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Archive for April, 2012

Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence

Jackie Torres

In the essay Compulsory and Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence by Adrienne Rich, explains the bewilderment the author feels about the negative outlook society has on love between two women. Rich mentions the innate love that women offer as mothers to men and women, the female is innately nurturing, “why in fact women would ever redirect that search”. Rich says that there are more other things that should be disturbing like, “wife beating; father-daughter, brother-sister incest ;”( pg. 349). These ideas are what should be stopped, yet they are accepted in many places because they involve heterosexual relationships.

Lesbian continuum is used in this essay to represent the ongoing existence of lesbians. Lesbians will still be present in the future just like they were in the past. Rich compares the experience that most humans have had which is breast feeding, to the relationship between women to women helping each other. The examples Rich mentions are women who share businesses, friendships between teenage girls, and women who raised schools to help young girls. These are all bonds between females which can be relatable to any women whether lesbian or not. Rich explains that if all of these bonds and works are just seen as life styles we are emotionally and sensually depriving the work of women. To most the support amongst women is usually because they are bonding over male hate or penis envy. However, this is not necessarily accurate, though women can feel they must abide to each other surrounded by this male-dominated society. Rich says society should go beyond the norm and “examine women’s lives, work, and groupings within every racial, ethnic, and political structure.”


Taxonomy vs. Deconstruction: Bhabha’s Possible Take on Riche. L.R. Corcoran.

In Homi Bhabha’s essay, “The Other Question: Stereotype, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism,” he makes a notable move in regards to the propose of his criticism. That is, he markedly shifts from a taxonomic approach which could most readily be contained within structuralist theory to a deconstructist approach in an effort to examine how a particular discourse is functioning. He makes his approach clear, “I do not intend to deconstruct the colonial discourse to reveal ideological misconceptions of repressions, to exult in its self-reflexivity, or to indulge its liberatory excess. In order to understand the productivity of colonial power, it is crucial to construct its regime of truth, not subject its representations to a normalizing judgement.” This is a staunch stance on the part of Bhabha to take; he calls for cultural criticisms that seek to dismantle hegemonic power structures not just to list the effects of such structures, but rather to deconstruct the apparatus that constitutes the structure’s ability to operate. This shift is the second gesture of a criticism which has already successfully delimited the power structures in play. I believe it important to note that a criticism that only lists the effects of a hegemonic political/cultural discourse is not useless; it can serve as a necessary call to action, but, at some point, systems of power which are being protested must be deconstructed to show their inter-workings.

With these two premises in mind ( i: criticism as call to action ii: criticism as deconstruction of apparatus), it is now possible to examine Riche’s exploration into the compulsory nature of heterosexuality. In  her essay,” Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Riche re-situates lesbianism from a simple ‘deviant’ sexual behavior (only deviant if one posits heterosexuality to be the norm) to a continuum of female kinship practices. These kinship practices are created by women to resist the rather terrible cultural, physical, and emotional inculcation practices created by patriarchal power structures in order to ensure heterosexuality and ostensibly male dominance.

Although this paper succeeds quite successfully at enunciating the divers means in which such an all encompassing force as misogyny operates, it does little to expose the operating mechanisms by which it does. Riche’s preference for the taxonomic approach over the deconstruction approach is most apparent in when she borrows from Kathleen Gough’s essay, “The Origin of Family.”  Gough’s essay shows different ways in which men subject women in order to ensure male supremacy and thus create female inequality. Riche repurposes the list to show how men enforce female heterosexuality. She’s does this by offering a quote in italics then offering her own enumerations of the method contained in the quotation.

Certainly all of Riche’s enumerations appeal strongly to empirical and intuitive reasoning; one must simply watch the evening news to find concrete examples of the events she lists. Perhaps this is even her point: misogynic happenings are so ubiquitous they need no explanation. Yet either way it is determined, Riche offers no in-depth examination and explanation of the how and why these mechanisms of cultural control function. Hence Riche’s paper seems to fall readily in the taxonomic class of criticism.

Of course the work of deconstruction has been done by other theorists, and it seems that operating structure of hegemonic discourses, rather it be colonial or patriarchal, come to a Lacanian or Freudian reading of cultural textual systems in order to reason out particular methods. Again these readings could be implicit in Riche’s essay, or perhaps simply not the purpose of the paper. Yet it strikes me if we are to speak of the vast amount of relations between Other and Subject as they appear in various forms, we must name the Subject with the same clarity as we name the Other in order to have an understanding of either.

Multicultural Barbie is Uni-Dimensional

The personal account given by Ann Ducille at the beginning of “Dyes and Dolls: Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandising of Difference” somewhat paints Barbie as well as other dolls as an icon of femininity. The question that arises is whether to condemn Barbie as a negative role model who embodies subsidiary femininity, white, blonde, Aryan culture and corporate dominance, because of the lack of cultural diversity. Barbie portrays the feminine masquerade by showing the manufactured reality of it: artifice, clothes, and props. Image

“Barbie is a role model for all of her owners . . . Barbie allows little girls to dream . . . Now ethnic Barbie lovers will be able to dream in their own image.” (Ducille, 50) “In their own image” (50), meaning the image of the white blonde, which would be difficult to replicate if one does not resemble it. The whole phenomenon became most interesting when Ducille introduced the reader to the “Shani” doll. Mattel’s making of this doll claimed to have the best interests of ethnic audiences yet in my eyes it seems like a disastrous strategy. The entire description given at the back of the “Shani” doll’s package was stereotypical. The description full with black vernacular like: hair braiding and twisting did not only play up cultural roles but it hinted to the term double consciousness coined by W.E.B. DuBois. The use of the name “Shani” which derives from African language shows the separation there is between being just an “American” (white) while an “African American” acts and wants different things. The fact that Shani is presented as a “top model” rather than a scholar feeds not only feminine scholar oppression but racial oppression as well. Shani: It is clear that Mattel has sought incorrect advice in creating Barbie’s African- American counterpart. Why can’t the girl be named Lisa, Mary, Jo-Ann, or any other wholesome American name? African-Americans are exactly that, American. There is a clear distinction between American and African, thus the name “Shani” doesn’t seem appropriate.

The making of diverse Barbie serves no purpose if the dimensions and features resemble to those of the original Barbie. Ducille uses the term “black face” to describe these multicultural additions because only their costumes show this “difference”. Ducille categorizes the doll as “difference incarnate—a novelty, a new enterprise or, perhaps, as the black female other so often is, an exotic” (54-

55). Ducille mentions that though “Barbie dolls come in a virtual rainbow coalition of colors, races, ethnicities, and nationalities” they quite often are “modified only by a dash of color and a change of costume” (51) to resemble the original white Barbie. As a man who generally ignorant to female celebrities and fashion, I feel this resembles Hollywood. If I were to open “People” magazine, I would most likely see more white faces than not; however, the black faces that do appear in the magazine do not exactly challenge the appearance of the white ones. However, the faces and bodies seen in “Essence” look nothing like those of People. Furthermore, take a starlet such as Gabrielle Union, if photographed in “People” she will most likely resemble that of her white counterparts; however, if featured in “Essence” she will remarkably transform into a glorified Nubian goddess. 


Why are African-Americans still novelties in the eyes of America? It seems as Mattel struggles to find a proper name of their doll, it mirrors the struggle of the African-American female to earn the respect that is due to her. Moreover, it is quite interesting that though Mattel acknowledges the fact that African-American bodies are different than white ones: “‘to be truly realistic, one [Shani doll] should have shorter hair” (57) states Deborah Mitchell, the company has made limited changes to the Shani doll. Anthropologists from the University Of Massachusetts at Amherst point out “it is essential, after all, that all the dolls be able to share the same clothes, thus making any dramatic alterations in body type unlikely” (57). I feel this patterns society once more, as it clear that African-American and Hispanic women have much different bodies than that of whites, in a consumer world geared to cater to the needs of whites, similar to the doll representations of them, a Latin girl may be a size 2 or 4, but her hips don’t satisfy the white mold.

            While it seems as though there is an attempt to integrate these Barbie’s into every aspect of life, it falls short. The closest Mattel has gotten to making something that would relatively resemble each individual person is the “My Size Barbie.” Mattel featured a special addition of Barbie’s that could be specifically made by submitting pictures of yourself, sample of your hair and details about the young girls features and preferred outfit. It was every young girls dream, but the portrayal was significantly off. It created a sense of still perfection that every other Barbie already represented. In short the representation of a worldly, multicultural Barbie is difficult to create as there are subcultures within cultures. Image

Defining Barbie: Her(?) Roots, Influence, & Lasting Effects on Young Girls.

Group Post, Edited/Compiled by Kaitlyn D’Agostino with contributions by Lucas Corcoran, Jasmine Cruz, David Kane, Amber Laraque, Mary Kate Schwerdt & Jackie Torres.

Our process of analyzing and responding to O’Sickey’s article Barbie Magazine and the Aesthetic Commondification of Girls’ Bodies proved to be very enriching experience. We each chose to highlight different points raised in the article and to make connections between our responses. As Amber noted, Ingeborg Majer O’Sickey’s piece opens with a very stark, if unsurprising, reality: “Barbie is indisputably the most successful doll ever marketed.” This information was not a shock to any of us and our posts found a cohesive theme in investigating not only the roots of Barbie’s power, but also her seemingly eternal influence.

In an attempt to comment on Barbie dolls, the first problem becomes how to define it. For example, one of the most interesting parts of reading and editing my group’s posts was looking to see who referred to Barbie, a sexless plastic doll, as a “she.” Barbie’s place as a the ideal model of femininity versus her lack of female genitalia turned out to be one of the most common themes to several of our group member’s post in our attempt to understand Barbie’s role in a young girl’s life.

Barbie is clearly a toy for young girls to play with; however, in the design of the Barbie, we see not the influence of what would make the ideal plaything for young females, but instead a manifestation of the castration fear in men. As we have learned from our study of the work of several feminist theorists like Helene Cixous, the female form and its inherent lack of male genitals causes terror in man. The Barbie doll, though supposedly the perfect female model, is molded without nipples, body hair, or female genitalia. (34) Despite all her other hallmarks of femininity, she has nothing to identify her a biologically female. Barbie, the woman little girls everywhere dream of becoming, isn’t a woman at all!

Therefore, little girls associate womanhood with attributes that generally do not come naturally to most woman. I think the best example of this can be found in Barbie’s feet, which are eternally pointed to slip into high heels as a moment’s notice. Barbie cannot even stand up on her own! As Anne Taylor Flemming describes Barbie, “the naked Barbie doll is somehow bizarre, the original dashboard princess, all T&A and nonstop legs…She’s a fantasy object for men for little girls.”(34)

If we accept man’s dominant influence in the design of Barbie, it is then necessary to examine and understand how exactly little girls find it “fun” to play with a Barbie. In our investigation of the nature of Barbie as a pleasure source for young girls, we looked to several past theoretical writings to serve as tools to dissect O’Sickey’s article.

Laura Mulvey and Mary Ann Doane investigated the male and female gazes of adults, specifically those directed at narrative cinema. However, we were able to apply several of their theories to how young children interact and find pleasure in Barbies. Like the projected woman for adults, the Barbie doll is a safe recipient upon which both male and female children can direct their gaze. In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey states, “The beauty of the woman as object and the screen space coalesce; she is no longer the bearer of guilt but a perfect product, whose body, stylized and fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the film and the direct recipient of the spectator gaze.” The projected woman in cinema talks, breathes, blinks, and appears as real living woman, but is in fact an intangible image that is being told what to say and how to say it; she is powerless. Barbie dolls may be more potent because they are tangible. A child is not restricted to the gaze. She (or he) can directly manipulate the doll and has complete control over its limbs, hair and clothing. For girls playing with the doll, this is a release for the penis (power) envy theorized by Karen Horney through assuming the transvestitive role of the male with control over the woman as explained by Doane.

Also from Doane, we learned that the female gaze is often achieved through over-identification. Barbie as a model of the ideal feminine form is flawed to say the least. After all, few little girls have mothers that look like Barbie, and not just because she doesn’t have nipples. Perhaps this is why Barbie Magazine proved to be such a successful marketing tool for a “life-like” doll that few little girls could ever dream of realistically growing up to resemble.

Through the pages of the magazine, little girls are depicted in different cultural outfits or situations. It is through Barbie magazine that the true market of Barbie products, girls younger than the doll’s projected age, could be reached through more “identifiable” images. Of course, the young models depicted in the magazine (blonde, blue-eyed, and thin) proved to be just as alien to little girls as the young adult Barbie.  They come to terms with their own anxiety (from the knowledge of failing to live up to the photographs) by over identifying with these models. (29)

It is through this idea that we began to approach the main focus of O’Sickey’s article: the commodification of girl’s bodies.

Using a theoretical lens provided by Michel Foucault, O’Sickey writes that in order for the commodification process to occur, the readers of Barbie Magazine must first be subjected to “disciplinary power.” (24) Foucault illustrates how structures of power individually mark and divide a populace into defined roles. It functions nearly as a grammar, where the place for a word needs to be laid out before sense of its meaning can be made. In order to make this move, one needs to postulate that within culture there is a central hegemonic force seeking to overlap and contain the periphery. In Foucault’s words, “A policy of coercions that act upon the body a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures” (24). As Foucault would have it, every person is carte blanche for the forces at power in play to inscribe their roles upon the individual. Although Foucault does not explicitly speak of women, it seems that women are implicit in his theory, for he is seeking to theorize how everyone is marked by institutions of power. O’Sickey takes on the task, which nearly verges on tautology, of adding the rider of women to Foucault’s theory.

By “fragmenting and carving up the body in temporal, spatial, and gestural ways,” the reader is no longer a person, but instead territories on which Barbie Magazine may colonize its view of femininity. (25) One method of fragmentation, O’Sickey writes, occurs when “layouts segment the children into specific activities.” (26) Dress-up is fondly look-upon pastime for the young child, but for Barbie Magazine, it is an opportunity for its readers to explore new feminine roles they may enact. For example, O’Sickey cites photo spreads showing models wearing “safari attire” or “Flamenco Fashion.”  According to O’Sickey, Barbie magazine teacher young girls that they must continuously purchase products to improve themselves, in order to become a commodity to the male, and an object of the male gaze. Not only must they constantly alter their appearance, but they must put themselves into clothing that reflects Foucault’s constructed cultural occasion.

It is interesting to note that the activity-wear advertised in the magazine has a cultural and ethnic connotation. Barbie, which as for a considerable amount of time represented the ideal beauty, was a white beauty. However, after twenty one years in the making, Mattel produced a black and Hispanic Barbie. These dolls however, bore non of the features typically ascribed to either of these races. As Jackie noted in her personal response to the article, “In contrary to what Mattel says, I did not see myself in Barbie’s eyes.”

With our collective analysis and understanding of the roots of Barbie’s power, we then were able to speculate about how it affects young girls. Amber offered a personal example, “I can admit to falling into the consumer craze based specialized events. I have found myself making my appearance the focal point of whatever the important day is ,rather than the day itself–dating back to the first day of school.”

In speaking about how Barbie Magazine “prime[s] teens for adult fashion magazines like Glamour, Elle, and Vogue,” O’Sickey gives us a better sense of some of the Magazine’s, and Barbie’s by extension, lasting effects. (24) Children that are exposed to Barbie go through life with artificial ideas on what womanhood is and how she or he is suppose to act. “The girl models’ bodies are frequently presented in time slots determined by when beauty treatments of specific body parts are deemed appropriate.”(25)

“The creation of Barbie has influenced the media through pop culture like music and modeling,” wrote Jasmine. “In modeling you are deemed old at the age of 32 or so. This idea of the perfect woman and body has all steamed from Barbie. After all who can compete with her? She never gets old.”

Barbie magazine creates more than merchandise, it creates little girls (and eventually grown women) who taught to consume in order to achieve normality.  In their attempt to identify with the models in the aforementioned safari outfits or flamenco dresses (which promise roles of excitement and power), girls are ultimately left in crisis. The reality of these model images is that once achieved, or more importantly purchased, “roles based upon merchandise require no investment of the self on the part of the little girl, they are empty and, therefor, ultimately meaningless.”(27)  It is no wonder that little girls masquerading as fantastical safari adventurers grow up to become Doane’s femme fatale.

“Black Barbie and Toy Theory and the Deep Play of Difference”

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.

Basic Training

By Kaydian

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.”

Critical Analysis

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

By Tiffany

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…”

Critical Analysis

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

By Laura

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

By Junelle

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

By Ana

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.

Critical Analysis

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

  • Aren't we forgetting about another plastic role model for gender roles?

    Is Barbie a threat to feminism? If so, how much of a threat is she?

  • Should children be playing with Barbies? How should we get girls to play with Barbies in a way that supports a healthy self image?
  • If Barbie is not the best toy role model for girls, what kind of feminist toy could be created?
  • What about boys and Barbies? How can boys better understand Barbie and better understand the unrealistic standards of action figures, particularly when the toys they are supposed to emulate are frequently even more fantasy based than Barbie? Boys should not be expected to be Superman or G.I. Joe.
  • Would 21st Century African American girls still select the white dolls over the black dolls?
  • How do girls of other races fit into this conversation? Are they also getting the message that being a person of color is equivalent to being bad?


Similar Topics to Explore

The Three Modes of Female Spectatorship

In Film and the Masquerade (1982), Mary Ann Doane takes up the issue with “the eviction of the female spectator from a discourse purportedly about her (the cinema, psychoanalysis)—one which, in fact, narrativizes her again and again.” (21) In the world of cinema the female assumes the position of the one who is viewed. She is the object; the one looked upon. According to Doane “theories of females spectatorship are thus rare…” (21).  Yet, she takes on the challenge of conceptualizing the female spectator by providing the different modes of female spectatorship.

Doan acknowledges that “it is admitted that women is frequently the object of the voyeuristic or fetishistic gaze in cinema” but challenges “what is there to prevent her from reversing the relation and appropriating the gaze for her own pleasure?” (20). The reality for the female spectator is that “she is the image” (22). As the object, she is within close proximity to what she is viewing “given the closeness of this relationship, the female spectator’s desire can be described only in terms of a kind of narcissism—the female look demands a becoming.” (22). The female spectator runs the risk of exposing herself to narcissistic and masochistic behavior. It is here Doane puts forth the argument that there are three different approaches (means adopted in tackling a problem) for female spectatorship: over-identification/ narcissism, transvestitism, and masquerade.

In each mode there is a certain degree of proximity or distance. Within the theory of female spectatorship there is “an opposition between proximity and distance in the relation to the image.” (21). Proximity or closeness is negative in female spectatorship because it “is conducive to what might be termed an over-identification with the image” (22). Doane sees that the “pervasiveness, in theories of the feminine, of descriptions of such a claustrophobic closeness, a deficiency in relation to the structures of seeing and the visible” keeps the female spectator from achieving a critical distance from the woman onscreen. Distance from the image is positive; it prevents the jeopardy of over-identification and or narcissism.

There is much distance between the female spectator and narcissism when she adopts the masculine position, or that of the transvestite. This position allows the female spectator to “at least pretend that she is the other” (25). This gives the female an advantage while “the male is locked into” his “sexual identity” (25). Moreover, the mode of masquerade creates a distance between the female spectator and the image of the woman onscreen. Masquerade is a form of gendered performance; it is a way to “manufacture a lack in the form of a certain distance between oneself and one’s image.”





Wearing the Mask

Joan Riviere’s Womanliness as a Masquerade discusses the mask of femininity that many women wear in their professional and home lives. Riviere says ” Womanliness therefore could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it-much like a thief will turn out his pockets and asked to be searched to prove that he has not stolen goods” (133).

Riviere’s piece is very relevant to today’s society, in which the definition of “the perfect woman,” has seemed to change. Like the woman who was the stay at home mother and wife of the 20th century, the 21st century woman must be all of that, but also much more. The idea of a woman in the workplace has not replaced the idea of the homemaker. Today, women must be both in order to be seen as the ultimate woman, and at the same time mask the masculinity of taking  on what was once considered a man’s job.

Riviere gives different examples of these women who walk around with the womanly mask. These women go to work and take on the professional world, but make sure to not dominate their male counterparts. Riviere says that these woman look for reassurance from the male “father-figures.” She says these women seek, “First, direct reassurance of the nature of compliments about her performances; secondly, and more important, indirect reassurance of the nature of sexual attentions from these men” (133).

Today, women are still fighting to be equal to their male counterparts. At the same time, maybe subconsciously, women also try to preserve their femininity, and try to be seen as not too “hard” or dominating. Are women wearing this mask for the purpose of pleasing male society, or are they doing it to please themselves?