2014 Has Been A Bad Year For Barbie - But Are The New Wave Of Fairy Princesses Any Better?
The Debrief: Meet Cipher Barbie! She can be anything you want her to be, as long as it’s implicitly understood that left unchecked she is a sexist scourge on society, a tool of the patriarchy that will sexualise your children
You’ve come a long way, Barbie. This has been a weird year for the strange, smiling plastic blonde. She’s had over 150 careers in 55 years, but this is the first time that she has been co-opted for so many causes. Meet Cipher Barbie! She can be anything that you want her to be, as long as it’s implicitly understood that left unchecked she is a sexist scourge on society, a tool of the patriarchy that will sexualise your children!
We’ve had ‘Normal Barbie’, in the form of Lamilly. We’ve had ‘Black Barbie’ who raised some serious questions about tokenism when retailer Target sold her for twice the price of her white counterpart. We’ve seen Programmer Barbie (hooray) who came sold with a book that claimed she needed the help of boys to code (boo!). And now, after spending most of her life at the top of her game, Barbie is losing it. After being the top selling toy, year on year, every time, this Christmas she’s losing out to Elsa, and a rising tide of Frozen merch. Is this the end?
Disney princesses have been wielding a different kind of power. They have been repurposed as pop art, and we've seen them pregnant, in the form of puppies, and as piles of rocks. The latter was the work of artist Kevin Bolk who commented 'I was simply mining for things that haven’t been done with these characters and left no stone unturned.' Although there have been many criticisms of princess culture, people don't seem to have it in for the Disney dolls in the way they do for poor Barbie. Perhaps it's a class issue. Princesses don't get their hands dirty, but Barbie definitely has to work for a living, even if she's doing it in improbable pink shoes.
According to sociologist Peggy Orenstein, Barbie has never been more backwards. Even very young girls are more excited about their careers and futures than ever before, and Barbie might be holding them back. ‘In a study, Girls who played with Barbie - regardless of whether she was a Fashion or Career Barbie - thought they could do fewer jobs than boys could do. But girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly the same number of possible careers for themselves and for boys.’ It’s about confidence as much as career - most parents want their kids to be happy no matter what they do, but they’re not going to give their children a toy that makes them feel capable of less. Orenstein added ‘Obviously, the study is not definitive. One doll isn’t going to make the critical difference in a young woman’s life - still, it’s interesting that it doesn’t matter whether the girls played with fashion Barbie or doctor Barbie, the doll had the same effect and in only a few minutes.’
Over in Australia, campaigners are trying to challenge Barbie’s hold over the Christmas market with No Gender December - Senator and supporter Larissa Waters commented ‘Outdated stereotypes about girls and boys and men and women perpetuate gender inequality, which feeds into very serious problems such as domestic violence and the gender pay gap.’ Closer to home, the Let Toys Be Toys campaign is doing similar work. Barbie’s days as a girls’ toy are numbered. So maybe it makes more sense to use her as a perverse feminist icon, or rather, a symbol of a society where it sometimes sucks to be a woman.
When Lamilly was introduced earlier in the year, she was met with applause. But as blogger Erin Spencer points out ‘Upon first read, Lamilly’s slogan “Average is beautiful” is a pretty solid one. [But] She tells girls that anything that doesn't look like her isn't average. So girls with non-Caucasian skin and features and who aren't this "average" size are being told they are not average and apparently not beautiful.’ And the debacle concerning the Barbie Fashion Design Maker African American doll is horrifying, because it reminds us how poorly women of colour are recognised and represented everywhere, not just within the toy industry. It’s one thing to complain about the pressure to look like Barbie, but quite another to feel that no-one has even bothered to invent a doll to represent you.
Which brings us to Frozen. I know female fans in their twenties who will fist fight anyone who denies that the movie has ‘feminist resonance’. And I love Elsa’s flaws, and the idea that her story was mis-told in The Snow Queen - she’s not a villain, but a character who’s story has been misunderstood, and one who is struggling to understand herself. But I’m not confident that Frozen heralds a brand new era in aesthetic standards for little girls, or really challenges princess culture head on - she’s a pert breasted blonde with saucer eyes and a long, sparkly frock. I know that gives good box office, but I do feel that Frozen might be great for some bossy white chicks with emo tendencies who really don’t need empowering, and not especially wonderful or earth shattering for anyone else.
Irrespective of sales, Barbie is a vessel, a metaphor, and will be a space to explore feminism, sexism and the way women are put on pedestals for another 55 years to come. But I fear the next wave of toys for the tiny might be Trojan horses - and no matter how we read their message, there might be something more sinister packed inside. At least we know where we are with Barbie.
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