Sunday, July 25, 2010
The Yucky Barbie is Decadent and Depraved
Barbie was my chosen tool of play as a child. I don’t know how many I had, or how many my parents were coerced into buying me, but I do know that at one stage I had a Barbie stable.
Despite this, I don’t recall my numerous dolls with any fondness. It’s not hatred or dislike I feel either, more ambivalence. I think this is because no matter how many I acquired, I always wanted the next one; I lived on the promise of more.
Even now I’m baffled by what it was that made me yearn for those dolls, because, in all honesty, what did they actually do? Lay there with blue eyes, wide and empty, smiling inanely. The only conclusion I can reach is the TV ads in which Barbie danced, nursed, played, and sang. I think I always expected her to arrive jumping out of her box. Instead, it always took her so long to get out of the shagging box you’d swear they soldered her in.
But in the ads Barbie was never tied to cardboard, oh no. She was the life and soul of the party. She was a housewife, disco queen, singing superstar who slowly tried to develop in to an icon, women could be proud of, vet and Doctor Barbie. If Barbie the paralegal had emerged I would not have been surprised. Barbie the Revolutionary, the Pulitzer Winner, etc.
Considering the inspiration for Barbie dolls came from a cartoon based on a German “working girl” there’s a lot to be said about her changing attitude towards the role of women. Most of the first Barbie’s were marketed as either “teen fashion dolls” or the atypical housewife. The picture of innocence and virtue, far from the walking the streets of Berlin vibe this doll was reared.
When I had finally freed Doctor Barbie from her twist knot bonds, my excitement ebbed away. I had her in my hands. I wasn’t satisfied. She wasn’t a doctor. Apart from her white coat she was identical in every way to Teacher Barbie, from her frilly dress down to the tips of her sparkly-painted toes.
Advertising is a wonderful thing. It can transform the most mundane, plastic blocks into something magical, desirable. Something that parents across the land will look upon with dread as they picture the next few months of their lives dominated with statements such as “Mam! Race Car Barbie is crap without her race car/racetrack/pit team.” As the age old saying goes, if Barbie is so popular why do I have to buy her friends?
They were a high maintenance lot, the Barbie Dream Team. You could tell by looking at them. Long toothpick legs, a waistline that made you thank God they had no internal organs, breasts so pointed the box should have read: “Hazard, sudden movement may cause eye injury.” Poor Ken. No wonder he never progressed further than Barbie’s boyfriend. He was too dazed by her dazzling good looks to finish that college degree he always seemed to be in the middle of.
The controversy over Barbie’s size has raged for years and at times it’s so intense that I just long to hear someone shout out “Jesus, it’s only a doll!” But of course to many women (and men) across the world she is much, much more than that. She is the embodiment of perfection and suddenly all our life’s failures become clear. It’s all because we don’t look like her. This is what our culture’s obsession with flawlessness has brought us to. The life that Barbie has developed of her own (in 2004 she broke up with Ken, but in 2006 publicists reported they were working things out) makes it extraordinarily difficult for some to differentiate between what’s real and what’s fantasy. Where does her success end, and our failure begin?
There’s no knowing the extent of damage Barbie’s appearance caused us as children. At the very least we know it didn’t force the maternal instinct on us because under no circumstances could those hips bear child. I think I was more envious of her hair than her beyond reality measurements.
I remember reading an article a few years ago in which a woman wrote about the effect of Barbie on her adult life. One line always stood out to me; “In reality Barbie was always nothing without me.” As children, we brought to life what otherwise would have been a boring, motionless piece of plastic, roughly modelled after a 1930s German prostitute. Barbie may have the beauty, the boyfriend and the gang of sweatshop children at her disposable, but we were always the brains behind the games. --Niamh King
Editor's Note: Barbie Goes Gaga