Thoughts on Barbie
Here is Mattel's first attempt at an African American doll, Colored Francie. (1967)
Before starting a serious discussion about Barbie, the incredible range of personal reactions people have to an 11 ½ inch plastic text need to be acknowledged. Our personal reactions to Barbie are so multifaceted and numerous, that it makes Barbie’s resume look simple and her wardrobe look minuscule.
On one hand, Barbie is a brand and a commercial icon first and foremost. Kaydian talks about Barbie from a perspective of her commercial value:
“I think Barbie is just another brand, like Disney or Superman; you can stamp the name on anything and it instantly becomes more valuable. I remember having this realization about Barbies when I was pretty young (less than 7). Barbies were about $800 (Jamaican dollars),…To me, Barbie was an expensive toy, one I did not feel justified asking my parents for, one one I most certainly would not save my pocket money for either.” Kaydian
Barbie is also not your average purchase, there is an iconic symbolism to her. Laura wonders if she is a representation of an American spirit of fun, exploration, and fantasy. Her symbolism at this point is so much larger than the doll that she can also be looked at ironically or as a conversation piece:
“I have to be honest. I like Barbie. Barbie is kind of America to the extreme. She is successful, beautiful, and multi-talented. She is a bigger celebrity than any A-lister currently in Hollywood. She’s an icon, and one who has been emulated by other people more than anyone else in American history. She’s enough of an American icon to have been one of Andy Warhol’s subjects… and that is pretty American. Can’t she be an ironic statement? A kind of poster child for Americana fun and being all you can be.” Laura
Barbie holds the keys to a certain representation of life, and because she embodies this fantasy, we have to really contemplate and interpret Barbie as a text. Barbie’s multiple levels of symbolism lead to conflicting interpretations within an individual, not simply within a group. Ana tells us about her conflicting views of Barbie:
“I have great anxiety about whether or not I will let my kids play with Barbie. As a little girl, I played with Barbie a lot, and I definitely played with her longer than my friends did. I had the Barbie collectibles that stayed in their boxes that they talked about in the article. But why wouldn’t I like playing with Barbie?” Ana
Ana brings up the big question, “Why wouldn’t I like playing with Barbie?”, and she highlights the tension between how we feel about Barbie and how we think we should feel about her. For many women, these two ideas paradoxically coexist.
Barbie is a source of frustration though because she also represents such an elevated form of pleasure. Barbie can frustrate you because you don’t have the Malibu Beach House like you saw in the commercial, but typically she is frustrating on a deeper level.
It is impossible to ignore that Barbie does not look like the average woman as Ana points out:
“My main personal problem is Barbie’s body, and what that does for girls’ understanding of how their bodies are supposed to look. So many young girls and women have body dysmorphia and skinny celebrities constantly rubbed in their faces as the standard that to begin this in the playroom is really horrible.” Ana
Barbie’s body is more than an 18 inch waist and confusing genitals though, she’s classically and strikingly an Aryan beauty. Junelle transitions us into our discussion of Ann DuCille’s article “Black Barbie and Toy Theory and the Deep Play of Difference.” She reacts to Mattel’s first venture into African American members of the Barbie world, a mod doll from 1967 named Francie who bizarrely came in a “colored option.”
“Seriously, why would any African-American purchase a doll named ‘Colored Francie”. Why not omit “colored’ and simply name her Francie? Barbie wasn’t christened ‘White/Caucasian Barbie’ so why explicitly colorize Francie’s name.” Junelle
DuCille explores Francie and this issue of the “real Barbie” being white in her article as well as the implications of the deep play of Barbie’s influence.
The Highlights of the Section
Barbie is just one influence for young girls for how to become women.
This section bashes Mattel’s Barbie enterprise, even pointing out that the inspiration for the doll originated from a German sex toy. If sex sells, then this article plays this angle very well by making the premier argument against the Mattel industry a criticism of the sexual implications of the advertising and accoutrements of the dolls. DuCille focuses on Barbie’s undergarments, or lack thereof, making one wonder if children even consider these things while they are playing with dolls. This section made me consider my own experience with dolls, and I indeed found it odd that the doll did not come with underwear, but when underwear is included, it is criticized for being promiscuous. Ignoring the fact that young girls do play with other things than Barbie dolls, the article goes on to explain that,
“Both the images and the editorial beauty guides function as a kind of “basic training” designed to lure little girls into the adult world of clothes, cosmetics, and consumption.”
I realized that the article, though its focus is indeed the Mattel Barbie industry, ignores the fact that children are more influenced by real people, like their parents and the media at large, than by their playthings: little girls are more likely to dress up, put on makeup, and want to go shopping “just like mommy.”
Somehow, DuCille makes Mattel’s attempts to create a modern, 21st Century version of the Barbie doll seem like a ploy to force little girls into becoming shallow, self-obsessed consumerists. When Mattel creates a self-empowered rewrite of Rapunzel in “Barbie Magic Fairy Tales,” where “Barbie as Rapunzel reportedly gets to save Prince Charming Ken from the spell of a wicked witch”, DuCille decides,
“The would-be heroic twist to this plot does not disguise the fact that in all these games, winning or succeeding is synonymous with having the right looks, the right hair, the right clothes, and the right boyfriend.”
In a glass half-full view, one would consider that Barbie is meant to teach children to imagine themselves as Fashion Designers, princesses, or “little women.” Additionally, Barbie the Magazine for Girls, which includes educational games, is construed as just another way to “sell Barbie.” The math challenges put in the context of a shopping spree, the recipe guides, and feature on outstanding American girls presented in the magazine seem innocent, and make learning fun for children. The fact that the article seems to only consider the negatives of Mattel’s Barbie enterprise, and even miscontrues the positives to make them seem negative as well, makes the article unconvincing. DuCille may be giving Mattel’s Barbie to much credit in its influence on children, since much of a child’s motivation to be a little adult comes from real adults, and indeed, the Barbie is just another way to be “just like mommy.”
To Market, To Market
The Highlights of the Section
Barbie Basics seems to try to prove that every woman can look stunning in the classic little black dress. But does it?
In this section, Ann DuCille highlights the issues with the commodity culture that Barbie “is both part and product”, racializing the doll, and the reinforcement of sameness. Barbie, as a commodity sells extremely well. Yet, Mattel, as a billion dollar corporation does not create a doll that embodies the diversity and variance “of the real people its dolls are meant to represent…” DuCille does acknowledge the upside of Mattel creating a colored doll
“ethnic Barbies seem to color in the whitewashed spaces of my childhood. They give little colored girls toys to play with that look like them.”
But when examining the body and physical attributes of an ethnic Barbie in comparison to the white Barbie, one can see that there is no difference. The fact that there is no difference between the bodies of ethnic Barbies and white Barbies creates a feeling of sameness.
This is where DuCille finds fault in Mattel. DuCille asserts that “the act of racializing the dolls is accomplished by a contrapuntal action of erasure”. Meaning, that the only way the ethnic Barbie can be created is by correcting (erasing) the areas where there might be difference in the real people. When it comes to real people there is great variance. All women are not the same. Yet, Mattel makes huge profits “by blurring the sharp edges of the very difference that the corporation produces and profits from.” DuCille believes that Mattel
“is able to make and market ethnicity by ignoring not only the body politics of the real people its dolls are meant to represent… but… by eliding the material conditions of the masses it dolls up.”
The omitting of the material conditions is indicative of how “big business both adores and abhors difference.” Huge corporations like Mattel “adore” difference because it creates an opportunity to capitalize off an idea. DuCille believes that companies like Mattel “abhor” difference because they are “far less fond of more, complex, less easily commodified distinctions…”
A passage from “To market, to market” that I can consider to be very important is when DuCille states
“race and racial differences–whatever that might mean in the grander social order–must be reducible to skin color or, more correctly, to the tint of the plastic poured into each Barbie mold. Each doll is marketed as representing something or someone in the real world, even as the political, social, and economic particulars of that world are not only erased but, in a curious way, made the same.”
I totally agree with DuCille that something so complex as race and racial differences cannot be pushed aside by creating a doll that “looks” like the white Barbie. That in itself creates even more confusion! Barbie is not only a doll. She is a model that most young girls (at some point in their lives) wish to be like and look like. Dealing with the issue of race cannot be fixed by creating a doll that perpetuates sameness.
I believe that Ducille is right to say that “interrogating Barbie may facilitate an analysis of the commodity culture which she is both part and product.” Barbie, as an model perpetuates the ideals of the white mainstream; a reinforcement of “what is white, is right.” What is most important is that DuCille challenges the idea that the complexities of race cannot be erased by changing the color of plastic. The text of the Barbie doll is worth exploring and analyzing.
Shani and the Politics of Plastic
By Junelle and Laura
Meet Shani, Asha, Nichelle, and Jamal. With the help of researchers Darlene and Derek Hopson, these African American friends of Barbie's were specifically designed to be more ethnically authentic. This is the 1993 collection of the dolls that was inspired by Soul Train.
The Highlights of the Section
In this part of the essay, DuCille describes the research about creating more “ethnically authentic” African American Barbies, that became the Shani collection. She looks closely at the work done by social scientists Darlene and Derek Hopson’s doll studies from 1985 which were revisited variations on Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll studies from the 1940’s. In both studies, the majority of African American children chose the white doll over the black doll. With this foundational link between culture, dolls and self-perception, DuCille questions how authentic Shani is. She says her body is distorted to make it fit cultural stereotypes of how black women look and she also finds it frustrating that the doll’s hair was made less life-like so that she could be more of a commodity. Lastly, she compares this treatment of Shani’s difference from Barbie to be a sort of modern eugenics and scientific racism like that experienced by Sarah Bartmann, a south African woman who was fetishized and judged because of the shapes of her body.
Critical Analysis: Thinking About the Hopson’s Research
I was very fascinated when I first learned about the doll studies done by the Clarks. It seemed heartbreaking to me that in the 1940’s that so many children preferred a doll that was not like them. It seemed to me that this issue was put in the past after these findings were used as Brown vs. Board of Education. However, 65% of children ( compared to 70% of children in the Clark study) picked a white doll over a black doll in the Hopson study in 1985. This is not a distant problem that children of color do not see themselves in the world. They have to masquerade as different genders and races. This seems unfair to me and also very frustrating. I have worked in a few schools that have sought to close the achievement gap in Harlem and the Bronx, and even after four decades, this internalized racism still existed for these children.
I looked through the article for ideas about what to do to take the power in my hands as a future educator. I liked the idea of the Hopson’s suggesting that playing with children with the dolls and describing black barbies as beautiful was essential. Generally, playing with your own children is a great idea because it can help to address difficult themes and issues in a less threatening way. However, I believe what DuCille does
“Like Barbie dolls themselves, these techniques for positive play not only make beauty a desirable fixed physical fact– a matter of characteristics rather than character– they make this embodied beauty synonymous with self-worth. A better strategy might be to show children how unlike any real woman Barbie is.”
This is why I actually like Barbie, because of her ability to provide a topic of conversation for girls. I also find that DuCille points out something frustrating about Barbie.
Though I wish that Barbie could be “an average looking girl” (if there even is such a thing), she really can’t be to encapsulate the girl dream of being everything. Barbie can have many careers and be whatever she wants. She is the total package and that is part of her charm. Maybe Barbie can never be a satisfying feminist icon. How can she be if Barbie has to be gorgeous to be an ideal plaything for fantasy? Also Barbie is a doll, she is not a full fledged personality. She has no story and makes no decisions. Maybe Barbie is doomed to a superficial existence because she can’t tell who she really is and has to wear so many outfits. I’m not sure what the solution is to Barbie, but I do know that if she didn’t exist we wouldn’t be able to use her as a conversation starter.
Critical Analysis: Thinking About The Image of the Black Woman
Mattel, I would argue, doesn’t simply respond to the desire among girls for dolls with long hair to comb; it helps produce those desires.” DuCille’s words couldn’t have been truer. As a Black woman, society teaches us to shun our naturally coily, kinky, nappy hair. Many of us are introduced to “kiddie perms’ (though they’re anything but) at a young age. How many of us spent hours in the salon waiting to get our ‘hair did’, inhaling the harsh chemicals of these relaxers, or have burn marks on the napes of our necks, foreheads or ears all in the name of having straight hair silky hair? As youths, we are conditioned to believe that long, flowing, combable hair is the epitome of beauty and as a result, children of colour become desirous of such. But if Barbie should represent the diversity of its child and adult connoisseurs, why is this plastic portrayal partially inaccurate?
DuCille seems to argue that marketing Shani with ‘black hair’ wouldn’t be as profitable as Shani with long flowing hair. But if Shani should represent Black woman, how then can little black girls indentify with a false replication of herself? Of course Mattel isn’t responsible for instilling pride in our children, that job falls entirely on parents. But as impressionable consumers, children should be able view Shani dolls as a ‘like-me’ playmate. Not only should the plastic complexion display likeness, the hair should as well. DuCille also as mentions “all of the products are test-marketed first with both children and adults, and the designs are based on such research.” Ok, so I’m wondering who these children and adults are, and why didn’t they seem bothered or find it odd that Shani’s hair wasn’t like theirs. And, I find it absurd that product manager Deborah Mitchell and designer Kitty Black Perkins (both Black) didn’t push harder for a true, authentic Shani.
A few side notes, bothersome to me, but relevant nonetheless, are the stereotypes of African American that Shani and her black friends seem to perpetrate. I’ve noticed that I always seem to gravitate towards discussing race and race relations in my post, so it’s fitting that this article deals with such. One of the many quotes I liked was “the notion that fuller lips, broader noses, wider hips, arid higher derrieres make the Shani doll more realistically African American again raises many difficult questions about difference, authenticity, and the problematic categories of the real and he symbolic, the typical and the stereotypical.” Shani’s body image is greatly stereotyped. Her features are supposed to be representational of the Black woman, but do all Black women have full lips, broad noses, wider hips and an ample bottom? I think not.
From Bell Jar to Bell Curve
The Highlights of the Section
How much is Christie really showing a different type of woman than Barbie?
In this section, DuCille laments the paradox that arises when attempting to deconstruct otherness – attempts to empower the “other” by talking about them only seems to further perpetuate the structure of the whole system. Mattel’s attempts to include African Americans and other people of color into their doll collection only creates more issues about what that other looks like, how she dresses and where she comes from:
“In fact, in its play with racial and ethnic alterity, Mattel may well have given us a prism through which to see in living color the degree to which difference is an impossible space – antimatter located not only beyond the grasp of low culture but also beyond the reach of high theory.”
She addresses the theories of Fanon and Foucault, who also struggled with this paradox and the issue that “we are not just different; we are always different from.” In analyzing the issue of difference, and how to make attempts at inclusion either by talking about it or making a doll prototype of the “other” is to underscore the stereotypes and empower the constructs we seek to criticize, in large part because the language that we use to deconstruct it is a part of the construct itself and is highly codified, rife with implications and connotations. DuCille says that
“It holds precisely because the very act of theorizing difference affirms that there is a center, a standard, or – as in the case of Barbie – a mold.”
DuCille ultimately concludes that discussion of the race and gender constructs is impossible without creating this paradox, and perhaps the best weapon against it is to deconstruct it, and acknowledge how impossibly problematic it is:
“If we pull the plug on gender, if we drain race of any meaning, we are still left with the material facts and fictions of the body – with its different ifs, ands and butts of different bodies… we need to theorize race and gender not as meaningless but as meaningful– as sites of difference, filled with constructed meanings that are in need of constant decoding and interrogation.”
She also touches on the other paradox that deconstructing stereotypes and “scientific” generalizations about particular groups, that it is particularly problematic when we find that we fit the molds created for us in some way:“I can criticize the racist fictions inscribed in Shani’s false bottom from now until retirement, but shopping for jeans at Filene’s Basement, how am I to escape the physical fact of my own steatopygic hips? Do the facts of my own body leave me hoisted not on my own petard, perhaps, but on my own haunches?” She says, however, that “The particulars of black Barbie illustrate the difficulties and dangers of treating race and gender differences as biological stigmata that can be fixed in plastic and mass-reproduced. But if difference is indeed an impossible space – a kind of black hole, if you will – it is antimatter that continues to matter tremendously, especially for those whose bodies bear its visible markings and carry its material consequences.” It matters in the way that even where some understandings of the body of the other are true (i.e. women get their periods and give birth, DuCille has big hips) it should not be given a negative connotation or be made the ultimate and only understanding of what it means to be a part of that group, because when someone does not possess these physical traits (i.e. if a woman cannot have children, women of color who don’t have big hips) then they are even further alienated, being made the other-other.
The paradox of having to use the language of a construct in order to criticize and deconstruct it is something I believe we have all, and certainly I have struggled with. In a class that I took this summer called “Masculinity/ Femininity: Race, Gender, Success and Failure,” I was first exposed to Foucault. Foucault (in a very boiled-down explanation) concerned himself with the ways in which society is set up in order to control people, their bodies, and how societal constructs serve to alienate and divide those who are considered “undesirables” from the rest of humanity, take away their power, and essentially keep everyone blind, alone, and serving the system (phew!).
One particular moment where I realized how truly codified language is and how it serves to perpetuate the construct was when we were discussing transgendered people and their experiences in class. We did a whole unit where we watched the films of Almodovar and discussed transgender people, masculinity and femininity and where we get those concepts and ideas of who is really “man” and “woman”. I should say now that I am very interested in transgender and gay rights, especially when it comes to their civil liberties and workplace rights and issues of discrimination, and am currently working research for a piece for a legal studies journal that one of my professors is writing about transgender discrimination. However, despite all this, my extreme sensitivity and interest in transgender policy and issues, I caught myself more than once using the word “tranny” when commenting in class. It. Was. Horrible. In using this word, which absolutely has disrespectful and negative connotations, especially when used by a heterosexual who is not a particularly active part of that community (in that I am not transgendered) this was, for lack of a better term, so not ok.
I realized then how indoctrinated in the construct, using its abusive language tools, that I was and we all are. In discussing transgendered people, and transexual people, we are talking about the other-other-other, and the words that we have to talk about people in that community are absolutely negative, so much so that even when I try to talk to people now about the work that I am doing, people’s eyes glaze over and they immediately shut down – they do not want to talk about these undesirables, and there is no way for me to just talk about the project without (most of the time) explaining that these people are humans, normal and their struggle and disenfranchisement from the political and social system is a civil rights issue – and bam! there it is again, I had to subscribe to the language of the construct and use the word “normal” to try to discuss the issue at all and get people to pay attention. For me DuCille did an excellent job of explaining this frustration, and helpful in saying so plainly that it is a frustrating paradox, but the best weapons in our artillery is to talk about it, break it down, and bring discussion of any and all otherness to the table to use it to help bash it up in a meaningful way.
Whether looking at Lora as a doll, or Sarah Jane's self-perception particularly in the doll scene, DuCille's theories can enrich our reading of this film.
Connections to Other Feminist Topics Covered in Class:
- “This article made me think a lot about Mulvey and her concept of “to be looked at ness”. I also thought about Anzaldua’s piece on getting minority women to speak.” Laura
- “I also thought about Imitation of life, the way that Lora was made to stand like a doll frozen, and how in advertisements and toys, we are bombarded with this idea that women are quite, stiff objects that look a certain way and can have their body parts picked off and used for whomever’s purposes.” Ana
- “I thought about Imitation of Life a lot while I was reading this article, and it really made me consider the serious implications black and white dolls (not necessarily Barbies) can have on children. I also wondered if the effect that Sara Jane experiences in the movie is a phenomenon unique to African American girls versus girls of other ethnicities. Maybe the prevalence of discrimination and the constant reminder that “black is ugly, black is inferior” makes little American girls more sensitive to the difference between her and her doll.” Kaydian
Connections to Feminist Topics In Culture and Society
Chris Rock takes a look at the issues around African American women and their hair.
- “The passages about hair were really important, and something I think of a lot, especially after having seen the movie “Good Hair” with Chris Rock. He follows the culture around African American women’s hair, from the rituals of getting your hair done, where it comes from, who profits, and where the beauty standard of long flowing hair comes from. It is a very well done film. Hair is very much a part of the gender construct in both the idea that boys have short hair, girls have long hair, and that long flowing hair is an indication of ultimate femininity, and how commodified it is, whether because it makes Mattel more of a profit, or the amount of time money and energy that women of any race or ethnicity put into their hair care. Also, hair can be considered sexualized as well, further contributing to the issue of sex in the playroom.” Ana
Supermodel Tyra Banks as an African American Barbie that comes to life in the Disney Channel Original movie "Lifesize."
“I don’t think I fully understood how a doll could be a role model until I saw the movie, “Lifesize” starring Tyra Banks and Lindsay Lohan. Tyra Bank’s character, Eve, was an African American doll who was accidentally brought to life by a young girl’s attempt to resurrect her mother with magic. My dolls seemed a lot more important after that movie, they were apparently supposed to represent something, and all my time growing up, I thought they were just dolls. I was very happy that the movie didn’t point to the dolls color, even though it was quite obvious.”Kaydian
Disney princesses have become more diverse in recent history. Mulan was Chinese, Jasmine was of Arab descent, and Tiana from "The Princess and the Frog" was Disney's first African American princess. Would little girls rather be a Tiana or a Cinderella is the only question?
“This made me think of other “role models” of femininity for girls. It seems that they have not cracked the code on this issue of showing a wide variety of realistic, empowered and unique types of girls and women to young girls. It was only a few years ago that Disney introduced princess Tiana, their first African American princess. I was really excited for Tiana’s arrival and I read an article about The Princess and the Frog before it came out. I was very excited to see diversity, but the movie was disappointing when I saw it. Tiana had a strong personality, but the plot was kind of flimsy and she spent half the movie as a frog. I don’t know many girls who want to identify themselves with an amphibian. ” Laura
Questions That Emerge From Reading This Article
Similar Topics to Explore