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.