Posts Tagged ‘Barbie’

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.

Recently, I was drawn to¬†this article by feminist writer Monica Dux, in which she discusses the phenomenon of little girls dressing as fairy princesses. As I read, I found myself nodding:¬†there’s truth¬†to the idea that garbing small girls exclusively in¬†pink and lauding their beauty above all else¬†can lead to¬†problematic behaviour in adolescence – a bona fide Barbie mentality. And, like the writer, I was a tomboy¬†at school: at¬†seven, I was deeply obsessed with dinosaurs, loved¬†soccer, could¬†hold my own in a handball game with boys three years my senior, burned ants¬†with a magnifying glass,¬†built forts in the bush and played¬†video games whenever possible. I wasn’t¬†Pretty In Pink.¬†

But for all that, I can’t¬†help feeling that Dux has¬†cottoned on to¬†a genuine concern and drawn¬†a flawed¬†conclusion – specifically, that forbidding pink¬†and fairies is the answer.¬†Like¬†other parents mentioned¬†in her article, mine certainly never encouraged the Fairy Fixation, but neither did they actively forbid it. As a consequence, My Little Ponies jostled in my schoolbag alongside Starscream of the Decepticons; I dressed up as¬†the Man from Snowy River for my bookday parade, but also had a tutu in my wardrobe.¬†(I’ll give you one guess what colour.) Diversity isn’t just forcibly steering a child away from the norm, but actively offering them a choice. And if you stint the dominant side for long enough, sooner or later, you end up creating a different kind of imbalance.

There’s nothing inherently sinful about the colour pink: refusing it on grounds of its association¬†with princess-type deviance makes as much sense as declaring that lefhandedness is evil, a pahse I’d like to think this part of the world has grown out of.¬†The problem isn’t¬†the concept of fairies as loved¬†by children, but how¬†adults react to their use. Dux herself makes note of this – parents who praise their daughters as beautiful, pretty, sugar and spice when princessed up¬†– and yet her solution is not for adults to change their own behaviour. Rather, she advocates that they regulate costume use in children. As an approach,¬†this is virtually identical to telling teenage girls not¬†to dress provocatively if they don’t want to be wolf-whistled, instead of, as makes more sense,¬†trying to raise¬†boys who don’t judge women¬†by their clothes. Human weakness and pragmatism allows for some middle-ground, and there’s a case to be made that¬†dolls like Bratz and Barbie¬†capitalise on the colour pink to sell an unrealistic standard of beauty, but ultimately, girls should be free, in the gender-biased sense, to be girls. A¬†truck-hungry tomboy does not¬†lurk within every prepubescent glamour queen –¬†nor should it.

Minus the adult overzealousness, there’s still a distinct bias in the way toys are offered to children. Underneath all the gendered marketing, the fact is (and Dux agrees) that boys and girls are different. What needs to be encouraged is the idea that different isn’t automatically bad – not just between boys and girls, but girls and girls, boys and boys, and that it’s OK¬†to pick’n’mix your interests.¬†Girls who want to play rugby should still be able to frock up in pink, just as boys who’re happy¬†to play with dolls¬†should still be allowed to like cars.¬†It’s also a fact that children are cruel, and police difference within their small communities with a rigour and bias difficult in the politics-conscious adult world.¬†That can’t be changed entirely, but¬†I suspect it can be mitigated by¬†parental behaviour.

Unless we’re talking about the singer, pink’s not my cup of tea (and even¬†then, I have to be in the right mood). There’s¬†a long¬†road yet to travel before society stops marketing towards the biases children have for themselves and starts venturing into new territory; in video games, at least, there’s been some headway.¬†Parental coddling¬†has a lot to answer for, and given the kind of adult¬†I’m turning out to be, I’m glad I never felt¬†pressured to¬†cling to pink and fairydust to win approval. Perhaps, to take a backwards leap, I’m turning into the adult I am precicely because I never felt that pressure. There’s also girls who’d feel similarly uncomfortable if forced towards tomboyishness – not that Dux advocates this, but it’s¬†one potential consequence of her solution.

And the moral of this story? That girls (and boys) can be pretty in pink, or not. The important thing is choice.