Barbie's Queer Accessoriesby Erica Rand
She’s skinny, white, and blond. She’s Barbie—an icon of femininity to generations of American girls. She’s also multiethnic and straight—or so says Mattel, Barbie’s manufacturer. But, as Barbie’s Queer Accessories demonstrates, many girls do things with Barbie never seen in any commercial. Erica Rand looks at the corporate marketing strategies used to create Barbie’s versatile (She’s a rapper! She’s an astronaut! She’s a bride!) but nonetheless premolded and still predominantly white image. Rand weighs the values Mattel seeks to embody in Barbie—evident, for example, in her improbably thin waist and her heterosexual partner—against the naked, dyked out, transgendered, and trashed versions favored by many juvenile owners and adult collectors of the doll.
Rand begins by focusing on the production and marketing of Barbie, starting in 1959, including Mattel’s numerous tie-ins and spin-offs. These variations, which include the much-promoted multiethnic Barbies and the controversial Earring Magic Ken, helped make the doll one of the most profitable toys on the market. In lively chapters based on extensive interviews, the author discusses adult testimony from both Barbie "survivors" and enthusiasts and explores how memories of the doll fit into women’s lives. Finally, Rand looks at cultural reappropriations of Barbie by artists, collectors, and especially lesbians and gay men, and considers resistance to Barbie as a form of social and political activism.
Illustrated with photographs of various interpretations and alterations of Barbie, this book encompasses both Barbie glorification and abjection as it testifies to the irrefutably compelling qualities of this bestselling toy. Anyone who has played with Barbie—or, more importantly, thought or worried about playing with Barbie—will find this book fascinating.
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Barbie's Queer Accessories
By Erica Rand
Duke University PressCopyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
3. What are Barbie's measurements? Actually, Barbie is not scaled to human measurements. Barbie doll was developed after Mattel Toys studied the popularity of paper fashion dolls (which had more adult-like figures than the dolls of the day) among children. Finding the market place receptive to the idea, a team of Mattel employees translated the paper doll concept into a three dimensional [sic] doll with life-like characteristics.
7. My Barbie didn't come with panties. Are they missing? No. Barbies do not come with panties unless the doll is wearing a short skirt.—From "Barbie Questions and Answers," distributed by Mattel
If you call Mattel with Barbie queries, you are likely to receive "Barbie Questions and Answers," a six-page compendium of information and disinformation that, with the exception of the two question-and-answers (q-and-a's) above, makes the business of Barbie consumer relations look like a relatively simple matter. Of the twelve q-and-a's, most work relatively transparently in the service of two unsurprising goals: maximizing sales and minimizing those consumer-relations chores from which Mattel does not profit. Question numbers 812 draw attention to the Barbie fan club and to less advertised products that you can buy, such as expensive limited-edition and collector Barbies. Number 5 explains why Mattel no longer repairs dolls. Number 6 defleets questions about old Barbies to the collectors and dealers who actually profit from selling them.
Three others are a bit more devious, but no more mysterious. The answer to question 1, "How old is Barbie?" avoids the reading of that question—What age girl does Barbie represent?—that would force Mattel to provide biographical details, thereby jeopardizing the free play of fantasy that Mattel considers a major factor in Barbie's success. It gives instead the age of the product: "Barbie made her debut at the American Toy Fair, New York, February, 1959." Q-and-a 2 functions similarly: it states that Barbie has no last name, a switch from the position taken in the early years when Barbie novels identified her as "Barbie Millicent Roberts."
The answer to question 4, about why you can't find a Barbie in the store that you saw a few years ago, uses the typical corporate strategy of disguising profit motive as benevolence (e.g., we created product x to serve your needs), with the odd twist of making the personified product, as opposed to the consumer, appear to be the beneficiary. In different textual contexts, such as the business section of the New York Times, Mattel executives address this matter more forthrightly. In a June 1992 article about the success of the new Totally Hair Barbie, Jill Barad, president of Mattel USA, stated, "The ultimate goal of making each Barbie special is to create the rationale for why little girls need to own more than one Barbie doll," adding that Mattel is trying to get girls to think that they need more than the reigning average of seven. (By 1994 the average was eight.) According to q-and-a 4, however, each theme Barbie lasts only a few years because "Barbies [sic] continued success is due in large part to her ability to continually change with the times," an interesting phrasing that manages to suggest that Mattel is looking out for Barbie's "continued success" more than its own and that the ability to change with the times is somehow located within Barbie herself. Mattel is simply the supportive parent or spouse who encourages her to actualize her potential; consumers who demand old versions of Barbie are the ones out for themselves.
These q-and-a's make Barbie, Mattel, and consumers look like easy-to-know entities and make Mattel's consumer-relations task look simple as well—simple to accomplish and simple to decode. Not so with q-and-a's 3 and 7. How can Barbie be "life-like" and "adult-like" but not at all "human" like? The relative incoherence of the text makes Mattel look shifty and discomfited. To readers who have encountered other accounts of Barbie's origin, Mattel may look outright duplicitous. The most widely circulated tale is that Ruth Handler invented Barbie so that her daughter could have a three-dimensional version of the paper fashion dolls that she loved so much. Less widely circulated is the information so deftly camouflaged by the Ruth Handler tale, including Barbie's derivation from a German doll, Lilli, that had been marketed primarily as a sexy toy for adults.
It's easy to see why Mattel used to publicize the Ruth Handler tale. From the beginning, Mattel has had to overcome the reluctance of mothers who have considered Barbie an inappropriate toy for their daughters, either because of her advanced "age" and sexual suggestiveness or because of her bimboesque qualities. Besides obscuring the fact that, while perhaps being unprecedentedly "adult-like," Barbie was not actually the first three-dimensional teenage fashion doll, the Ruth Handler tale works against this maternal reluctance by making the gift of Barbie look like a sign of maternal devotion rather than moral negligence and by shifting Barbie's function from modeling adult sexuality to modeling adult fashions (thereby also distancing Barbie further from her sex-signifying German prototype). Why, however, did Mattel trade this in for the q-and-a version of Barbie's origin? Granted, Ruth Handler's conviction for illegal financial dealings in 1978 tarnished her good-mother image. But why this particular rewrite, which substitutes anonymous employees for a devoted mom and a "receptive marketplace" for the happy Handler daughter, a shift that is especially puzzling since moneymaking operates throughout the rest of "Barbie Questions and Answers" as the motive to be camouflaged?
Part of the answer must surely lie in Mattel's defensive posture against feminist critiques of Barbie. Feminists have frequently translated Barbie's measurements into human terms to underline the unrealistic ideal of beauty that the doll is said to promote. So it makes sense for Mattel to disavow a human model for Barbie, to locate her origin in representations already produced by others. But if this rather suspect answer is the best that Mattel can do, why not ignore these troublesome matters of origin and measurements entirely? Probably because too many people were asking about them and because it costs much less in labor power to send off a text than to have Mattel employees explain things over the phone.
The volume of consumer queries must also account for why Mattel included q-and-a 7, which similarly directs attention to issues Mattel often chooses to evade: "My Barbie didn't come with panties. Are they missing?" For me, this question immediately brought to mind bad-girl sex. Like many women born in the late 1950s, one of my teen sex guides had been The Sensuous Woman, in which whispering to one's husband in public that one was not wearing panties figured among the most memorable pieces of advice (along with that thing about greeting him in Saran Wrap when he returned home from work). I suspect that many people called to ponder Barbie's pantilessness would similarly situate its significance in the realm of the kinky.
Mattel's answer, that Barbie comes with panties only if she's wearing a short skirt, does not quite provide an exit from this realm, although it does suggest Barbie's modesty. But what else was Mattel to respond? Drawing attention to Mattel's line of Barbie underthings, which features do-me outfits instead of white cotton briefs, does nothing to dekinkify the issue. The strategies used rather unsuccessfully with regard to Barbie's measurements would be even less successful here. Coming out about the profit motive, which must be the big reason—Mattel saves money by not providing panties—would make Mattel appear to put money over morality. Claiming that Barbie doesn't quite represent a real female, the primary excuse for Barbie's embarrassing measurements, would create an indelicate mess. I can conceive of an argument that Barbie doesn't need panties because she is not anatomically correct; since she (is a representation of someone who) has no apparent sources of moisture, odor, or menstrual leaks, she doesn't need panties. But that would thrust Barbie's lower orifices into the conceptual spotlight along with her already troublesome breasts, not to mention raising a series of very weird questions: Would a plastic orifice be more likely than a smooth surface to generate olfactory hallucinations? If Barbie's need for panties resides in her reference to the real, could Mattel return her to good-girl status by giving her only one pair, or would it need to provide the artifactual illusion that she intended to change them daily? On the panty issue, it seems, Mattel has no way out: the triple problems of sex, money, and Barbie's relation to the real cannot be discoursed away.
This chapter concerns Mattel's production of Barbie objects and meanings, which has always involved trying to sidestep the minefields that Mattel avoids with uneven success in "Barbie Questions and Answers." Although I have focused above on spin-control failures, these testify more to Mattel's overall success at overcoming obstacles than to anything else. Despite Mattel's inability to account coherently for Barbie's unrealistic measurements and lack of panties, despite decades of disapproval by mothers, feminists, antiracists, and others, Mattel has sold billions of dollars worth of Barbie items, and Barbie continues to sell on, to an ever-expanding market of consumers who buy more dolls than did their counterparts of the past. According to the Information Release entitled "Barbie Fun Facts" that I acquired in 1992, placed head to toe the nearly 700 million Barbie dolls and "family members" sold since 1959 would circle the earth more than three and a half times, and a Barbie doll is now sold every two minutes. How Mattel gets so many people to buy this good girl who doesn't wear panties is the subject of this chapter.
I suggested in the introduction that Mattel's Barbie production merits study as an example of successful hegemonic discourse, and some words are in order concerning the term hegemony and its appropriateness here. Dick Hebdige provides a useful definition of hegemony as "a moving equilibrium": "The term hegemony refers to a situation in which a provisional alliance of certain social groups can exert 'total social authority' over other subordinate groups, not simply by coercion or by the direct imposition of ruling ideas, but by 'winning and shaping consent so that the power of the dominant classes appears both legitimate and natural.'"
One feature of Mattel's (artifactual and discursive) line that can be seen to constitute hegemonic discourse follows relatively straightforwardly from Hebdige's definition. This is the feature that primarily concerns feminists, antiracists, and other activists: how Mattel contributes to prevailing and inequitable distributions of power and resources by contributing to dominant ideologies. As Lisa Tickner explains, "Ideology is compounded of the mental categories and systems of representation through which we make sense of our conditions of existence in the world. Ideology is a practice of representation although it does not present itself as such, but as a self-evident set of propositions which are self-evidently 'true.' This 'naturalization' of a constructed social reality serves the interest of particular social groups." This is one aspect of the Barbie line that interests me as hegemonic discourse—the way, for instance, that the promotion of a white, blond doll as especially beautiful backs up the power of white people.
I am equally interested, however, in another feature, for which the term hegemonic, as traditionally used, does not immediately seem as relevant: Mattel's ability to get people to act on its own behalf. On this matter, I deviate a bit from the orthodox use of hegemony, which was originally defined against more obviously coercive forms of power maintenance such as authoritarian rule. The concept is ordinarily used to understand ways in which people in power maintain power, without using direct force, by getting people to consent to their own subordination. From this standpoint, calling Barbie production hegemonic appears to be both overdramatic—Mattel's power over the individual being of very limited scope—and a fancy way of stating the obvious. Getting someone to buy Barbie is clearly different than getting someone to obey orders from a dictator under penalty of death. Specifying this distinction requires little theoretical elaboration and offers little insight.
More interesting, however, is the matter of why getting someone to buy a Barbie is often different from getting someone to buy, for instance, an Etch-A-Sketch. It is in specifying this difference, I believe, that the term hegemony is especially useful. Selling an Etch-A-Sketch, a screen on which you create erasable lines by manipulating two knobs, is a relatively simple matter. It primarily entails publicizing the toy's existence and promoting the benefit of an activity to which few would ascribe negative effects: drawing on a blank screen. It does not entail talking away potentially troublesome features or attending to contextual value shifts, such as changing attitudes about the status of women, that might change the apparent value of the product to consumers. Ohio Art can promote the Etch-A-Sketch today much as it promoted the Etch-A-Sketch in the 1960s.
Buying, or not buying, an Etch-A-Sketch is also relatively painless. One might be moved to ponder whether a child's creativity would be better served by a watercolor set. But making this decision does not entail entering into a widely publicized debate about the toy's effects in which the child's current and future psychological and political values may seem to be at stake. Nor does the toy threaten to inscribe many contested values from outside; if a child uses an Etch-A-Sketch to draw a woman with large breasts, the interest in breasts has come from within the child, not from within the toy.
In contrast, the traffic in Barbie is far more complicated, and many features that distinguish it from the traffic in the Etch-A-Sketch are features generally understood to characterize hegemonic discourse. The first lies in the language of infinite possibility that Mattel uses to camouflage what is actually being promoted: a very limited set of products, ideas, and actions. Mattel promotes Barbie to consumers the way capitalists promote capitalism to the people who least benefit from it. The discourse maintains that the limits come only from within you—you can be rich if you set your mind to it; you can make Barbie be anything you want her to be. The goal of the discourse is to mask external limits so that you have appeared to choose freely actions—working for low wages, buying Malibu Barbie—that will benefit the discourse spinner.
And that will not so obviously benefit you. Mattel's discourse also typifies hegemonic discourse because it is designed partly to address the consumer who suspects that buying Barbie may be harmful to the recipient. Not every consumer sounds like this reluctant mother: "We struggled for three years over whether to buy Karen a Barbie doll; she finally convinced us that she would be more damaged by parental refusal than by owning this hideous little role model." But Mattel's promotions always have in mind the suspicious consumer whose consent must indeed be "secured" or "won." When critics complained about the unwholesome sexual fantasies that Barbie's breasts might engender, Mattel portrayed her as an antigreaser; when critics complained about Barbie's antifeminist message, Mattel made her the girl who "can do anything." As a result, the history of Mattel promotion reveals a relation between seller and buyer that operates like hegemony's "moving equilibrium." As Stuart Hall explains about the way in which dominant classes preserve their power over subordinates in a hegemony, "This operates, not because the dominant classes can prescribe and proscribe, in detail, the mental content of the lives of subordinate classes (they, too, 'live' in their own ideologies), but because they strive and to a degree succeed in framing all competing definitions within their range, bringing all alternatives within their horizon of thought." This is just what Mattel does: the company continually adapts its line to bring competing definitions of good role model and acceptable fantasy object within its own conception of Barbie and to present its offerings as precisely those that fulfill consumer "needs."
Besides abetting multiple hegemonic discourses, then, Mattel can be said to model hegemonic discourse in that it uses the language of infinite possibility, continually adapted to defuse counterclaims, to persuade people to act on its behalf in ways that they may not initially or ever believe will benefit themselves. As a result, although the effects of buying Barbie do not match the effects of buying into capitalism, or working for low wages, or entering heterosexual partnerships when one is otherwise inclined, a study of the Barbie line can illuminate how other hegemonic lines work. This is one purpose of this chapter; the other is to study the content of the Barbie line as it has developed since 1959, against which consumer responses will later be examined.
Excerpted from Barbie's Queer Accessories by Erica Rand. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author
Erica Rand is Assistant Professor of Art History at Bates College.
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