There are many things in children’s “culture” that are problematized and demonized for being bad influences…of ruining children’s innocence and forcing them into adult roles. Arguably, one of the most demonized child toys though, in my opinion is that of Barbie – that beautiful plastic woman with proportions that are impossible to have – literally. This Barbie character in her whiteness, blondeness, and over the years, capacity for befriending multicultural friends, focuses too much on beauty, too much on consumerism, too much on those things that any good “social justice” martyr with feminist beliefs just must oppose. Barbie has been manipulated to believe she must be beautiful, she has tokenized her friends to make money, she has ruined little girls abilities to be more than Barbie herself can be. She has bought into buying pleasure, feeling good because of material purchases. Barbie is no different than the whore that she was in part birthed from…for she, as Shirley Steinberg has pointed out, continues to whore herself out to the corporations.
However, since I am not a “social justice” martyr (anymore) with rather queer feminist tendencies, I want to make an argument for Barbie in all her beauty – I write then, in defense of Barbie. I do this because Barbie is positioned in a place of shame, she is abject to many “liberal” minded people as well as many “conservative” minded people. She is their “Other” who they can blame for the self-esteem issues and eating disorders in our young people. Of course ignoring that anorexics never have large breasts so to those that argue that Barbie is anorexic, and promotes anorexia in girls, I ask what vision of anorexia are you working from.
But, I rather like being in the place of shame, of the abject, to illustrate that it is a livable place, a possible life, a place that can be read for things occluded by most shaming readings.
Barbie – she comes in many different costumes.
Barbie – she once thought “math was hard”.
Barbie – the one with that pink corvette.
Barbie – the one with all that anyone needs to be cool.
Barbie – the one with the man who has a mound of flesh.
But Barbie for me was more than this. Barbie was, like Whitney, my girl. I played with her as a little boy, of course always through my sister since I couldn’t just play with Barbie by myself (unless I did it sneakily) because that is not what little “boys” do. Barbie for me then was the possibility of leaving small town Iowa and being fabulous, of being able to explore and dress, and drive those things that I couldn’t explore, wear, or drive in the “normal” world I lived in. Barbie may have taught my sister that she needed big boobs and a teeny-tiny waist (of which my sister does not have), but Barbie taught me that one could be happy in the “confines” of the feminine, one could enjoy the masquerade that is femininity, and make billions doing it. She taught me the importance, the necessity of aesthetics. She may have whored herself out to the corporate “Man” but she did it laughing all the way to the bank AND in doing so could act in any way her possessor wanted her to – be that as a happy hetero, a lipstick lez, or a bitchin’ CEO. Barbie taught me more than Ken ever could that in this world we can create ourselves, we can change our outfits and try something new…we can be a teacher, a nurse, an airline stewardess, we can think math is hard and still look fabulous, still survive in this world where math is seen as more important than fashion – as if fashion doesn’t require math.
Yet, I recognize that this process of creating the self is more than just putting on an outfit, that such performativity is constrained by the reiterative practices that become naturalized – which is part of the problem with Barbie as a static concept because she only has so many possibilities to perform. So, yes, Barbie’s options are limited by the evil of Mattel and what Mattel allows Barbie to be sold as (i.e. a nurse but not a drug pusher)…but Mattel does not control the ways in which children, in this instance me, played with Barbie. Barbie, to draw from Foucault, is freeer than we feel. She can be anything and we don’t need Mattel to make her so – we can make her so ourselves. I can make Barbie a philosopher like my academic crush Judith, I can make Barbie an actress like Jodie…I can do these things, I can make Barbie anything if my imagination is allowed to explore and make Barbie something I think Barbie could be.
Without Barbie, I would have been stuck with Joe, the violent one – not the plumber and he can’t change his clothes for real men are not sissy clothes changers and well I am not a real man. With Barbie…I can use her nurse costume and still have Barbie perform the role of the drug pusher since as a nurse she has the access. I can. I can I tell you. And in doing this with Barbie, which is “easier” to do than to do in “reality” then I can see these ideas as possibilities, as fictions that can create a reality that I imagine, that I want to experience when I am no longer child, but “adult” given opportunities to explore that which has been “occluded” from my child-eyes.
Barbie, then, provided a place to imagine the aesthetics of life, of fashion, of putting outfits together, and the possibilities of living, in an environment that was constraining. Yes, for some this is just the emergence and continuance of capitalism and consumption…but we cannot but operate within this system of capitalism. We cannot get out of it, for to try to get out of it would probably be illegal for to not be in this system would require so many fundamental changes in how one lived and operated in a society that was capitalistic.
Of course it is easy to critique those who buy excessive clothes and engage in what is positioned as “frivolous” (as I myself have done), but we are all implicated – “you” just make yourself feel better by making “me” your other, by making “me” less than “you” because you are less “capitalistic” than I. But I don’t like capitalism, I just like fashion, it is a part of life that brings me pleasure, not because I need clothes to make me feel “cool” or “pretty” but because they help me perform, they help me be me in whatever way I want to be “me” when I put on whatever it is I put on – knowing that how such clothes are read is never up to me entirely.
What then is wrong with Barbie? Is the problem with Barbie not Barbie herself but with our own inability to accept that Barbie is a person-doll, a possibility that girls, boys, boy-girls, girl-boys, sissys, punks, faggots, dykes, and others can look to and imagine a life that they do not have access to? Does Barbie, give access to the feminine, so often degraded and argued against for its limitations, actually broaden the possibilities of the feminine – of granting access to the feminine especially for those not “female” bodied? At the end of the day, if a woman, a girl, a drag queen, a trans person, a gender queer, a boy with a fetish uses Barbie to make life pleasurable within the imagination, what right do we have to critique Barbie and tell her that she is bad, that we will not buy her for our children because she, from our own projections, scares us – scares us that our children may choose a life we didn’t choose, a life we disparaged against, a life we didn’t want to live, or a life we always wanted to live but never could. By limiting our children’s access to such a cultural icon, this icon of problematic femininity, do we disparage this form of the feminine and colonize our children to a life we believe they should have NOT the life they could make themselves, like an artist makes a piece of art? Is the critique of Barbie more often about not wanting to grant children access to that vision of femininity that has been seen as passive, as superficial, as easy to manipulate and use RATHER than showing that not granting access to those forms of femininity re-pathologize such femininity as lesser, as not worthy of “positive” evaluations, as not worthy of representation anymore?
So, I say buy me a Barbie, buy me that most feminine of all toys, that doll that performs and perhaps helped construct the feminine ideal and let me imagine the beauty of that doll, of the possibilities that this abjected, shamed doll can provide. Buy me Barbie, by me her little sister doll Bratz, buy me these dolls that are “sexualized,” “skanky,” “slutty,” and “inappropriate” for little girls, boys, bois, gurls and I will show you the possibilities that skanks, sluts, and anything shameful can create possible lives and expose the anxieties of adults around childhood and children in relation to sexuality and the “passive” feminine…or if I cannot I will at least have a new Barbie that you purchased in this capitalistic system for me…