Somewhere in my workplace lurks a young woman, who, whenever I glimpse her at functions or in the lift, I cannot help but think of as the Dollybird. Note that I’ve never spoken to her, although we have occasionally swapped awkward smiles. My only knowledge concerns her wardrobe. Which is pink. Very, garishly, pink, complete with extraordinarily high heels, an abundance of gold ornaments, heavy make-up and violently peroxided hair. It’s a Barbie look, and while it’s so far distant from my own tastes as to occupy a different fashionverse, she’s not unattractive. But something about her always strikes me as slightly off, as though, despite the pride she clearly takes in her appearance, the clothes still sit uneasily on her.
Last week, I realised why; or rather, I pinpointed what, subconsciously, she’d been reminding me of. Namely: this cover of a book by Muslim author Randa Abdel-Fattah, called Ten Things I Hate About Me. It’s not a novel I’ve read, but as someone who routinely peruses the young adult section of the bookshop, it’s one I’ve picked up now and again, familiarising myself with the blurb. The reverse images of the same girl – one comfortably Lebanese, one striving for blonde – had stuck in my mind, and now, looking at my anonymous Dollybird, I realised with a jolt that this described her, too. Beneath her make-up, I finally saw the real structure of her face, her dark eyes, the minute natural blackness at the roots of her nearly-white hair. What I’d taken before to be a purposefully dark tan, part of the sundrenched Malibu look, I realised now was her natural skin colour, something every other aspect of her wardrobe suggested she was trying to downplay. Underneath all that Anglo Barbie pink-and-gold was a Middle-Eastern girl. And, like Abdel-Fattah’s heroine, she was hiding.
All this flooded to the forefront of my mind as I read Porochista Khakpour’s Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times, provocatively entitled Islamic Revolution Barbie. As a little girl growing up in Tehran, Khakpour recalls her childhood love-affair with Barbie, a doll introduced to her by her similarly-infatuated mother, until the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s forced their family to flee, and her collection was lost. She subsequently rebuilt it in their new home, but talked about her growing unease with the dolls the older she grew, calling them by Iranian names and colouring their hair black. And yet, she says, despite the creation of Islamic equivalents to Barbie and Ken back in Iran, called Sara and Dara, the more-expensive black-market Barbie still prevails. Even though Mattel’s American sales have been steadily falling, girls like Khakpour have been buying.
If Khakpour had any bigger thoughts on the implications of a blonde Western doll selling so successfully at Muslim bazaars, she kept them to herself, focussing instead on her own personal relationship with Barbie in honour of the product’s 50th birthday. But reading her article, I thought how very human it was, that an icon so many Western feminists have come to revile for her unrealistic representation of female beauty can be, in other countries, a symbol of female emancipation. After all, Barbie ran for president before Hilary Clinton and reached the moon before Neil Armstrong, among her host of occupations; she’s remained unmarried for half a century and even broken up with her long-term beau for a younger man. And even when she was with Ken, you could hardly argue that he wore the pants: it was always all about Barbie.
But generations of young western girls have had fifty years to get this message; fifty years during which it’s become increasingly part of their lives, and less a dream inspired by a childhood toy. Now, the need for a career-oriented doll is less powerful than the desire for girls’ rolemodels to present a realistic standard of beauty. If the injection of feminist principles into society could be said to come with a booster shot, then innoculation to the Beauty Myth is still some years away. But elsewhere, that first jab is still fresh, and the message of Barbie, while pertinent in one sense, has been rightly complicated by image problems that her original audience is just now beginning to appreciate. Because idealised though Barbie’s physique may be, she was never representative of a different culture, and despite the racial diversity of nations like America, she still looked like a large enough portion of the population that her beauty, although unrealistic, was never foreign.
And out of this confusion come girls like Abdel-Fattah’s Jamie/Jamilah, like my unknown office Dollybird. I’m not saying all would-be Barbie lookalikes are automatically prey to this scenario: as I’ve said before, some girls just want to be princesses, and aesthetics are different for everyone. But for many girls, the pressure to hide themselves, to become the Blonde Ideal in order to be seen as beautiful, is intense. Which is where I find the advent of Bratz dolls both proactive and, like Barbie, ultimately socially anachronistic: because although these girls are multi-ethnic and their bodies more cartoonish than that of their blonde progenitor, the emphasis on physical beauty remains. Consider the Devil’s advocate response: why make an ugly doll? But if we automatically define ugliness as anything less than what Bratz and Barbie currently epitomise, then we’ve already put our finger on the problem.
Ultimately, if we must have a concept of beauty, it should be personal, not externally idealised. And dolls, rather than icons of beauty or fashion, should just be things that little girls play with.