Barbie Gets a Life

Lorna Scott Fox

  • Barbie’s Queer Accessories by Erica Rand
    Duke, 213 pp, £43.50, July 1995, ISBN 0 8223 1604 8
  • The Art of Barbie: Artists Celebrate the World’s Favourite Doll edited by Craig Yoe
    Workman, 149 pp, £14.99, October 1994, ISBN 1 56305 751 4

‘Barbie can be anything you want her (yourself) to be!’ Thus the sales pitch for a plastic toy that in most people’s minds simply represents the essence of bimbo-ness. But what if the big hair and tacky costumes were actually vehicles of patriarchal and racial hegemony, while also enabling a potentially subversive network of reappropriative authorial narratives? Investigations like Barbie’s Queer Accessories defy you to giggle as they unfold with Monty Pythonesque obliviousness to the gulf between high-minded scrutiny and its silly object. But the premise of mickey-mouse academics is often fruitful: that the least cultural droppings are microcosms of a wider political dynamic, to be prodded and tested in a reflexology of the social body.

If we accept this then a world of pleasures opens up, pioneered by Barthes’s Mythologies, brilliantly expanded by off-beat, speculative historical adventurers like Robert Darnton, and narrowed by most contemporary researchers to the study of products of mass consumption. Foucault obscurely meditated about authority or confinement or sex; Erica Rand can make equally weighty points with the aid of Ken’s crotch. Part of a campy Post-Modern genre of gender construction and deconstruction studies, epitomised in the work and persona of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (the straight woman in heavily-theorised white glasses who would rather be a gay man), Barbie’s Queer Accessories nonetheless keeps one foot high on the moral ground of traditional liberalism, obeying only half of Oscar Wilde’s First Rule of Camp: to ‘treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.’

Another contemporary Mattel Inc. by-product bristling with trademark signs gave me pause, however: this bitch is both real and dangerous. The Art of Barbie slavers over the unselfconsciously sexist and imperialist construct I’d thought was extinct or at least embarrassed by now. Unfortunately it seems big sister/dream goddess never left the plucky Eisenhower country mapped by these ‘artworks’. Everyone from John Baldessari to the Rev. Howard Finster recombines tulle and Disney, winged sunglasses and King Kongs with the truly scary hairy monster which has been bought 800 million times. The introduction is helpful about that figure: ‘imagine the population of India clad in bubble-gum pink with free-flowing synthetic hair and you begin to get the picture.’ Erica Rand certainly gets it, yet she too hails Barbie – from the correct side of the political tracks – as ‘a great take-off point for considering cultural appropriation’, ‘a great opportunity to study the role of “artistic intention” in the creation of meaning’, and ‘a great vehicle for social criticism’.

How can the miserable Barbie, now aged 36, pull it all off? Of course, it only takes one group to buy rapturously into an image and its latent discourse for another to start deconstructing. No corpse without maggots. But Barbie is also inherently contradictory. Familiar yet inimitable (even with the plastic surgery that some fanatics undertake), she sports an all-tit torso and no slit, is mysteriously able to be one and many on a scale that leaves the Holy Trinity standing, and gets routinely tortured in the world’s nurseries – even though, according to The Art of Barbie, she inspires nothing but ‘gentle humour, sweet romance and near-religious devotion’.

Such contradictions give Rand her field for cultural interpretation, covering sexuality, class and ethnicity, as well as problems of intention and reception. She makes, to say the least, a thorough job of it, most absorbingly so in the first section about the doll’s own deep history, which is veiled by conflicting myths of origin. In the Beginning, Barbie was attributed by Mattel to ‘Ruth Handler, Devoted Mom’: this is Rand’s term to distinguish her from the ‘Ruth Handler, Mattel Founder’, who got done for fraud and dropped from the tale. (She went on, aptly, to make breast prostheses.) Today Mattel prefers to say Barbie was born from market research, ignoring semi-rogue sources which name the father as the unstable genius Jack Ryan, playboy and missile engineer. Then there’s the Lilli doll version of the story, a favourite among Barbie collectors. That news wasn’t broken until 1987, when ex-Mattel employee Cy Schneider claimed the company bought all the rights to this German ‘adult male’s pet’, based on a Das Bild cartoon prostitute, before testing it in the US. ‘Virtually all the mothers hated it ... Virtually all the girls, whose mothers were not present when they were shown the doll, loved it. The Handlers renamed Lilli, selling the new doll as Barbie.’

Mattel’s wary legal silence over Lilli fuels Rand’s assessment of the firm as ‘successful purveyors of hegemonic discourse’. Mattel can’t afford to clash with either mothers or collectors, let alone feminists or the Christian Coalition, and must maintain itself in ‘moving equilibrium’ with the entire world. ‘The line is designed to rope in everyone, progressive to reactionary; the products are designed to avoid challenging the status quo ... Yet, today more than ever, Barbie commentators are invoking Barbie’s career freedom and multi-ethnicity as reasons to love her.’

At first, though, Barbie’s only career was the nebulous one of Teenage Fashion Model. The plan was to make her as blank as possible, the better to serve the vagaries of girlish fantasy; though Lilli’s black eyes were changed to blue, since as Rand points out, the unrestricted fantasy touted by Mattel did not include fantasising about being foreign. In the mid-Sixties, the strategy changed under pestering from children and the urge to sell more products. Barbie acquired the full name Barbara Millicent Roberts, hazy parents who soon disappeared, a home town called Willows, sidekicks like Midge and Skipper – and Ken, who was given the ‘asexual appearance of a wimpy little jerk’ so she could go out more, as chastely as her own troublesome bust would let her.

Though they thought nothing of Barbie’s obvious ‘lack’, Mattel agonised about anatomical correctness for Ken. Schneider recalls the board’s dilemma: ‘If his genitalia were included, some mothers would object. If his genitalia were omitted, would he look like some wounded Hemingway hero?’ They decided to give Ken permanently moulded jockey shorts ‘with a lump in the appropriate spot’. But a Japanese production engineer took it upon himself to eliminate both shorts and lump, saving millions. Schneider concludes: ‘Ken was brought into the world a neuter and it didn’t matter one whit. Barbie’s virginity was not threatened. Children did not think Ken had been in some horrible accident. These issues had all been concerns of adults who had over-stressed the problem.’ Rand draws subtler lessons, connected to her other, deliberately provocative model for Mattel: the corporation as artist. The anecdote ‘serves as a reminder of how tricky it is to read “artistic intention” from the created object’ and of how cost of production, division of labour, or accident can shape what only the gullible would ascribe to ‘the meaningful workings of the artist’s mind’.

So Barbie got a life, which was quickly snatched away when the urge to sell yet more products made diversification necessary, and she exploded into a kind of multiple abstraction. The latent liberated image of a sexpot with infinite cash and leisure options had been played down in the mid-Sixties Barbie comics and novels, with their emphasis on thrift and the personalisation of fashion and cosmetics. Such Barbie off-shoots, intended to help girls growing up in a new world where suburbia and mass production clashed with an incipient culture of freedom, meant that she always had to undermine her own stratospheric example for the benefit of middle-class fatty friends. But by the late Sixties, proto-feminist social demands made it more lucrative for Mattel to bring back Barbie’s ‘limitless’ potential with career as well as leisure outfits. These careers have always been more limited than the discourse implied – from 1967, which saw Barbie’s prescient move from Pan Am to Braniff, to 1992 when Phil Donahue tried to placate a Barbie-hater in the audience with the gift of an African-American Desert Storm Barbie, as if there were no controversy over the US Army’s fondness for sending people of colour to the Gulf. I find the absence of Bucket ‘n’ Mop or Meat-Packin’ Barbies, let alone Bag Lady or Total Acne Barbies, more predictable than Rand seems to do. Fantasy doesn’t require manipulation to tend upward, even as far as the glass ceiling of female achievement; and a mass-market doll has no call to be an inventory of reality, just as the custodians of the status quo have no business dishing out impeccably alternative culture.

Yet Rand takes pages to demonstrate the tokenism of Barbie’s recent ‘multicultural’ alter egos, like black Shani (whom Mattel, in true ethnobabble style, sells as ‘light and darkness ... very conscious of her culture, which she views as a rich tapestry of history, customs and family values’). Surely the book’s foreseeable readers will have seen through this ploy by themselves. Post-Modern academia is often tempted to retrace familiar ground with a new set of wacky examples. The way dominant discourse does not construe whiteness as ‘ethnic’ is nicely illustrated in an early novel by Barbie’s fling with a Hawaiian, who makes her briefly, upsettingly, aware of her own ‘otherness’ before she regains her colonial composure.

When it comes to the chapter about what people did and didn’t do with Barbie, some testimonies are wonderfully suggestive, others perhaps a waste of time: ‘Georgia and Eve’s stories suggest that the intensely felt gap between wanting and getting occurred especially in children from low-income families.’ Teresa Ortega had an intense desire to get Barbie into an elevator – quite common, apparently. The otherwise mousy Ann used to paint nipples on her and rub them off, over and over, when the parents were out. Barbie turned someone’s sister into an alien: ‘Now she’s just like her. She’s materialistic. And now her daughters are into Barbie.’ A sub-section called ‘Dyke Destiny Stories’ brings us Penny, renaming her doll ‘Janet’ after the babysitter, and having her way with her. Sue, provisionally defined as a tomboy, despised Barbie and hankered after Ken; someone else burnt her breasts off. But ‘there seemed to be no standard correlation between Barbie rejection and later sexual or gender identity, ‘Rand admits. One hole in the data bothers her: ‘I hate the way my evidence perpetuates the invisibility of fem dykes as dykes, supporting the oppressive notion ... that having a masculine side is some crucial element of real dyke identity.’ As she delves further into the imbalances of gender construction, social pressures and memory, it becomes clear that queer rather than straight identity is the one to be explained in our world, so that casting back for prophetic moments might well prompt one to find or invent transgressively butch symbols.

Despite such signs that the shiftiness of the material may swamp her purposes, Rand now engages in a climactic tug of war. Can the desirable doll be wrested from Mattel for political ends? Can she be bad enough to become counterculturally good? Yes and no. Essex Hemphill’s poem ‘Soft Targets’, about the black man arrested for nailing Barbie heads to telephone poles, evokes racial violence as precarious justification for its own male violence: police persecution of black men ostensibly to protect white women, or the fact that ‘Barbie never told Black girls/they are beautiful.’ The doll reference is handy for social criticism, ventures Rand, for readers ‘do not have to get to the seventh stanza ... to realise that Barbie doesn’t refer to Klaus Barbie.’ A horde of other artefacts appease the clamour for overtly gay Barbiedom, like the card with a Totally Out Barbie crying ‘Clit Power’, or the Mondo Barbie anthology where we discover ‘pre-op transsexual Kendra, a dyke trapped in the body of a dream-boat’. There are several excellent Aids Barbies, like the montage in Diseased Pariah News which parodied the theme-with-variations trope to present dolls accessorised with different Aids-related complications, under the phrase, from a famous Mattel gaffe: ‘And she thought math class was tough!’ Even collectors can be labelled subversive because Mattel doesn’t profit ... except in publicity terms, as it does in all these reappropriations. All twisted Barbies rely for their meaning on the straight, Mattel-authored nice girl whom they thereby endorse. The dominant is the dominant is the dominant.

This fact looms when Rand describes making a lesbian Barbie piece herself. Barbie’s Dream Loft staged a white, blonde doll in the makers’ kinky lingerie, bent over a chair under a Western Fun Nia, her Native American chum, with a Barbara Kruger postcard presiding over all. Rand thought the piece successful for the way it forced Mattel into a queer accessory role, and sent up cheap ‘diversity scenarios’ and ‘Post-Modern radical chic’. However, it was hard to decide which colour should go on top. As it stood, the piece reinforced ‘racial stereotypes of the dark brute overpowering the less animalistic white girl’ but ‘putting blonde Barbie on top would have performed white supremacy. In terms of race, there was no way out of dominant discourse.’ Indeed, ‘I find this a lot with Barbie subversions, that they perpetuate as much as subvert crummy ideologies.’

She is forced to acknowledge the symmetry. Just as women’s testimonies prove that the hegemonic ‘artist’ can’t control all the reactions inspired by its masterpiece, so too protest art may find itself contributing willy nilly to meanings it does not care for. I would add that ambiguity is always fertile in good art, where unintended readings are simply further readings. It can only be seen as a problem in didactic work devoted to the calculated matching of elements with meanings, doomed to stand or fall by audience response. Of course, Mattel is no artist but a clever business giant; it can sail over all manner of contradictions to achieve its goal (profits) better than the subverters often achieve theirs.

Rand’s conclusion, rousingly entitled ‘On Our Backs, in Our Hands, on Our Broadsides’, boils down to the most tentative of summaries: Barbie, goddess-fashion, escapes us all; but among her favours and curses she has deigned to turn a few people into cultural and political activists. An often fascinating journey through ideology has led us back to the quaint truism that nothing will change until something changes in the real world – ‘until Barbie’s real-life social and cultural contexts, both mainstream and subcultural, get reaccessorised and refashioned for justice.’ Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick would never have said that.