By Harleen Kaur Bagga
Edited by Sanchita Malhotra, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
“Today, truly anything is possible for a girl. Let us place no limitations on her dreams, and that includes being girly if she likes…Pink isn’t the problem…The reality of today is that girls can go anywhere and be anything.”
This was Barbie’s response towards the displeasure for her posing for the Sports Illustrated in February 2014. She retaliated with the hashtag #unapologetic claiming that posing in a swimsuit was her way of asserting the power to act as she pleased. Notwithstanding how creepy it really is for a plastic figure to take-over the position of a live-model, this decision points towards the inter-changeable status of the two, highlighting an extreme form of objectification. Barbie and any sexy model to be featured on the cover of the magazine serve the same purpose after all – to seduce and tempt men to buy it.
The incessant debates revolving around this 11.5 inch figure have recently escalated, what with news about her starring in a movie, featuring on this sports-magazine cover, and once again being the source of rekindling acrimonious feuds regarding its value and palpable influence concerning the phenomenon of dollification.
Taking inspiration from the German doll Bild Lilli, Barbie made her debut in 1959 in a black-and-white striped swim-suit. Manufactured by Mattel, Barbie made her first appearance as a blonde as well as a brunette. However, later fashion-dictates promoted her to be widely recognized as a heterosexual porcelain-skinned, blue-eyed, straight-haired blonde with a tall, lean figure whose proportions have been subjected to much contemplation since her introduction as a “teen-age fashion model”. Barbara (Barbie) Millicent Roberts, the daughter of George and Margaret Roberts, hails from the town of Willows, Wisconsin. She and her many doppelgangers have, over the years, adopted several guises, featuring as a doctor, veterinarian, teaching-aid, architect, air-hostess, astronaut with a mix of highly attractive accessories and of course, shoes. Barbara has also been the protagonist of various books and movies, and lives in a beautiful modern pink house, enjoying an on-and-off relationship with her boyfriend Ken.
Barbara, though fifty-five years old, revels in the distinct position of never aging, literally as well as figuratively. The doll, since her introduction, has exhibited an uncanny ability to crop-up everywhere. She has been a strikingly contested site with people fighting over her – some claiming her to be an empowering feminist icon while others seeing red the moment Barbie and their children are put in the same sentence. A key branch of dissension presents arguments about the lack of diversity in the plastic dolls. In response to a demand for transnational Barbies, Mattel manufactured White, Black, Hispansic and Asian versions in 1990. However, the variations in skin-tones were negligible, with duCille, in Skin Trade (1996), asking whether the popularity of these dolls is “a sign that black is most beautiful when readable in traditional white terms?” Moreover, these “ethnic” dolls still retained most of the Caucasian features, straight long hair, and tiny waists.
Contestations arise primarily because of the “adult” nature of Barbie. Yet, the very reason Barbie was first manufactured was because Ruth Handler saw her daughter Barbara (the namesake) playing with her paper-dolls, ascribing them adult-roles and settings. And thus, Mattel came out with a full-breasted sexually-mature plastic figure, who looked askance and wore pretty clothes. The nipples that had existed before were eliminated due to opposition about the early sexualization of little girls who played with the product.
Some people believe that Barbie is only a toy to be played with, which encourages children to exercise an active imagination. A doll’s just a doll after all. However, keeping in mind “The Barbie Syndrome”, the increasing dollification of human-bodies, one cannot simply relegate Barbie to the position of simply being a toy. The famous Valeria Lukyanova with her friend Anastasiya Shpagina along with Dakota Rose, Venus Palermo, and to some extent Sarah Burge and Blondie Bennet have been raising quite a stir, with Blondie desiring to go the whole nine yards, using hypnotherapy to be brainless like Barbie. Valeria, an educator at the School of Out-of-Body travel, claims that she will now train herself to survive on Breatharianism – subsisting solely on air and light.
TLC’s “My Strange Addiction” has approached the issue of the “living dolls”, starring Justin Jedlica, Venus, and Emily. The premier juxtaposes the lives of these three in an interesting way – showcasing Venus who is naturally doll-like, Justin who has undergone 125 procedures spending $158,000 in the process and Emily who is having difficulties adjusting due to her negative body-image and uniqueness. The show, despite coming with its own set of problems, ultimately draws attention to various facets of these people’s lives and makes audiences evaluate their own reactions before jumping to conclusions about people who deviate from the norm.
However, the fact that Barbie, along with Ken, does exercise a substantial amount of influence on the lives of many cannot be ignored. Some might argue that they have resulted in increasing sexualization of girls along with the development of a negative body-image during the formative years. Others might argue that in the end, only good-parenting and cultivating awareness in children is needed to counter the negative effects of these epitomes of human-aestheticization. Nevertheless, it becomes difficult to criticize this as a black-or-white phenomenon and raise angry allegations. What needs to be done, however, is to foster positive role-models and encourage ingenuity for a holistic development of the individual.
Harleen is an Art and Literature enthusiast, currently studying English lit at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. She lives in a world of hyperbole and Homeric similes and is irrevocably in love with descriptive words. Quite fond of stationery, the smell of old books, and the Harry Potter fandom, she most unfortunately possesses a traitorous mouth and a natural propensity to fall into embarrassing situations. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.