Pretty, Fizzy Paradise

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Disjointed Thoughts About Barbie

Over on her blog Pai, a feminist blogger named Saranga has an interesting take on the Supergirl Barbie.

Barbie Supergirl? Barbie's are fucking horrible. My particular brand of feminism hates them, they're fucking bimbos. And you want to make the DC female superheroes into Barbies? You want to take away all their individuality, their distinctiveness and separate identities and pour them all into one hollow plastic identikit shell? Fuck. Off. My beef with Barbie is they are sold as the ideal woman, the prettiest, the most slender, the tallest, the best shape you can be. And there's only ever one shape. From the website - From urban teen to fantasy queen she's every girl! Not mine she fucking aint.

First, while I do understand why a follower of certain brands of feminism might hate Barbie Dolls: there are certainly issues with regard to the "ideal image" presented if nothing else, Saranga's take on Supergirl as a Barbie genuinely doesn't sit right with me. Making superheroines into Barbies isn't about taking away individuality, distinctiveness and separate identities to pour them all into one hollow plastic identikit shell, it's simply about having a miniature version of that superheroine to play with.

Same as action figures, really. And honestly, it's not like female action figures bodies come with a whole lot of actual variation either. Much as I do enjoy the Kandor-arc Nightwing and Flamebird dolls I raved about, I can't help but notice that for two characters with such disparate heights, weights, builds and ages in the comic they look awfully close to the same figurine in the pictures Shelly's linked.

If anything, small and ultra-thin sixteen year old Kara looks to be the more buxom of the two in that particular camera angle.

I can't really argue with the "Bimbo" complaint, much as I would like to. I remember when I first began working in the toy store how sad I found it that all the really interesting dress-up potential that I remember the dolls having seemed to be gone the way of the dodo. Back when I was a kid, I remember all the cops and pilots, olympic athletes, astronauts, cowgirls and the like that the dolls came marketed as. Admittedly, my pilot doll's hat was bright pink and she wore particularly impractical stiletto heels, but that kind of came part and parcel with the whole deal. Now, I suppose we're lucky enough to have "baby doctor", "pet doctor" (of course, god forbid someone spell out veternarian or pediatrician on the box and teach kids a new word or two. That strikes me as sad, especially because I learned how to spell Czechoslovakia from a Barbie box. And then the country split. Most useless skill ever. Thank you, Barbie!) and possibly a teacher or two. Oh, and Ballerinas of course.

I was particularly crushed to see that the nifty costume sets appear to have fallen by the wayside in favor of trendy fashion fever ensembles. Don't get me wrong, I do like a lot of them, but I miss the sheer variety that used to be available. (I'm of the age of nostalgia, everything was better when I was a kid, don't mind me! :-))

At the same time, as much as Barbie may dress like a bimbo, that doesn't make her one. Barbie is what the child who plays with her decides she is. Sure, there will be girls for whom Barbie is nothing more than a party girl who loves to shop, but there are also those girls out there who do a lot more with their dolls than that. Mine was a mercenary swordswoman, thanks to a gnawed off ski-pole and some clever creativity with a Wild West wardrobe. And I know many other girls who found their own way to play "outside the box.

So I suppose I do argue with the Bimbo complaint. Because it really does dismiss the fact that behind the doll, there's a living breathing person who is finding her own way to externalize her fantasies.

It seems to be especially silly to me because the DC Heroines aren't bimbos themselves. Supergirl? Black Canary? Wonder Woman? Batgirl? Well, I suppose, to be fair, sometimes it depends on who's writing them, but traditionally these are not bimbo characters. Dressing a Barbie Doll in costume and sculpting face/wig to resemble the character won't suddenly make these characters Bimbos.

I do think there is merit to the complaint that when you have Barbies, it really is a one size/one build mold. I don't think it's about being tallest or slenderest though (especially because all of the "Barbie's Friends" dolls use the same mold), I think it's just because, ultimately, we're talking about fashion dolls here. Fashion dolls are about the clothes first, so it's fairly natural that Barbies are going to be sculpted in a particular way, so that they can fit the clothes. The dolls aren't being made as a value judgment as to what the perfect woman should look like.

This isn't to say some children haven't internalized the message that they should look like that, I'm sure some have. But I think that's more indicative of greater problems with our medias' message, of which Barbie dolls are one part. It's something that needs fixing all around. Not just the dolls.

Ultimately, dolls are dolls. They're fun. They're placeholders for our imaginations. They're us and not us. And sometimes, they're superheroes. Which actually makes me more than a little jealous since I had to make do with a gymnasts' uniform and a makeshift handkerchief cape for my superhero doll. But then the nice thing about being an adult is being able to buy for myself. And while my own inner seven year old isn't much for Supergirl, she can't WAIT for a Black Canary doll of her very own. :-)


  • At April 02, 2008 9:50 AM, Blogger Amy Reads said…

    Hi Kalinara,
    I have three Barbies: Harley Quinn, Elektra, and Batgirl. I debated Sue Storm too long and she was sold out. I cannot wait for the Black Canary Barbie because she's Absolutely Lovely, and she is Quality Made. That's the beauty of Mattel.

    Now the Barbie I really want is Empress Josephine, but she runs $300, and I won't even spend that on the new fabulous museum quality Wonder Woman.

    This is not intended as any slight to the original poster you quoted, but I grew up in the 80s when the first questioning of Barbie truly began. This has been a saga I have watched unfold for over 20 years, and while I understand the Young Woman Saranga's dislike of Barbie, I cannot get behind it, myself.

    But that is the beauty of feminism, no? We all get our own voice.

  • At April 02, 2008 10:38 AM, Blogger SallyP said…


    I love my dolls. I'm a grown woman, and I still love my dolls. AND action figures. And yes, I'm looking forward with great zeal to the Black Canary doll.

    Yes, Barbie can be described a s plastic and too pink, and presenting an unrealistic ideal to young girls. Big Whoop. Do we really see kids as being completely devoid of imagination any more? I used to dress my Barbie up as Anne Boleyn. Granted, I was a slightly weird child, but I think we are shortchanging kids if we just assume that they think like adults.

  • At April 02, 2008 10:52 AM, Blogger Ragtime said…

    In the Raghome, Barbies come in, but they usually wish they hadn't. Barbie mutilation is rampant, and apparently this is the norm.

    This AP article report:

    "The girls we spoke to see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity, and see the torture as a 'cool' activity," said Agnes Nairn, one of the University of Bath researchers. "The types of mutilation are varied and creative, and range from removing the hair to decapitation, burning, breaking and even microwaving."

    Microwaving is certainly not allowed in the Raghome, but its the lucky Barbie that can survive a day without a haircut, random piercings, and extensive use of indelible marker.

    Yeah, sure. Barbie could promote negative body issues -- is she still had a body by nightfall!

  • At April 02, 2008 2:03 PM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    Any time someone brings up girls customizing their dolls, I have to bring up this strip. Apologies for Randy's potty mouth. :-)

    Typically when folks complain about Barbie dolls, it's out of concern for the sorts of messages they send to little girls: about body image, "acceptable" social roles, etc. In particular, I recall the brouhaha over the talking Barbie in the early `90s, who uttered phrases like "Math is hard!" which sparked protests and gave birth to a Simpsons episode where Kathleen Turner played the creator of Barbie stand-in, Malibu Stacy. And don't forget that Barbie used to be ridiculously skinny; Mattel widened her waist about a decade ago.

    [And I SWEAR I just Googled that info, honest!]

    I can certainly understand the concerns. I wouldn't want my younger cousins or nieces to have narrowly-defined notions of what they could or should grow up to be. And if Barbie were the only image of the modern woman girls grew up with, I would find it worrisome. But apart from the fact that little girls (and boys) are NOT just empty vessels into which bad ideas are poured, there are (I hope!) a lot more role models girls can turn to if they (or their parents) don't care for Barbie.

  • At April 02, 2008 3:59 PM, Blogger Zaratustra said…

    Barbie encourages girls to be thin, blond, and eleven inches tall.

  • At April 02, 2008 6:54 PM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    I personally rly like the Supergirl barbie :) (altho the red nail polish and heels seem out of place :( ) I think she looks very heroic and awesome :) Esp compared to some of the other recent Supergirl figures that DC has come out with :\

  • At April 02, 2008 10:52 PM, Blogger Rocketlex said…

    On the old subject of Barbie vs. Body Image, I personally have always simply viewed Barbie's looks and figure as "stylized," and clearly not intended to be realistic. Perhaps the idea is that young-enough girls wouldn't be able to make that distinction?

  • At April 03, 2008 1:32 AM, Anonymous Em said…

    Never really got behind the whole "Barbie is promoting body image problems" complaint, which is something I only hear from grown people. Kids complain that there's not enough variety in hair/skin colors and styles--so that they all look different from one another in a group. I don't know if I ever even noticed that Barbies were thin and tall. They just looked as they do, like any other doll I owned. (Can you imagine the mess of manufacturing different body sizes for one line of dolls? I'm thinking the clothes alone would be a huge headache.)

    Gotta say, though, that it's true that Barbie's clothes and themes have gone pretty downhill in terms of creativity. I mean, I'm jealous of all the new great furniture sets and cool stuff (and the variety of Kens--we had ONE, and he looked like someone's dad), but B wasn't just a fashionista in my day. She was a fashionista with 1,000 careers. That part seems to be missing from the current line.

  • At April 03, 2008 2:24 PM, Anonymous Mark Engblom said…

    I wonder why the possibility of crazily-muscled male action figures warping a boy's body image is never talked about.

  • At April 03, 2008 2:46 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Interestingly, Mark, I see that sort of thing talked about all the time. Oddly enough, it always seems to be in response to a genuine criticism to something with a debatably harmful portrayal of women, seemingly as a reason to dismiss said criticism.

    Now why it doesn't seem to ever be brought up as its own issue, well, I wouldn't begin to try to conjecture.


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