Ah, Barbie: feminist whipping girl, delight of fashion-forward children, she of the flowing flaxen mane, booboisie charms, and impossibly pointed feet. Barbie's been doing some soul-searching lately, which is what happens when a parent dies. Her creator, Ruth Handler, passed away recently, sparking a wave of nostalgia and introspection on the part of those who played with Barbie, hated Barbie, loved Barbie, or some combination thereof. What does Barbie mean to us now? Does Barbie enforce oppressive gender, racial, heterosexual, and consumerist norms or is she just a toy? And why don't her shoes ever stay on?
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I've written mean things about Barbie before, (at my previous job at a feminist newspaper). Not really, really mean things, but it wouldn't have surprised a reader to find out that I had scalped the only Barbie I ever owned. I just took a test at www.thespark.com that says I'm a man, so what do you expect?
When I was a kid, Barbie just seemed sort of boring, with her vapidly smiling expression and the curious immobility of her limbs. She couldn't climb a tree or run, and even dressing her was well-nigh impossible. So in addition to being bald, my Barbie was always butt-ass naked and pathetically sprawled in a corner. But I was shocked to find myself, the last time I was in a toy store, spellbound by one of her outfits: those sumptuous colors, the sequins, the elegant cut of her gown. I wanted me some of that.
And that's Barbie's charm. Before she sprang full-blown from her mother's head in the '50s, dolls were made in the form of babies. Girls were supposed to change them when they pooped, burp them, feed them. So Barbie scandalized the public at first, with her wanton expression and the form of play -- dress-up, grown-up childless fantasy -- she was supposed to elicit.
The 1975 appearance of Growing-Up Skipper set off more alarms. When you cranked Skipper's arm, her breasts would grow. But while I initially found this information disturbing, it made more sense the more I thought about it. Adolescence is a strange, scary thing, and it's reassuring to have a doll on which to enact fears and fantasies of sexuality and bodily change. It's like puberty without the zits, maxi pads, and crying.
I've seen little girls use Barbies in these ways, as safe outlets to explore dark feelings, anger, and ambivalence. One girl's Barbies were subjected to bizarre little spanking and making-out rituals with one another. Another girl would play quite placidly with her Barbies, but when her little brother came snooping around, she had no qualms about hitting him with a doll.
Adults are not above subverting the shiny, happy world of Barbie either. The Barbie Liberation Army, for example, wreaked havoc during the 1993 Christmas season by switching the electronic voice boxes of Teen Talk Barbie and Talking Dude G.I. Joe. (The Barbies would bellow, "Eat lead, Cobra!"; the G.I. Joes would exclaim, "Let's go shopping!") And fearing the obsolescence of Barbie's plastic paramour, Ken, Mattel created a cooler, hipper Ken in 1993 -- "Earring Magic Ken," who wore a faux-leather jacket, purple mesh shirt, ear piercing, and a silver ring around his neck. Gay men saved Ken from being discontinued by snatching him up and most stores had sold out of the doll by Christmas. Earring Magic Barbie had to go home alone.
But Barbie is far from perfect. After former Ms. Magazine associate editor Ophira Edut put out a book on body image entitled Adios, Barbie, Mattel slapped Edut with a lawsuit and forced her to change the cover and title. Then in 2000 President Barbie came out in Latina, African-American, and Caucasian models (an Asian American version was nowhere to be seen). In response to queries from media and Asian American groups, spokeswoman Julia Jensen said, without providing any figures or data, "That particular community has not expressed interest in a doll that reflects their ethnicity." There was, however, a "Fantasy Goddess of Asia" doll. Gee, thanks. When they did try for ethnic diversity, Mattel seemed inordinately fond of the Miss Universe brand of multiculturalism: dolls of color dressed up in traditional garb. There were a few U.S. "Friends of Barbie" who were of color, but they have always been just second-best.
So Barbie's a complicated woman and my feelings about her are just as complicated. But despite the racial conformity, the hyper-unreal body, and the other ways she pings my political radar, I don't think she's intrinsically evil -- the subversive play of adults and children save her from having any one meaning. Sure, the rigor-mortis limbs, the too-much hair, and the freakish smile are strange. But those qualities also make her reassuringly the same, a nice blank canvas on which to impose meaning, to fantasize, and to exert power. And nothing's wrong with that, especially when a kid can dress Barbie up in such amazing clothes.
Now if I could only figure out how to keep the shoes on.