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’.

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