Essay: The Barbie-fication of wokeness - Hindustan Times

Essay: The Barbie-fication of wokeness

ByFarzana Versey
Jul 31, 2023 08:48 PM IST

While the cult of Barbie has a feminist aura, the doll actually panders to different superficialities.

Hollywood has honoured her with a tribute in her 64th year; she is the subject of a couple of hundred books. Literature around Barbie, as well as references to her in pop culture, had given her ‘woke’ validity long before the movie came along. In fact, wokeness was embedded in her genesis, for Ruth Handler “wanted to create a doll that would let young girls dream about their own future, rather than having to dream about their baby’s future”.

Barbie and Ken dolls (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Barbie and Ken dolls (Shutterstock)

It isn’t merely an 11.5 inch vinyl doll — copyrighted as a work of art — but its rationalisation that has elevated Barbie to the level of a phenomenon. In the book Forever Barbie: The Unauthorised Biography of a Real Doll, M G Lord emphasises that “Barbie is made up of two distinct components: The doll-as-physical-object and the doll-as-invented-personality”.

“In the book Forever Barbie: The Unauthorised Biography of a Real Doll, MG Lord emphasises that “Barbie is made up of two distinct components: The doll-as-physical-object and the doll-as-invented-personality.” (Amazon)
“In the book Forever Barbie: The Unauthorised Biography of a Real Doll, MG Lord emphasises that “Barbie is made up of two distinct components: The doll-as-physical-object and the doll-as-invented-personality.” (Amazon)

How independent is Barbie, really? Researchers have tried to whet the cult by giving it a proto-feminist aura, even though this German creation was a replacement for a cartoonish 3-D pinup. In some ways, Barbie has become one too, in that adults have objectified her.

Years ago when the ‘Sandusky Slasher’ cut off the breasts and mutilated the crotches of 24 Barbies in department stores within six months, the FBI report described him as “an organised and controlled individual who is probably dominated in a relationship with a woman, possibly his mother”.

While resentment against the standards Barbie had set with her ‘female perfection’ could have spurred hatred, responding to the investigation profile Dr Fred Berlin stated, “The theme here is the mutilation of young girls…the doll symbolizes a child.”

As a child, singer RuPaul not only collected Barbies but cut off their breasts. Many drag queens proudly cited Barbie’s influence. As Lord wrote, “Barbie has, in fact, a drag queen’s body: Broad shoulders and narrow hips, which are quintessentially male, and exaggerated breasts, which aren’t.”

An assertion of feminine mystique is supposed to possess exclusivity, which is not possible when 120 Barbies are sold every minute the world over. All ideas and ideological positions essentially flow from the marketability of a saleable product.

An Andy Warhol wax figure at the Grevin museum in Prague in the Czech Republic. (Grey82/Shutterstock)
An Andy Warhol wax figure at the Grevin museum in Prague in the Czech Republic. (Grey82/Shutterstock)

A woman spent $55,000 for 20 surgeries to make her look like a living doll, her vanity merely an extended appendage of consumer culture. The most famous designers had Barbie clothes and shoes collections. Pop artist Andy Warhol who painted Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, added a Barbie to his ouevre. It was artist and designer Billy Boy*, Warhol’s muse and one of the most prominent Barbie collectors, who prompted him because “Barbie is me”.


“There were no parents or husbands or offspring in Barbie’s world; she didn’t define herself through relationships of responsibility to men or to her family. In the doll’s early years, Handler turned down a vacuum company’s offer to make a Barbie-sized vacuum because Barbie didn’t do what Charlotte Johnson termed ‘rough housework’,” wrote Lord.

There have been attempts to portray her as a symbol of empowerment — for women and children. But later Billy Boy too gave up his obsession with the doll: “I think Barbie is no longer touching on the zeitgeist of the moment. If I had a daughter I would not give her Barbie dolls. I wouldn’t want my child to be constantly obsessed with getting something, and that immense preoccupation with high-heeled shoes and clothes.”

Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol (Shutterstock)
Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol (Shutterstock)

This aspect has stood out despite Barbie donning different professional hats. One reason is possibly her schizophrenic persona. To commemorate cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go on a space mission, Mattel released Astronaut Barbie. But in the same year, she was reading books like How to Lose Weight: Don’t Eat in another avatar.

The unwritten law is: “She can never bloat. She has no children to betray her. Nor can she rot, wrinkle, overdose, or go out of style” but, “Barbie is also a space-age fertility icon, a totem of an ancient matriarchal power. In the dark primal part of our brains where we process primitive archetypes, she is a woman.”

Yet, she can most certainly never give birth. Mattel tried to “accessorise Barbie with a baby without making her a mother” by turning her into a baby-sitter and getting her friend Midge pregnant. The move failed. American parents believed it would encourage teen pregnancy.

In the growing competition, it was worrying to see women sending pictures of their child with a ‘personality profile’ that toy companies would make a plastic replica of. “This was apparently to give the kid a twin and the parents someone to look at when the child was away. However, women started ordering dolls in their own images as they were when young.”

The book I’m a Barbie Girl: Unleashing Your Inner Doll claims to advise on a Barbie-inspired lifestyle, and to “explore various aspects that will help you become the best version of yourself” by delving into styling hair like Barbie, wearing makeup like Barbie, dressing like Barbie on a budget, “not to mention, embracing and embodying self love and authenticity”.

She has hardly ever inspired authenticity, though. And nobody has become an engineer or a space explorer because of Barbie.

She panders to different superficialities while trying to deviously send the deeper message of a standard western model of the “ideal”. It has spawned a whole genre of figure-conscious gyms, fashions and prophetic research projects.


Art critic Arthur C Danto reviewing Warhol’s work believed that pop art’s goal was to elevate the commonplace. But what would happen “when the commonplace ceased to be commonplace? How would future generations interpret Warhol’s paintings — generations for which Brillo boxes, Campbell soup labels, and famous faces from the 1960s and ’70s would not be instantly identifiable”?

Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in Barbie. (Film still)
Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in Barbie. (Film still)

Different countries now have their own Barbie-like versions. What started as a commercial act came to politically disabuse the West of the delusions that as “an icon, she has come to represent not merely ‘American’ or consumer capitalist women, but a female principle that defies nations, ethnic and regional boundaries”.

It took 9/11 for that change to take place faced with an onslaught of Western superiority: “Barbie became a symbol of something larger than her shapely self. She is everything that Islamic extremists hate: An unapologetically sexual, financially independent, unmarried Western woman. And with all the cars she’s amassed, there’s no getting around the fact that she drives, an activity forbidden to women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — where, incidentally, she has been banned since 1995. In an annual campaign timed to coincide with the beginning of the school year, that country’s religious police blanket schools and streets with posters decrying her ‘revealing clothes’ and ‘shameful postures’.”

Barbie was slowly taken off the shelves in the Middle East and replaced by a doll named Fulla. Her vital statistics were pretty much like Barbie’s, except that her breasts were “modestly smaller”. She was dressed in a black robe and a matching headscarf and espoused “Muslim values”.

A French sociologist called it an Islamist strategy. “It is a very clever one. They will try to generate a craze and it will be difficult to stop. The doll has one main advantage which is that it touches children. They reach right into the home.”

Historian Albert Samuel was deeply agitated about the arrival of the “prayer-mat Barbie”. He said: “It is a dangerous game… If children do not resemble each other, at least in their games, if their games separate them, Barbie doll against Muslim doll, society will be divided...”

Mattel Barbie dolls on display at a toy fair in New York in February 2020. (Sean P Aune/Shutterstock)
Mattel Barbie dolls on display at a toy fair in New York in February 2020. (Sean P Aune/Shutterstock)

How does one society decide that Barbie is more fit to represent another’s mores? Was this about a clash of values or commercial considerations? Before Fulla, Mattel had produced different veiled versions, including a Moroccan, Iranian and, possibly the worst example, a doll named Leila who was meant to be a Muslim slave girl in an Ottoman court.

“When you take Fulla out of the house, don’t forget her new spring abaya,” said one of the Arab advertisements. The Islamic world may have resisted cultural invasion, but not cultural vanity.

Commerce is a patriarchal demon. By politicising and socialising toys we don’t stop brainwashing children into believing in the fake.

The soft cuddly male teddy bears with beer bellies get to act as nurturers whereas Barbie has to be imbued with pseudo-ambition and a pseudo family. She has to be a performer and a character with a waist that hides no organs and eyes that appear dead.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey

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