life of glamourous consumption through her doll. These examples illustrate that Barbie’s place in the culture at large gives her an immaterial social and psychological function.

In contrast, Carol Ockerman examined artistic appropriations of Barbie, and found that artists use defaced or unconventional images of her to repudiate the social order. A simple internet search reveals that Barbie has been used as a canvas on which to depict a variety of social and personal problems, from domestic violence to impossible beauty standards. Outside of North America, where Barbie represents the dominance of consumer culture, she has been appropriated to repudiate it. In 2004, “Alyona Pisklova”a fifteen year old Russian girl swept her nations online voting for a Miss Universe contestant on the platform that a vote for her was a vote against the “Barbification” of society which she defined not only as promoting unnatural beauty standards, but other Western imports coming in from faceless corporations. Pisklova was far ahead of all competition when she was disqualified due to her age.

The widespread criticism of Barbie’s influence on beauty standards reveals more about the people doing the arguing than it does about the doll herself. Perhaps I am not qualified to join this argument because I have always been thin, blonde, and leggy. But it seems to me people pick and choose what parts of Barbie’s body they ought to be angry about, and ignore everything that goes against their viewpoint. We all know about the blonde hair, perfect complexion, big boobs and legs-up-to-here. But how about those shoulders? The classic Barbie doll had shoulders twice as broad as her waist. Her ribcage was twice the circumference of her rear end, which meant her breasts were actually pitiably small. These are not attractive features on a human being. The whistleblowers that go to great pains to elaborate on how unrealistic Barbie’s figure is never seemed to recognize that no one wanted that figure to begin with. Broad shoulders and a barrel chest are not something little girls dream of having, whether they played with Barbie or not. The advertisements one sees on every billboard, bus shelter and tv spot are the far more likely culprits in adolescent girls’ lowered self esteem, because we are actually made to believe those women exist in nature. Those women have the legs, the hair, the rail thin bodies. But they don’t have the broad shoulders or the freakishly long neck. If Barbie was such an aspirational figure for little girls, wouldn’t they grow up wanting those things too?

In an ironic turn of events, Mattel responded to criticism by making their doll’s body more realistic in the early twenty first century –not realistic enough to assuage young girls’ fears that they will never be beautiful, but realistic enough that she now looks like an idealized female figure, and not a well made drag queen, as she had for decades.

In the American gay community, Barbie has actually been referred to as “every drag queen’s dream.” With her broad shoulders and lack of hips, the pre-millennial Barbie resembled a transsexual more than anything else. Gay and trans-gendered people have embraced this comparison, dressing as Barbie at pride parades and carrying signs that read, “Barbie loves you” and “Got Barbie?”  Essentially, Barbie helped them situate themselves in a discriminatory culture.

These examples show the many ways in which the Barbie doll has transcended its material status as a commodity. Like most toys, Barbie is an agent of personal socialization and interpersonal relations. However, aggressive marketing and integration into pop culture has expanded her influence from that of a toy, to a form of social organization of gender, and a symbol of American consumer culture. Because she represents a cultural ideal, Barbie has been a focal point around which groups and individuals have organized to alternately reject and co-opt the status quo. This iconic status makes Barbie an atypical commodity, but one which provides insight into the ways consumerism becomes culture. 

Gary Cross, The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children’s Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Forman-Brunel, Miriam, “Barbie in ‘LIFE’: The Life of Barbie.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 2 (2009): 303-311.
Kolmar, Wendy, “Remembering Barbie Nation: An interview with Susan Stern.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 30: ½ (2002): 189-195.
Kuther, Tara L., and Erin McDonald, “Early Adolescents’ Experiences With, and Views of, Barbie.”Adolescence 39:153 (2004): 39-51.
M. G. Lord, Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. New York: Morrow and Co., 1994.
NBC. “Schoolgirl becomes unlikely feminist icon in Russia:15-year-old sweeps online poll for Miss Universe spot in ‘anti-Barbie’protest vote.” Last modified April 15, 2004. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4749107/ns/world_news/.
Ockman, Carol,“Barbie Meets Bougereau,” in The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty, ed. Yona Zeldis McDonough, 75-90. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Paris, Leslie,“Teen Idol,” in The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty, ed. Yona Zeldis McDonough, 65-74. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Mary F. Rogers, Barbie Culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Ltd, 1999.
Stern, Susan. Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour. DVD, 1998. San Francisco, CA: New Day Films, 2003.

Friday, 26 April 2013

You're never too old.

We turn now from our coverage of the worlds most famous toy to the world's most famous woman (in 1991--not sure how she ranks now, but she's still a hell of a lot higher than me, so let's continue...), who is also a personal hero of mine. So why do I keep hearing this?

"Madonna is too old. She has to retire."

Let me get one thing straight. If there is a dearth of virgins in the world it’s not because of Madonna’s pop culture influence. It’s because she personally drinks their blood and grinds their bones into an age defying skin cream.

There’s no other explanation.

But here’s the thing: It works.  You can go ahead and tell us it’s tacky for a fifty four year old woman to dress up as a majorette and hurl passive aggressive insults at her successors, but first find me someone half that age who can do this for two hours a night:

Of course, it isn’t just that. Madonna insists on acting fit and sexy. Didn’t anyone tell her that women over fifty are meant to shrivel up and disappear?

 Aw, it thinks its people.

And it’s not like she’s exposing herself at the Superbowl where millions of children might be watching. This in a stadium filled with people who paid hundreds of dollars to see Madonna act like Madonna.

You know the one.

Now, you may remember a time before Madonna ruled the world. I, for one, was not yet born, but it seems to me that the concept of a female artist expressing herself sexually is no longer that shocking. In fact, it seems like its basically par for the course these days. Madonna tested the boundaries by exceeding them, so that every artist who comes along now seems like they're just treading the same old path. Its not as risky as it was. In fact, now it's expected.

Well  Mo’s having the same effect on ageism. People first started saying she was past her prime in her late thirties. When she chugged past forty the insults got serious and now they’re just plain ugly. But here’s the thing: Mariah Carey was 38 when she released “Touch My Body”—the same age Madge was at when people started thinking she was too old for pop. Jennifer Lopez is now 43 and the lynch mob has been surprisingly quiet as keeps on being a sex symbol. Gwen Stefani, likewise is 43 and no one question her right to ask whether she’s “Looking Hot”. These ladies owe Madonna a big sloppy wet kiss. As with her sexuality, the public heaps all its abuse on the first one, and then lets everyone else get a free pass.

 And lets not even mention the men. Madonna is younger than Prince, Springsteen, The Rolling Stones and the rest of the legacy acts, but she's the only one with a loud chorus of people telling her to move on. Dare I state the obvious?

It's because she's a woman, plain and simple.

I’m pretty sure Madonna knows this, so she has to go above and beyond to show off how fit she is, to remind everyone that she has as much a right to be here as anyone else.

I blame you, America.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Public Life of a Private Doll

     Have you ever had that experience, when, after years of keeping someone in the rear periphery of your mind, they surprise you by having a personality of their own?  Maybe its someone at the office who you like but hardly ever talk to. Or maybe its someone you grew up with, and keep in touch out of force of habit, even when adult life has moved you so far apart your paths never cross in daily life. 
     Either way, suddenly you are forced to realise that this comfortable window dressing in your life has a personality all its own, and would disagree with you on pretty much any subject you discussed other than the weather. Its heady. 
      I first had this experience at the tender age of 8. My mother and I were in a crowded area waiting for a number to be called (passport office?) so I took out my Barbie doll. A woman sitting next to us looked at my mother and me, sizing us up, and said,
     "I can't believe you actually let her play with those things."
     My first thought upon hearing this was that this waiting room was a serious place, and I was getting us in trouble by bringing a toy.
      My second thought was, What's this person got against Barbie?
      Mom, to her credit, basically ignored the woman, so she kept talking. "Its an awful message to send to girls. Be tall, be skinny, be blonde, have a boyfriend. You're just teaching her to buy lots of clothes and live in a dream house."
      I didn't speak. I'm sure my mother said something, but I was perplexed. It seemed the inanimate objects living in a duffel bag under the stairs were more active politically than I had originally thought. 
         I wish I'd cleared the air: "Ahem, my barbie is a mountain explorer and her name is Cora. She always dresses well, but I cut her hair off last week, and for the sake of my pride I'll keep playing with her until I accept that I was not meant to be a stylist." If I owned a Ken, he might have been her boyfriend. But at the time Barbie was living the Sapphic lifestyle in a tent with Theresa, and they were very happy.
        Now I wasn't stupid enough to think my 12 inch doll was a real friend. But she was the vessel through which I did most of the talking to my real friends, and the notion that there was some kind of secret agenda behind her perfect, unmoving eyes was positively galling. It upended my world in a big way for as long as I was sitting in that waiting room (Forever. We were there forever)
         This essay isn't about determining whether the Barbie doll is a force for good or evil (stay tuned for part II!). I'll get to that later. Right now I'm mystified by how she became a way for people of different social and political backgrounds to relate to each other. Now, if two children talk to each other about prom and boyfriends through their dolls, that much is to be expected. But when a grown-up uses the doll to criticise a complete stranger's parenting, that's something else entirely. 

     So without further ado, I give you part one of my two part series on Barbie: The Public Life of a Private Doll: How Barbie turns consumerism into culture.

When Mattel celebrated the 50th anniversary of its “Barbie” doll in 2009, she was the most successful toy ever to hit the market, and the bestselling doll in history. Other manufacturers have tried to scale the “wall of pink” that Mattel has established in toy stores around the world, but none have come close to equalling Barbie’s impact. In 1999, Mattel claimed that “Barbie” had an unprecedented one hundred percent name recognition among American women with daughters between three and ten years old. Her popularity, backed always by rigorous ad campaigns and licensing deals, has transformed the Barbie doll from a children’s distraction to a symbol of Americana, rife with all the paradoxes and complications that entails. Why would a toy that promotes a life of adventure over domesticity be a target for feminists? How can a doll that represents strict gender stereotypes also be a symbol of hope for the gay community? Her unprecedented popularity makes Barbie a focal point around which people organize to reject or co-opt the status quo, and a shining example of how consumerism has become culture in modern America.
Barbie was born into a world of harsh gender stereotyping, which she cannot be blamed for creating. In fact, when viewed in the cultural context of 1959, Barbie’s original incarnation seems downright revolutionary. Case in point, this copy came from a 1959 advertisement in Vogue:

 “Pink, most feminine of colours; pink, so naive...so disarming. Pure Pink, newest of Elizabeth Arden’s new lighter make-ups. Emphasizing the fragile look.” (Rogers, 69)

Another reads, “The moment a man walks into his home, he should be made to feel that he is lord of all he surveys.”  Compared to these advertisements, Barbie—the single doll living a life of personal satisfaction rather than domestic duties--is certainly a step in the right direction.
However, Mattel’s aggressive marketing of Barbie to girls has made her an indicator, even an enforcer, of gender categories. In their study of young adolescents’ experiences of Barbie, Kuther and McDonald found that often boys were prohibited by their parents from playing with Barbie because she was deemed a gender-inappropriate toy, regardless of the kind of play they wanted to engage in. Others denied having any experience with the doll, though subsequent responses showed they had. Thus, even if Barbie redefined femininity, her omnipresence in popular culture has arguably reinforced “female” as a category: in the post-Barbie world, women don’t have to be reminded that pink is their signature colour.

So how did this happen? None of this would be possible if it weren’t for Mattel’s integration of Barbie into the social world around her. Barbie fully established her cultural omnipresence in the 1980s through licensing. In this decade, Barbie drank Coca-Cola and, until it was deemed racially insensitive, loved Oreo cookies. In doll form, she appeared with or as other pop-culture figures which were licensed to Mattel, including Elvis Presley and various Disney characters. The image of Barbie herself was licensed out to a diverse set of corporations including (but not limited to) Hallmark Cards, Thermos, Franklin Mint, and Simplicity Pattern Company. As a result of these licensing agreements, Barbie was more visible than ever in the real world, while the hallmarks of American consumer society were reproduced in miniature as her accessories. The result is that after 1980, Barbie was sold as an integrated part of American culture. This integration, though, would always present a paradox: The McDonald’s employee who owns a Corvette and spends time with Scarlett O’Hara may incorporate real cultural entities, but always in a surreal, impossible to equal way. Thus the more Barbie was marketed as a part of the culture, the sharper her contrast to its reality.
The feminists’ demonstrations of the 1970s qualify this association slightly, and show that Barbie was used as a vessel through which individuals commented on social order at large, prior to the aggressive licensing and marketing of the 1980s. In the early 1970s, “NOW” – “National Organization for Women” condemned Mattel’s advertisements featuring boys playing with educational toys and girls playing with dolls. Though this ad was not as sexist as the others they pinpointed from the same era, NOW chose to leaflet the Toy Fair in 1972. More interestingly, this protest coincided with the release of “Dramatic Living Barbie”, the first Barbie doll with flat feet, and less restricted movement than her predecessors. “Dramatic Living” was developed largely as a response to criticisms of Barbie’s unrealistic and largely immoveable figure, yet because of the feminist protest against the Barbie brand in general, she was discontinued quickly, and future dolls were made with the old immovable torsos and permanently arched feed. This episode indicates a paradox which seems to permeate most cultural critiques of Barbie. Mattel was far from the worst offender among the advertisements targeted by NOW (one for Chrysler depicted a mother advising her daughter to conceal her knowledge about cars to seem more appealing to boys), and “Dramatic Living” Barbie represented a step in the right direction towards a more useful depiction of women’s bodies. Yet Barbie was targeted to such an extent that to this day none of the high ranking female executives at Mattel (and there are a fair few) self-identify as “feminists”. This may be explained by Barbie’s prominent role as a representative of consumer culture. As a symbol of consumerism and the American way of life, Barbie symbolically contains the broader social climate. Though this episode indicates that the association was made prior to the 1980s, it was intensified by the marketing changes and increased licensing which made Barbie into the icon she is today.
Prior to 1980, Barbie’s popularity fluctuated, leading to near financial ruin for Mattel and her creator Ruth Handler. It’s no coincidence that in this period, Mattel was struggling to dissociate her from the politically charged real world context. In the early sixties, Jackie Kennedy was considered a “risk free” figure which inspired Barbie’s fashions, but this ended when she married Aristotle Onassis. By the late 1960s when the United States was politically and socially polarized, Barbie’s clothes became entirely self-referential. What once may have been called “Goin’ Fishin’” or “Sorority Meeting” were now named for their fabrics: “Snug Fuzz” and “Knit Hit”. It was not until the 1980s that Mattel began consistently and aggressively integrating Barbie into pop culture by associating her with commodities available for the consumer’s own use. This development went hand in hand with a dramatic increase in her sales and prominence.
Between 1959 and 1979, the Reader’s Guide shows only four articles about Barbie. There were that many in 1996 alone, and between 1990 and 1996 there were twenty two. Licensing was certainly not the only mediating factor in this increase. Intensified marketing, the introduction of collectibles such as “Holiday Barbie”, and Mattel’s decision to target three types of play: hairstyling, lifestyling, and collecting, proved very profitable. However, the practise of licensing pervaded all these areas of play, and was the main factor in transforming Barbie from a popular toy to a cultural juggernaut. Though she always embodied the American dream as a conspicuous consumer, she was now frequently consuming things that Americans could as well—Mcdonalds, Oreo cookies, Coca-Cola.
As Barbie functions to connect consumers to the social world around them, she can be appropriated as a symbol for that world, a focal point around which both individuals and groups organize to enact social change. There is a consensus among detractors and supporters alike that Barbie represents a cultural ideal. She is a wealthy, independent woman of leisure (unless she chooses to take up any of a variety of socially accepted careers). In light of this, it may be unsurprising that she has become the vessel through which people criticize or comment on society. Beyond the myriad criticisms and affirmations of the doll itself, individuals and organizations have used Barbie to comment on social order at large.
So when the lady at the DMV criticised my mother for letting me play with my dolls, it really had nothing to do with me. How could it? She didn’t even know us. In her eyes, the Barbie doll connected me to a culture which she already had some very strong views about.
 After some research I know why. In Part II I’ll look at how this makes a difference to the individuals playing. So stay tuned!
Gary Cross, The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children’s Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Forman-Brunel, Miriam, “Barbie in ‘LIFE’: The Life of Barbie.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth  2 (2009): 303-311.
Kolmar, Wendy, “Remembering Barbie Nation: An interview with Susan Stern.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 30: ½  (2002): 189-195.
Kuther, Tara L., and Erin McDonald, “Early Adolescents’ Experiences With, and Views of, Barbie.” Adolescence 39:153 (2004): 39-51.
M. G. Lord, Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. New York: Morrow and Co., 1994.
NBC. “Schoolgirl becomes unlikely feminist icon in Russia:15-year-old sweeps online poll for Miss Universe spot in ‘anti-Barbie’ protest vote.” Last modified April 15, 2004. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4749107/ns/world_news/.
Ockman, Carol, “Barbie Meets Bougereau,” in The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty, ed. Yona Zeldis McDonough, 75-90. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Paris, Leslie, “Teen Idol,” in The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty, ed. Yona Zeldis McDonough, 65-74. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Mary F. Rogers, Barbie Culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Ltd, 1999.
Stern, Susan. Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour. DVD, 1998. San Francisco, CA: New Day Films, 2003.