“No bos olib” – On the gynocentrism and sparkly separatism of the Barbie movies


Author: Emma A. Jane, University of New South Wales, Australia

 

NoBosOlib

 

Abstract

Barbie has long been ascribed potent powers in terms of shaping attitudes towards gender roles. In both scholarly and popular media discourse, she has been linked to—or blamed outright for—a range of social ills including eating disorders, plastic surgery addictions, and the sexualisation of children. This article examines a Barbie merchandise sector that has been largely neglected in scholarship: the 26 animated Barbie feature movies Mattel has released since 2001. These films confound some dominant assumptions about Barbie’s transmission of oppressive ideology, in that many are gynocentric and subvert “traditional” gender stereotypes. It is curious, therefore, that this new Barbie genre has not received more attention in the literature. A possible explanation is that researchers may overlook, ignore, or mis-read new manifestations of serial commodities because of the assumption that these new products—and the meanings associated with them—will only ever be “more of the same”. The fact that these Barbie films do have a number of novel aspects underlines the importance of approaching research into new communication modes with fresh eyes; of reassessing—and, if necessary, revising—the received wisdoms that may be associated not only with the object of analysis, but with the theoretical paradigms guiding the analysis itself.

Key words: Barbie, gynocentrism, feminism, princesses, girl power, girls’ studies.

No boys allowed?

For some time now, our bathroom door has displayed an oddly punctuated, opaquely spelled sign scrawled in green texta on the back of a pre-loved sheet of office paper. “No bos olib,” it reads. My daughter, Alice, wrote this when she was five. It was one of the first sentences she produced on her own, and was her approximation of “no boys allowed”—a translation I currently offer bathroom visitors by way of Blu-Tacked sub-title. “No boys allowed.” It’s not an especially surprising message for a five-year-old girl to want displayed on her bathroom door (particularly given anecdotal reports of an outbreak of “boy germs” in Alice’s school playground). What is surprising, however, is that “no boys allowed” is also a reasonable summary of one of the sub-texts of Alice’s favourite genres of entertainment: the Barbie animated movie.

No boys allowed?  But this is Barbie, right?  The plastic, supposedly un-fantastic lackey of the capitalist heteropatriarchy? The vacuous blonde condemned as being “a model for women who are defined by their relationships with men rather than their accomplishments as people”1?   The über-breasted, micro-stomach-ed, genitally barren doll who, despite various attempts at rehabilitation by feminist scholars, is still being crucified—quite literally—by women’s groups 2. Well, yes. After more than half a century of shape-shifting her way through careers as diverse as “paratrooper” and “pet stylist”, Mattel’s infamous plastic nubile is currently circulating in perhaps her most unlikely role ever: she’s become the alpha ruler of a number of parallel, girl-powered movie universes where boys are permitted to make the occasional appearance, but only in the most marginal of roles—usually as socially androgynous human handbags, and/or helpless victims in desperate need of dramatic rescue by Barbie and her BFFs 3 .

Barbie has long been framed as a turbo-charged vehicle for the transmission of oppressive, gender role-related ideology 4. In scholarship, feminist writers have struggled—at length—with the tension between framings of Barbie play as a pleasurable choice, and framings of Barbie play as a symptom of what Sandra Lee Bartky has referred to as “internalized oppression” (Bartky 3). In popular media discourse, meanwhile, Barbie has been blamed for a range of social ills, including causing “mutilating” plastic surgery addictions (Hoskins), as well as contributing to the sexualisation of little girls by making “overtly sexual…hooker-style” clothing seem desirable (Shure). This leads to this essay’s preliminary research questions. Given: a) the potent socio-psychological powers attributed to Barbie; and b) the fact that Alice wrote her “no bos olib” sign at a time when she was mainlining Barbie movies, is it possible these two things are connected? (Similar links are certainly made elsewhere. The Rehabs.com web site, for instance, cites a note written by a seven-year-old girl about doing “pooshups” and going on a “diyet” to support its claim that very young children are dying—sometimes literally—to look like Barbie [“An Epidemic of Body Hatred”].) So: are all those repeat viewings of Barbie: A Fairy Secret and Barbie and the Three Musketeers the reason Alice decided to devote her incipient literacy to declaring our bathroom a “bos”-free zone? Are these films implanting in their viewers’ impressionable young minds subliminal messages of girl domination? And: should we be concerned that the Barbie film canon is somehow causing girls to become sparkly little gender separatists?

These problematics are posed partly to illustrate the oddness of the problematics themselves: to demonstrate the strangeness of proposing causal relationships between Barbie and phenomena which are positive, neutral, or simply something other than the usual suspects of body dysmorphia, subservience to the patriarchy, and so on. As such, this essay will extend beyond the putative primary objects of analysis (Barbie products and Barbie players), and engage in a meta-critique of Barbie critique itself. This will follow my identification of two Barbie-related trends in scholarly and popular media discourse: a continuing tendency to engage in what could be called “Barbie blaming”; and an absence of consideration of the Barbie animated film canon (which presumably could be “blamed” for fomenting an empowered gender separatism in its target demographic). As such, another set of research questions become cogent. What do the animated Barbie movies tell us about Barbie’s circulation as a commodity and as a sign in contemporary culture, and why have these films received so little attention? Is there an impulse to cast Barbie always already as a “bad influence”, and, if so, does this risk: overstating the power of Barbie; underplaying the agency and creativity of Barbie players; and/or implying that all past, present, and future Barbie products are homogeneous, temporally fixed, and monosymic? And finally—from a meta-analytical perspective—can this case study offer any insights into how best to orientate future research into serial commodities such as Barbie?

To answer these questions, I will begin by providing a brief sketch of Barbie’s history in commodity and sense-making contexts, including a cross-disciplinary and cross-genre literature review of scholarly and popular media texts. I note that while Barbie has only recently achieved “virtuality” as a product (in the sense that she now exists in a multiplicity of digital and cyber forms), her circulation as a sign has always—necessarily—involved a degree of metaphorical virtuality (in that the meanings made of Barbie are related to Barbie without materially being Barbie 5. Tensions can be observed between Barbie as product and Barbie as idea, in that while the “difference” and “diversity” available in the contemporary Barbie range is less than Mattel boasts in this regard 6,  it is arguably more than some framings of Barbie in contemporary academic work might suggest.

The second half of this article is devoted to Barbie’s recent—and mostly ignored—manifestation as an animated film star. I provide an overview of the 26 animated Barbie feature movies Mattel has released since 2001, and then engage in close readings of two of these films: Barbie: A Fairy Secret (2011), and Barbie and the Three Musketeers (2009) 7.   As we will see, these movies confound many dominant assumptions about Barbie’s transmission of oppressive ideology, in that their key characteristics include  gynocentrism 8 and the subversion of a number of “traditional” gender stereotypes. This phenomenon is obvious in the way that many of the—particularly more recent—Barbie films depict fantasy worlds where power is exclusively or primarily the domain of girls and women, and boys and men are excluded or marginalised. I then discuss the potential—and the limitations—of this gynocentrism, concluding that subtexts of many of the Barbie movies can be read as offering a vision of age-appropriate girl power. Returning to a meta-analysis of extant Barbie analysis, I argue that the construction of any causal narratives in relation to Barbie is unlikely to be helpful, regardless of whether she is being “blamed” for bad or good outcomes. I discuss the limitations of the sort of scholarly a priori-ism that assumes a knowledge of new Barbie products and sense-making practices based on ideas and conclusions from the past, and make the case that it may sometimes be useful to reflect on and revise our ideas not only about new communication modes (such as the Barbie movies), but about our established analytical and theoretical modes, as well. My hope is that this case study demonstrates that the former project may well assist the latter.

This essay embraces fusion’s Mission Statement (“About: fusion Mission Statement”) in three ways. Firstly, its theoretical architecture and hermeneutics are transdisciplinary in that they combine the qualitative research methods, conceptual perspectives, and interpretative strategies associated with gender studies, girls’ studies, media studies, cultural studies, and childhood studies (which are, in themselves, all interdisciplinary fields involving intellectual fusion). Secondly, I have attempted to combine the genres of long-form, creative non-fiction and scholarly writing in line with my belief that the former could often benefit from more scholarly rigour, while the latter sometimes suffers from a rhetorical deficit. (This experiment, of course, runs every risk of backfiring, and that rather than appealing to both audiences, I satisfy neither.) Thirdly, I have included a degree of first-person narrative and at-home ethnography that may well exceed even the significant degree of methodological and interpretative reflexivity welcomed in the qualitative research tradition (Brennen 22). Specifically, this essay begins and ends with the very personal story of Alice’s relationship with Barbie, as well as including a discussion of some of the difficulties and paradoxes involved in attempting to reconcile feminist activism with parenting. As previously mentioned, my adoption of an eclectic approach to both the style and substance of this article is in recognition—and celebration—of this journal’s commitment to fusion, hybridisation, and the merging of various aspects of creative practice. As we will see, however, the attempt to make sense of Barbie is a research project which lends itself to—perhaps even demands—an emphasis on the individual, the intimate and the confessional.

Barbie back stories, Barbie blindness

Modelled on a sexy novelty German doll for adults, Barbie was the brainchild of American businesswoman Ruth Handler, the youngest of 10 children in a family of Polish immigrants (Hyman 29). Handler remembers herself as a tomboy who rejected her mother’s life with its endless burden of domestic work and childrearing (Forman-Brunell 310), and whose determination to have not just a job but an ambitious business career was unorthodox for the era. In interviews, Handler has said she wanted to introduce a “bland” adult-shaped doll to the children’s toy market to encourage girls to engage in imaginative play that went beyond mothering baby dolls, as well as helping them come to terms with the prospect of one day developing breasts (Handler cited in Stern) 9. Thus we can see that, from the outset, Barbie was positioned—apparently quite deliberately—in a liminal space between a child’s imagination and an adult fantasy, as well as being intended to operate (if we accept Handler’s testimony) as a vehicle for gender-related ideology. Yet while the meanings attached to Barbie by Handler—or, indeed, anyone else—are of great interest, it is important to  remember that Barbie’s primary function, her raison d’être, is to generate profits for Mattel: if she ceases to sell, she’s history.

Over the years, Barbie’s original, “bland” look became increasingly pretty (Handler cited in Stern), and her fashions and accessories moved from those of a single career girl who avoided “rough housework” to, in the 1990s, those involving mostly domestic symbolism (Pearson and Mullins 225). The early twenty first century has seen more changes to Barbie. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein claims that—despite receiving a slight breast reduction and waist augmentation—the astronauts, surgeons, and presidents of Barbie’s “glory days” have been largely replaced by fairies, butterflies, ballerinas, mermaids, and princesses in wardrobes of almost exclusively pink and lavender (Orenstein 47, 48). While a visit to Mattel’s Barbie e-store confirms the predominance of this colour scheme, it does suggest that an expansion of Orenstein’s generalisation is in order. In July 2013, Mattel was offering 174 dolls in the Barbie section of its online shop. While some of these were indeed princesses, ballerinas and fantasy figures such as mermaids and fairies, there were also: fashion dolls of various skin colours; sets of friends of various ages; child dolls with prepubescent bodies; dolls relating to Barbie (as well as non-Barbie) movies; dolls specifically identified as coming from nations other than America; and 29 career dolls from the “I Can Be” line, including a zookeeper, a magician, a track champion, and an African American female president doll called Nikki (“All Barbie Dolls”). Only four of the figurines on this page were male 10: a Ken in swimming trunks; a bridegroom Ken; and two doll versions of male characters from the Twilight movie franchise.

The “difference” and “diversity” available in the Barbie universe is obviously limited given that—despite variations in hairstyle, skin colour, and accouterments—most of the adult female Barbies on this page still looked like Barbies 11, especially with regards to the adult females’ tiny en pointe feet and anatomically unfeasible figures. Yet the flip-side of this mass reproduction of feminine sameness is that, for the most part, the masculine is erased. A committed Barbie antifan 12 may question the potential for an empowered reading of this phenomenon. She may argue that what we are seeing here is evidence of Barbie-centrism rather than gynocentrism; in other words, that this is an unpleasant and predictable over-abundance of Barbies, rather than an intriguing and possibly liberating absence of patriarchal power figures. A simple thought experiment may be useful in showing that the counterintuitiveness of the latter is not because it is not a valid reading, but because we may be overly attached to the Barbie orthodoxies associated with the former. Let us imagine a version of Mattel’s web page in which the genders are reversed: an online shop offering 170 male dolls (many of whom are clearly engaged in rewarding friendships, stimulating careers and/or exciting fantasy adventures), yet only four female dolls (one in a swimsuit, one dressed as a bride, and two in the guise of film celebrities). From a feminist perspective, the latter would likely be regarded as objectionably sexist and androcentric. Why, then, is the extant Barbie version also objectionable in feminist terms? One possibility is that Barbie has achieved that paradoxical state of invisibility through proliferation. Perhaps we have seen so much of this skinny, white girl, we assume there is nothing new to discover: like food on a Teflon pan, our collective attentions slide straight off her shiny plastic surface.

Binary Barbie versus Rorschach Inkblot Barbie

Before exploring these themes further (and declaring my own Barbie blindness, Barbie baggage, and Barbie bias), I will offer a short guided tour of the various Barbie-related controversies that have raged since her birth. As we will see, a significant proportion of these construct what we could playfully call “Binary Barbie” in that the debate is usually framed—perhaps somewhat simplistically—in terms of whether she is “healthy or harmful for girls” (Forman-Brunell 305). This elides the possibility that she could be both—or neither. When Barbie was first released by Mattel in 1959, her main victims were thought to be men. The Mattel corporation was depicted in cartoons as a “den of demons” creating a “generation of vipers”, little girls who would grow up to be “big-spending, busy, powerful, frigid women” (Stern). For the most part, however, Barbie’s most vocal critics have been feminists who claim the doll enslaves girls to the twin hegemons of the patriarchy and commodity culture. Typical of feminist critiques are that Barbie represents impossible ideals of physical perfection: that her “distortedly thin body ideal” reduces girls’ self-esteem and can lead to eating disorders and depression (Dittmar et al. 290), and that her looks arguably reinforce “racist, heterosexist and ableist 13 values” (Collins et al. 109). Imaginings of Barbie as a dangerous contagion, meanwhile, can be found in 2012 media references to a “Barbie flu” reported to be sweeping the Ukrainian city of Odessa where young women are supposedly altering their appearance in order to “become living dolls” (Soldak). Over the years, Mattel has responded to criticisms with both aggressive litigation 14, and savvy appropriation. As Lynn Spigel notes: “Mattel is quite willing to accessorize [Barbie] with a number of fashionable perspectives—including feminism itself. Like all successful capitalists, Mattel is very good at accommodating dissent” (Spigel 345).

The most recent feminist criticisms of Barbie can be located within broader claims that Western culture has become blighted by an insidious new form of “enlightened sexism” (Douglas), in which girlhood is commodified, princessified, and sexualised with various negative consequences 15. The claim, here, is that—in a “toxic mainstream popular culture” where the “fashion-beauty-diet industrial complex” intrudes into the lives of ever-younger girls—what may feel like a free choice about physical aesthetics, toys, or play styles, may instead be an instance of conformity, colonisation and coercion flowing from “the oppressive institutions and practices of heteropatriarchy and white supremacy” (Collins et al. 104, 106). In Living Dolls—The Return of Sexism, Natasha Walter metaphorically figures dolls such as Barbie as possessing sinister, quasi-supernatural powers, when she writes that dolls are “escaping from the toy shop and taking over girls’ lives” to create a “fusion” between the doll and the real girl “in a way that would have been unthinkable a generation ago”.

Living a doll’s life seems to have become an aspiration for many young women, as they leave childhood behind only to embark on a project of grooming, dieting and shopping that aims to achieve the bleached, waxed, tinted look of a Bratz or Barbie doll. The characters they watch in romantic comedies are women who make such exaggerated femininity seem aspirational, and the celebrities they read about…are often women who are well known to have chosen extreme regimes, from punishing diets to plastic surgery, to achieve an airbrushed perfection (Walter 2).”

As we shall see, however, casting Barbie—first and foremost—as an evil agent of oppressive gender stereotypes can itself be a limiting stereotype. The inconvenient truth—at least for hardline Barbie haters—is that there is  good evidence that Barbie inspires a startling array of sense-making practices, some of which seem to affirm hegemonic messages about gender, some of which seem to subvert hegemonic messages about gender, and some of which are singularly surreal and cannot be neatly categorised within either of these two extremes.

Research has certainly shown that children play with Barbie in all manner of unexpected ways. One UK university study reveals that girls aged between seven and 11 enjoy torturing, maiming, microwaving, scalping, and decapitating their Barbies as a way of expressing their changing feelings toward the doll (“‘Babyish’ Barbie under attack from little girls, study shows”). Erica Rand also recalls her friends’ enthusiastic recounting of how they had played Barbie, “how they had turned her punk, set her on fire, made her fuck Midge or Ken or G.I. Joe or, on occasion, gotten the much advertised ‘hours of fun’ by following Mattel’s directions” (Rand 3). Furthermore, many Barbie players are not children but grown women and men for whom Barbie operates as a powerful Rorschach inkblot. Filmmaker Susan Stern made the 1998 documentary Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour after discovering that “virtually everyone – men as well as women – had a story to tell involving Barbie” (Stern and Kolmar 191). Her roll call of interviewees includes: lesbians who use Barbie for explicit sadomasochistic play scenes; a man who stages an outdoor Barbie funeral service to commemorate a friend who died of AIDS; a collector for whom Barbie epitomises a wholesome 1950s era; and a recovering anorexic artist who now shoots moody photographs of the doll. Stern also offers an X-ray of two Barbie heads in the descending colon of an anonymous fetishist who apparently swallows doll parts for the sexual thrill obtained when they are eventually “passed”. Similar tales of sexualised Barbie repurposing by adults are offered by Rand who says she was inspired to write Barbie’s Queer Accessories after receiving an issue of a lesbian sex magazine with a photo of a woman inserting a Barbie feet first into her vagina (Rand 1).

Digital dolls

Over the years, Mattel has deployed various marketing strategies with varying degrees of success 16 in an effort to continue moving Barbie units in a world of changing values—and changing childhoods. In addition to those oh-so-analog 17 plastic figurines, Barbie has gone digital via smart phone apps and various interactive Mattel web sites. Likewise the conversations, play styles, and sense-making practices of Barbie’s fans and antifans have also migrated to the vast domain of the cybersphere. A particularly interesting example of the latter is the “Barbie and Ricky” YouTube channel in which three children make and post amateur and unauthorised (as in unauthorised by Mattel) videos of themselves playing with Barbie and her “husband” Ricky (“Barbie and Ricky”). One of these clips has been viewed more than 21 million times on YouTube (“Barbie and Ricky Go to the Pool”) which exceeds, by millions of viewers, many of Mattel’s official YouTube Barbie videos (“Official Barbie YouTube Page”). Mattel’s off-line Barbie animations have, however, been more commercially prosperous.

The company’s “first generation” 18 of four Barbie movies was released in the late 1980s and early 1990s, apparently the result of a failed attempt at a TV pilot (Erickson and Rovi). The “second” and “third” generations of direct-to-DVD computer-generated animated films—comprising 26 titles—come under the umbrella of Mattel’s Barbie Entertainment division which was launched in 2000 to offset slow toy sales (Kang). The first film release, Barbie in the Nutcracker (2001) proved to be a marketing success. The DVD rapidly became a best seller, and was accompanied by “all sorts of tie-in dolls and paraphernalia” (James). Five years, seven films, and 27 million DVD sales later, Mattel announced—in 2006—a multi-picture, multi-year alliance with Universal Studios for the worldwide marketing and distribution of Barbie DVDs (“Universal Studios and Mattel Form Multi-Picture, Multi-Year Worldwide Marketing and Distribution DVD Alliance”). Boasting that Barbie was “everywhere girls are”, Mattel announced that the alliance’s first joint, global release would be Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses, a princess-themed film featuring the motion-capture dance movements of the New York City Ballet, and supported by a comprehensive line of associated Barbie toys and licensed products, as well as TV advertising and promotional ties-ins with fast food chains (ibid). Integrated marketing of this sort is a signal feature of Mattel’s contemporary Barbie-related business strategies, as films, dolls, accessories, books, digital song downloads, smart phone apps, and other products are offered for sale simultaneously.

The mises-en-scène of the second and third generations of Barbie films are fairly uniform: there are lashings of lurid pink, a lot of sparkles, and—particularly in the early titles—excruciatingly clunky computer animation. There are, however, thematic variations in the worlds Barbie inhabits. In one group of films, she appears as a virtual actress in classic fairy stories that have been “Barbie-fied”. These include Barbie as Rapunzel (2002), Barbie of Swan Lake (2003), Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper (2004), and Barbie and the Three Musketeers (2009). Another group involve fantasy worlds containing magical beings such as fairies, butterfly fairies, and mermaids. Examples include Barbie: Fairytopia (2005), Barbie: Mermaidia (2006), and Barbie Mariposa (2008). The most recent Barbie films focus on “real life” girls and demonstrate a distinct preoccupation with the motifs of fashion, fame, and celebrity. Titles in this group include Barbie: A Fashion Fairytale (2010), Barbie: A Fairy Secret (2011), and Barbie: Princess Charm School (2011). Some Barbie movies are difficult to categorise thematically because they incorporate signature characteristics of all three groups mentioned above. In Barbie in A Mermaid Tale (2010) and Barbie in A Mermaid Tale 2 (2012), for example, there are contemporary teenage girls from “real life” worlds and princesses and magical beings and themes of fashion and fame.

Very little has been written about these films in scholarly or popular media domains. An exception is Lisa Orr’s 2009 essay “‘Difference That Is Actually Sameness Mass-Reproduced’: Barbie Joins the Princess Convergence” which compares Barbie princesses in the first 14 Barbie movies released after 2001 to those princesses associated with Disney. Orr argues that, despite the marketing of the former as a modern and independent challenge to Disney’s traditionalism, the two brands are strikingly—and disturbingly—similar (Orr 9-10). Furthermore, she says the “sudden explosion” of princess material in multiple formats is best read as “one unit, one grand text” because all these texts feed into each other and cannot be read in isolation (Orr 9). Orr’s criticisms of Barbie and contemporary princess culture are manifold. Barbie, she argues, remains strongly associated with “neatly ordered patriarchal realms” rather than feminism (Orr 12) and, in her new integrated and interactive commodity forms, exerts a kind of “control” over children’s imaginations which reduces their agency, diverts their play into less liberatory avenues, and prompts girls “to imagine themselves into roles that [have] little to do with the realities of their coming lives” (Orr 13-14). She also claims that each Barbie film concludes with a romantic resolution, and that this: is inappropriate for a product aimed at three- to five-year olds; seems to “counsel obedience and reward passivity”; and perfectly prepares little girls for “insertion into heterosexual discourse” (Orr 16-17). While Orr concedes that the Barbie films do foreground relationships between women and female friends, her overall conclusion is pessimistic, in that merchandising “undermines whatever liberation is promised in a given princess narrative” (Orr 26). In short, Barbie’s girl power potential is rated as coming a poor second best to her girl disempowerment potential.

At home with Barbie: “Believe me! I like it! It’s just… different!”

My own analysis of Barbie’s animated movies has led to conclusions which diverge from Orr’s in many respects—although this may be partly due to the fact that my study comes four years after hers, and therefore  accommodates 12 additional films. I note, also, that the most recent Barbie movies have more liberatory subtexts than the earlier titles. Before going into details on these matters, a confession with regards to the human research ethics of this project: I had never intended to research Barbie and was coerced into Barbie movie-watching against my will. The fact is I don’t much like Barbie and had banned her from our household for many years. My daughter, however, likes Barbie a lot and, despite my feminist reservations, I eventually decided that allowing her access to the doll was the lesser of two evils. While I didn’t subscribe to the notion that Barbie alone had the power to turn Alice into an anorexic Stepford wife, it would have suited my politics, my aesthetic preferences, and my reputation among other feminist mothers if she had shown more of an interest in learning to play Scrabble, making folksy craft out of found objects, or talking about one day becoming an astronaut. After years of ignoring her insistent demands for Barbie, however, I eventually decided I wouldn’t be much of a feminist if I told her she was free to make her own choices—but only if they replicated mine. Quite frankly, I also felt like a hypocrite telling her explicitly that girls were strong and could do anything, while implying that Barbie was feminist kryptonite and would automatically get the better of her. So, shortly before Alice turned five, I officially lifted the Barbie embargo.

When Alice’s Barbie-friendly relatives heard that the prohibition had ended, our household was hit by a pink apocalypse. Within weeks, Alice had accumulated: nine Barbie dolls, two Barbie mermaids, and one large Barbie hairdressing head in our house; many more Barbies at her father’s place; and a further unknown number of dolls at her grandmother’s. Like a pill-popper doctor-shopping for addictive prescription drugs, it was as if she was strategically securing her fix over a number of locations so I never knew how many Barbies she was consuming on any given day. Alice has also accumulated a large number of items from Barbie’s blindingly pink accessory empire (which now extends far beyond back-up handbags and spare Kens). She has a Barbie bathroom setting with Barbie toilet and Barbie bath tub, a Barbie pink glamour campervan with Barbie kitchen and Barbie spa, a Barbie backpack, a Barbie Wii game, and a bunch of Barbie smart phone apps. Barbie has also turned out to be a gateway doll to a large number of other brands including Disney dolls, Monster High dolls, and baby dolls (one of which urinates tap water and defecates white paste).

Then there are the Barbie films. Alice owns all but four of the second and third generation of these titles either in DVD or digital form. I have now viewed these on so many occasions, large chunks of their blazingly pink dialogue have imprinted themselves on my memory. The first Barbie film I watched with Alice was Barbie: A Fairy Secret in which Barbie “stars” as a teenage movie starlet whose personal stylists turn out to be a shoe fairy and a purse fairy from a magical dimension called Gloss Angeles. To cut a very long and glittery story short, the passion fairy ruler of Gloss Angeles, Princess Graciella, falls in love with Ken while under the influence of a love spell administered by her duplicitous assistant Crystal. Princess Graciella arranges for him to be abducted and held in bondage in the fairy realm where her heartbroken boyfriend, Zane, responds by challenging Ken to a series of duels. Fortunately, the defenseless Ken is eventually rescued by Barbie and her former frenemy 19 Raquelle (who looks gratifyingly like the 1950s American pin-up Betty Page).

At first blush, this may not sound particularly revolutionary from a feminist perspective. But, not long into my second, third or possibly seventh viewing, I realised that this movie’s real secret was its subversion of gender stereotypes. Firstly, Barbie: A Fairy Secret involves several universes in which girls and women rule—quite literally in the case of Graciella’s hegemonic control of Gloss Angeles. The only two male characters of any consequence are monodimensional, peripheral, and decorative. Rather than initiating action themselves, they are purely reactive to the women’s moves and maneuvers. Ken is endearing enough, and does an excellent job of looking cute on his famous girlfriend’s arm while she struts the red carpet at her movie premieres, but he’s entirely impotent in the face of fairy-napping. He wails in a helpless and ditzy fashion as he is flown off into the ether (at one point suddenly ceasing his shouts to look down and observe that he can see his house from up there). Ken’s only previous experience in the art of war is a playful fencing bout with a set of spoons over a bowl of ice-cream with Barbie. As such, he is hopelessly lost when the hyper-masculine, heavily accent-ed Zane demands that he fight. During the duel, Ken complains that his tight fairy armour is pinching, and pretends to pull off a thumb when ordered to deploy his magic. In another telling scene, he strains to grow himself a pair of wings in order to better do battle with Zane. Despite all his exertions, Ken manages to pop out only a tiny little pink pair that emit a mosquito whine, are far smaller than Zane’s super-erect set, and are miniscule compared to Barbie’s. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is a “small appendage” joke on the part of the filmmakers. Ken’s status as a flibbertigibbet bimbo is further established when he bumps his nose in the lead-up to his arranged marriage to Graciella and exclaims, “Oh, no! On my wedding day!”, momentarily forgetting the fact that this is a wedding day to a woman he doesn’t even want to marry. Ken does manage to offer some token assistance during the main, all-girl fight sequence (he uses a “hacky sack” move to kick the love potion antidote up to Barbie) but, for the most part, assumes a stereotypical “helpless female” position by watching powerlessly from the sidelines awaiting rescue.

The girls and women, in contrast, are central to and drive all the action: they are the primary villains, and the primary heroines—brave, resourceful, skilled in battle, and prepared to risk their lives when the cause is a good one. The female characters are also the romantic/sexual aggressors, while the men are reduced to romantic/sexual property. When Raquelle flirts with Ken in front of Barbie, Barbie insists they take their dispute “outside” as per the classic car park showdown between film machos. Crystal, meanwhile, engineers the love spell scam in a bid to secure Zane, which results in the increasingly lecherous Graciella forcing her affections on Ken against his will. In the final battle, Barbie then engages in violent combat with Graciella to snatch Ken back. Interestingly enough, however, like the homosocial “bromances” observable between male characters in contemporary popular entertainment, the film’s primary love affair is between Barbie and Raquelle. The couple begin as adversaries but gradually fall for each other as they work, strategise, and do battle together. At one point, their growing affection literally sets them free when it melts the “fury sphere” in which Graciella has imprisoned them in Gloss Angeles. While their relationship is not couched in explicitly lesbian terms, it’s hard to avoid the symbolism in the film’s final scene when Raquelle date-crashes a tête-à-tête between Barbie and Ken. Instead of flirting with Ken as she has done previously, Raquelle has eyes only for Barbie. She sits next to her, looks Barbie up and down, and gushes that she’s looking “super cute”. Momentarily disconcerted by Raquelle’s ardor, Barbie quickly collects herself and says: “Believe me! I like it! It’s just… different!”

Also different—at least from my preconceived expectations—was the next Barbie film Alice introduced me to: Barbie and the Three Musketeers. While populated with a larger number of male characters—and potent male characters—than Barbie: A Fairy Secret, this film’s girl power message is even more pronounced. Corinne—“played” by Barbie—is a farm girl who lives with her mother in Gascony, and who dreams of being a musketeer. She travels to Paris where she is mockingly told that musketeering is men’s business before being set to work as a maid in the royal palace. It is in this demeaning domestic position, that Corinne meets an underground railway of other teenaged girls who secretly wish to protect the palace as musketeers. She and her new friends then begin covert training with an old maid and crypto-musketeer named Hélène. The character closest to that of a romantic male lead is Prince Louis, an absent-minded balloonist who has no fighting abilities and is constantly on the verge of being assassinated by his evil cousin, Philippe. Fortunately Corinne and her three musketeer friends expose this foul plot and save Louis’s life. While their combat styles are often absurdly girly (at one juncture they defeat their enemies via fabric whipping, perfume squirting, fan flapping, and jewellery hurling), ultimately Corinne fights Philippe on a rooftop with an actual sword, while Louis cowers in the background. In the final scene, the smitten prince asks Corinne if she’d care to celebrate his coronation with a romantic balloon ride. Corinne, however, has just received word of yet another dastardly anti-royal plot. “We’ll have to take that balloon ride later,” she says, riding off with her three female compadres. “Right now I’ve got somewhere else to be.” Similar themes of gynocentrism, girl power, and the privileging of female friendship over heteronormative romance are evident in varying degrees in many other Barbie films. In Barbie & the Diamond Castle (2008), for instance, best friends Liana and Alexa celebrate their defeat of monstrous supernatural evil by setting up house together, while a pair of twin brothers who initially looked like they might become romantic interests for the friends, consummate their conjoined story arcs by discovering the joys of electric as opposed to acoustic guitar performance.

Given the extensive attention paid to Barbie in the past, we may wonder why these trends have received so little attention—and indeed celebration—in feminist discourse. After all, the girl power in these films does not exist on the fringes of a world run patriarchal authority figures. Rather, girl culture is the dominant culture. If anything, it is the brothers, fathers, princes, kings, and male friends who are marginalised. One possible critique of this spirit of reversal in the Barbie movies concerns the political effectiveness of simply substituting male villains and victims in place of female versions. Ethical questions may arise about the desirability of depicting anyone of any sex being amorously fairynapped against their will. Theorists in other domains have also noted that “positive” representations which are presented as simple reversals of a “negative” may have the effect of upholding or at least drawing attention to the objectionable stereotypes they supposedly reject. Writing on representations of race, for instance, Stuart Hall argues that “the problem with the positive/negative strategy” is that the binaries remain in place and thus meanings continue to be framed by them (Hall 274). Another potential objection to the depiction of a patriarchy-free universe in children’s entertainment relates to the fact that such worlds are far removed from the non-fictional status quo. As such, they do not portray girl hero role models who find ways to navigate around and triumph over the multiple structural difficulties and inequities which continue to confront girls and women in contemporary life.

My response is that the escapist pleasure involved in fantasy-themed entertainment can be legitimate in and of itself; not every text offered to children should necessarily contain conspicuous pedagogy or gritty realism. (Consider criticisms of Barbie for being too thin to menstruate [Winterman]. Must we therefore apply the same rule and confiscate other, feminised play things—such as homemade paper dolls—on the grounds that they don’t possess a sufficient abdominal cavity to accommodate a uterus?) After extensive—and eventually consensual—viewings and re-viewings of the Barbie movies, I have come to both enjoy and applaud the films’ gynocentric emphasis on the agency of girls and their relationships with each other. Given the age of the movies’ target audiences, it seems entirely appropriate that—apart from a cluster of weddings in the early, fairy tale-based titles—most of the boys are presented as offering platonic friendship rather than rescue or potential marriage. The gynocentrism of these fantasy worlds also brings to mind historical, intra-feminist debates about whether emancipation lies in striving for equality with men, or exercising (and celebrating) women’s difference. As such, they epitomise the détente offered by third wave feminism in that Barbie and her friends are embracing—as Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards put it in relation to girl culture’s intersection between feminism and femininity—“girlieness as well as power” (Baumgardner and Richards 59).

Girls may also be well-equipped to parlay Barbie-related gynocentrism into real world contexts. In Barbie Girls versus Sea Monsters: Children Constructing Gender, Michael A. Messner recounts an incident in which an LA soccer team of four- and five-year-old girls called the Barbie Girls dance and sing blissfully around a Barbie doll mascot dressed in the team’s green and white team colours (Messner 768). In response, a group of similarly aged boys—in a team called the Sea Monsters—begins a chant of “NO BARBIE!”, eventually dashing forward, “invading the girls’ space, and yelling menacingly” (Messner 768-9). The girls’ rejoinders range from looking puzzled and shrinking back, to engaging with and repelling the boys (Messner 769):

as the Barbie Girls rallied around Barbie, their obvious pleasure did not appear to be based on a celebration of quiet passivity (as feminist parents might fear). Rather, it was a  statement that they—the Barbie Girls—were here in this public space. They were not silenced by the boys’ oppositional chanting. To the contrary, they ignored the boys, who seemed irrelevant to their celebration. And, when the boys later physically invaded their space, some of the girls responded by chasing the boys off (Messner 777).”

Despite the temptation to impose adult notions about what Barbie “should” mean, Messner’s case is that it is more instructive to examine what the girls actually did—an approach which reveals “a public moment of celebratory ‘girl power’” (ibid). The same holds true in relation to reading the Barbie films.

While Orr’s call for multiple commodity formats to be read as a single grand text may be useful in some contexts, my case is that, as a relatively new type of Barbie text, the Barbie films deserve to be examined with fresh eyes. This is not to jettison issues of transtextuality by insisting that the films be analysed in splendid isolation from Barbie’s palimpsestic semiotic history, but is an attempt to avoid a priori approaches which declare—well in advance of any actual reading—that one already knows all there is to know about a new Barbie text simply by virtue of it being a Barbie text. As with the dolls themselves, it can be difficult to look beyond the films’ saccharine and sparkly pink aesthetics, and the fact that most of the pubescent or post-pubescent adult female characters have the same improbably thin body shape. Nevertheless, engaging in a close reading of the Barbie movies is a useful exercise beyond the exegesis of individual films. More broadly, it acknowledges that even cultural symbols as putatively fixed as Barbie may still be labile—both in the forms they take as circulating signs as well as in the way they are received by consumers. It also makes space for further discussion about what constitutes feminism-friendly entertainment for children (if, indeed, such a thing exists given that children’s natural contrarianism often results in well-meant instruction being defied, defiled, or otherwise ignored).

Conclusion

This article has made the case that—contrary to continuing feminist censure of Barbie—the subtexts of many of the Barbie movies can be read as furnishing a vision of age-appropriate girl power. While Barbie may still exemplify narrow and ultimately unhelpful beauty ideals, it has shown that many of the Barbie films offer empowering alternatives to the stereotype of female characters as weak, helpless, and destined to live in a man’s world where they must play second fiddle to the boys and where “happily ever after” automatically requires heterosexual romance. What this article has not done, is provide definitive answers to the preliminary research  problematics posed in paragraph three. Chicken-and-egg questions are often raised in relation to Barbie. Rand, for example, wonders: “Do people like Barbie because she reflects values acquired elsewhere, or do they learn first to value Barbie and then to value what she represents?” (Rand 7). The relevant variation as articulated earlier in this essay is: Do real world girls enjoy Barbie’s movies because they reflect a pre-existing interest in gynocentrism, or is Barbie co-opting girls into the ideology of gynocentrism and separatism that is packaged so very prettily in her movies?

As fascinating as it is to consider instances of and possible reasons for gender separatism in childhood and how these relate to the formation of contemporary gender identities overall (cf.: David et al.; Levit [esp. 15-63]; McCredie [esp. 93-113]), I pose the above question not because I believe it should or can be definitely answered, but for the purposes of a commutation test 20 of the type conducted earlier in relation to Mattel’s online store. In its current state, both the rhetorical style and substance of my problematic seem odd—perhaps even preposterous. Yet alter this question so that it asks, instead, whether Barbie films are co-opting girls into an ideology of oppressive consumerism and subservience to the heteropatriarchy and—judging from the extant literature—it would likely be considered not only eminently reasonable but eminently answerable. We can see, therefore, that it is far more commonsensical to blame Barbie for some things rather than others. The solution, I propose, is not to pay closer attention to what might and might not be Barbie’s “fault”, but to loosen our attachment to discourses of Barbie blaming altogether.

Arguing that exposure to Barbie directly causes anything risks reinscribing the antiquated and widely-critiqued 1950s “stimulus-response” or “injection” model of media effects which suggests that members of the public (particularly young, female members of the public) are passive recipients for the messages directed towards them, and that this process acts “like the injection of a drug” (Badsey 8). Furthermore, prefabricated conceptual matrices and assumptions—such as “Barbie has causative powers” and “the things Barbie causes are most likely bad things”—will tend to produce conclusions in strict conformity with these matrices and assumptions. This is not to assert that Barbie products are an unproblematically empowering (or even unquestionably neutral) diversion for young girls. Neither is it intended to discount the work of those scholars who have acknowledged various examples of empowered sense-making practices associated with Barbie. Instead, it is an acknowledgment that Barbie’s status as an emotive, cultural lightning rod continues to make it difficult to conduct sufficiently objective Barbie investigations. There is good evidence that many of us—particularly many of us in feminist contexts—have an anti-Barbie bias which may mask the fact that: a) some aspects of some Barbie texts are consistent with feminist ideals; and b) neither Barbie products nor Barbie players are fixed but are in states of flux and therefore require regular re-visiting by researchers. As we have seen, despite the rigid plastic molding associated with the doll, Barbie’s commodity forms and the meanings attached to them are mutable and polysemically perverse. Likewise, Barbie’s human “players” are not members of a homogenous group but are exuberantly diverse and beautifully resistant to typecasts.

Over the course of this essay, I have also identified a tendency towards a scholarly a priori-ism, in which researchers may overlook, ignore, or mis-read new manifestations of serial commodities because of the assumption that these new products—and the meanings associated with them—will only ever be “more of the same”. Just as the methodological approach of ideological analysis (within the broader field of textual analysis) involves identifying those dominant ideologies rendered invisible because they appear as “common sense” (Brennen 201), it could be useful for scholars engaged in Barbie-related research to embark on a similar analysis of the dominant ideologies which may be encoded as common sense in their own methodologies, conceptual perspectives, and theoretical frameworks. The fact that the Barbie films do have a number of novel aspects underlines the importance of approaching research into new communication modes with fresh eyes; of reassessing—and, if necessary, revising—the received wisdoms that may be associated not only with our objects of analysis, but with the theoretical paradigms and orthodoxies guiding the analysis itself.

Postscript

Alice is now nearly seven, and her written literacy has reached the stage where she knows that “no bos olib” falls hilariously short of the correct spelling. She has requested we leave her original sign up on the bathroom door for this reason. Interestingly enough, her relationship with Barbie changed while I was researching and writing this essay. Accustomed to my complaints about or outright refusal to participate in her Barbie play, Alice was disconcerted by my sudden interest in her doll and movie collection. She responded to my Barbie questions with suspicious looks and silence, and then began declining my requests to re-watch movies together. For some time now, her Barbie doll and movie collection have been gathering dust. Instead, she has developed an unholy obsession with the virtual world video game Minecraft (another play activity sniffed at by my feminist friends because of its violence and tendency to increase children’s screen time), and only wants to talk about priming TNT, killing zombie pigmen, and respawning and despawning mobs. I want to blame Barbie but, under the circumstances, will settle for blaming the essay in which I’ve argued that one really should think twice about blaming Barbie.

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About the author

Emma A. Jane, is a senior lecturer in media in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science, University of New South Wales, Sydney. She has worked for more than two-and-a-half decades in the print, electronic, and on-line media in Australia, and is also the award-winning author of six books (published under the name Emma Tom).


  1. This is said to have been the view of Barbie offered by Betty Friedan at a public discussion on the doll in Manhattan in 1994 (Reid-Walsh and Mitchell 184).
  2. This is in reference to a protest staged by the feminist group Femen at the opening of a life-sized Barbie Dream House in Berlin. Topless members of the group burned one of the dolls on a cross during what they described as a “‘Barbie’-cue” (Starr).
  3. BFF is an abbreviation for the slang phrase—common in girl culture—“best friends forever”.
  4. Michael A. Messner makes an excellent point about the perceived power of Barbie when he observes that conservatively-oriented parents (who readily purchase Barbie dolls for their daughters), and feminist parents (who express “open contempt” or “uncomfortable ambivalence” toward Barbie) both “see dominant cultural meanings of emphasized femininity as condensed in Barbie and assume that these meanings will be imitated by their daughters” (Messner 775).
  5. This comports with the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of “virtual” as being “very close to being something without actually being it” (“Virtual”).
  6. Consider the case, in April 2013, of an American mother complaining to the media about the lack of black, Barbie-themed party accessories for children’s birthdays. A Mattel   spokesman, Alan Hilowitz, defended the company’s record regarding diverse dolls, arguing that: “Barbie has represented more than 45 different nationalities and is sold in 150 countries. In fact, Mattel’s first African-American doll was introduced in 1968—as Barbie doll’s friend Christie—and since then there have been numerous additional African-American dolls” (cited in Mays).
  7. I have chosen these two films because they exemplify “girl power” themes that exist in more subtle forms in the other feature-length Barbie movies.
  8. In this essay I am using “gynocentric” as per the dictionary definition of being “focused on women; concerned with only women” (“gynocentric”)—as opposed to what is known as “gynocentric feminism”. A brief sketch of the latter is provided by Nancy Fraser who, summarising the three generations of feminist movements identified by Julia Kristeva, writes of the first as being “an egalitarian, reform orientated, humanist feminism aiming to secure women’s full participation in the public sphere”, the second being “a culturally-orientated gynocentric feminism aiming to foster the expression of a non-male-defined feminine sexual and symbolic specificity”, and finally “Kristeva’s own nominalist feminism, a radically anti-essentialist approach that claims that ‘women’ don’t exist and that collective identities are dangerous fictions” (Fraser 1).
  9. As a side note, Handler’s interest in breast-orientated consumer goods continued after she and her husband resigned from Mattel—which had begun recording losses—in 1975. Unable to find a well-fitting breast prosthesis after a cancer-related mastectomy, Handler began manufacturing silicon breast prostheses called Nearly Me (“Handler, Ruth. Papers, 1931-2002: A Finding Aid”)
  10. Ken dolls do not have their own section in Mattel’s online shop, but are sold as part of the Barbie range.
  11. On the subject of diversity, I also note the argument that Mattel’s “ethnically diversified” dolls do not disrupt “Barbie’s world of whiteness” in any meaningful way (Orr 24), partly because cultural differences are flattened, “tamed”, and expressed via superficial variations in skin tone and costume—if only to ensure these dolls can still fit into Barbie’s standard issue clothing (Urla and Swedlund 284).
  12. “Antifandom” is a term coined by Jonathan Gray to describe practices associated with the active dislike of genres, texts, or personalities ( cf.: Gray 2003, 2005).
  13. Without wishing to make light of the serious issue of disability stigmatisation, we may wonder whether Barbie is really such an exemplar of able-bodiedness given that she is entirely incapable of standing unassisted.
  14. At least some of Barbie’s public relations problems are likely related to Mattel’s infamous legal attempts to shut down “unauthorised” uses of the doll by consumers. In Brand Name Bullies—The Quest to Own and Control Culture, David Bollier notes Mattel’s lawsuits against artists such as Susanne Pitt (who transformed Barbie dolls into “dungeon dolls” in bondage gear), and Tom Forsythe (who photographed naked Barbies in a blender) (Bollier 87-90). To a certain extent, however, we can witness an active consumption version of Isaac  Newton’s third law of motion, in that to every heavy-footed Mattel legal action there tends to be an equal—or at least equalishopposite consumer reaction. In 1989, for instance, culture jamming critics of Mattel formed the Barbie Liberation Organization which, among other stunts, switched the voice boxes on Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls so that Barbie would yell “vengeance is mine” and G.I. Joe would swoon, “let’s plan our dream wedding” (Bollier 88).
  15. Cf .: Thomas (esp. 155-7); Hamilton; Douglas; and Orenstein.
  16. While Mattel remains the world’s largest toymaker, Barbie sales have been slowing. The Barbie line now represents only 20 per cent of Mattel’s $6.4 billion in revenues, as opposed to 30 per cent 10 years ago (Brown).
  17. My use of “analog” here reflects colloquial definitions of the term as being used “to describe something or someone that is outdated, antiquated, or just old school in a lame way. Opposite of digital, as in cool and upbeat” (pckl300).
  18. “First generation”, “second generation”, and “third generation” are terms used by contributors to the Wikipedia page devoted to the Barbie film series (“Barbie film series”)
  19. “Frenemy”, another slang term widely used in girl culture, is a portmanteau of “friend” and “enemy”.
  20. Alan McKee describes commutation tests as thought experiments in which one element of a text is replaced with a similar but different part of culture in order to reveal embedded norms that may have become “too obvious to see” (McKee 107).
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