Tag Archives: Barbie

Barbie Reconsidered: the “Others” – Fulla, Sara and Razanne

27 Oct

First of all I would like to say a massive thank you to Oliver [I can’t give you a codename without probably sounding creepy, we don’t after all know each other that well], for being the first person to comment on my blog! I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write a response; as usual I had so much to say I found I couldn’t very well fit it into a comment box. I’ve decided to conflate my thoughts with those of my second Barbie post, which was originally planned to consider non-Western, or “Other,” perspectives on Barbie. I hope the following jumble of ideas does not prove too inadequate a response, and if anyone else has any thoughts please do feel free to comment! To the person who recently said they would not like to write a blog because they were afraid of others’ judgement of their opinions – well, it was quite scary to receive an email acknowledging that someone had not only read my blog but had something serious to say about it [and on top of all that it was a disagreement no less], however it’s made my original ideas stronger [I hope] through being challenged and expanded – and what is more, it doesn’t really matter that someone disagrees with you – people are allowed to disagree!

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So – in response to you, Oliver, I’m afraid to say I’ve done no specific research into gender essentialism. Despite lacking knowledge of it as a specific discourse I would like to maintain my, perhaps uninformed, stance that a doll, void of branding, target audiences, clothing and external “lenses,” is an essentially unsexual [I realise now asexual was perhaps the wrong choice of word] object. I view the sexual stereotypes of “masculine” and “feminine” as constructs, hence why I have usually referred to them within speech marks, and in considering dolls I have applied the logic that gender constructs [as built on sexual difference] cannot apply to an essentially de-genitalised body. I’m sure someone can pick holes all over this theory, and I can certainly point out the obvious one – in order for a doll to be viewed as a completely de-sexualised object in this way, it is first necessary to deconstruct the lenses of sexual difference that inform the focus of our gaze in the first place. For example, I am writing from the perspective of a white, Western, sexually-liberated woman, subject to ingrained Western ideals of “masculinity” and “femininity,” and so any object which seeks to represent the female body will have certain connotations of sexuality and gender beyond the essential point of genital difference.

Your conclusion, that “it is up to the person playing with the doll to decide how sexual or asexual a role the doll takes, regardless of the presence of genitalia” is therefore one I entirely agree with. The doll is of course in all cases subject to the gaze and play of its owner, and their individual or cultural perception of sexuality and gender will inform the kind of sexuality they read in the text of Barbie’s body; not merely through her plastic shape but through her clothes, accessories and packaging.

Fulla doll as packaged

When researching my original post I was struck by the many examples I found of non-Western or “Other” Barbie dolls. Essentially the same de-genitalised body within, their external appearance is branded to appeal to “Other” markets, mainly in the Middle East, where religion and culture clamour for alternative female role models to Barbie. What I find interesting is that Barbie’s body is so much more dangerous in these markets than her competitors’, despite the, if you like, “biological” sameness between them. Looking at dolls as if they are “texts” or “performances” of womanhood, to play with which invokes an act not only of spectatorship but participation in the performance itself, it is arguable that Barbie threatens through her very capacity to create and invite spectacle. Her clothes, appearance and packaging shout “look at me!” – and as Aqua sang, she seemingly invites the process of undressing. In contrast the non-Western dolls seek, like the women they are designed for, to be kept within traditional “feminine” modes of display.

In her packaging Fulla usually wears a hijab or traditional Muslim outfit, but she also comes with a “private” outfit to wear at home; modestly her skirts extend below her knees, sleeves are never shorter than 3/4 length, and her hair remains covered. Looking at the popular Fulla doll’s official website, we find that the act of female undressing is not merely discouraged but physically prevented, by the irremovable “bathing suit” beneath her garments. The website boasts: “she is the only doll in the world that is not completely naked when you undress her.”

Sara doll with her brother Dara

Here I think we must return to Oliver’s comment: “one could equally claim that the negation of genitalia comes from a place of shame and, in fact, acts as a kind of diversion or evasion.” Perhaps pre-empting expected “Western” response to Fulla, the promotional team are eager to assert their doll’s legitimacy as a representation of womanhood, building up a construct of desirable, and therefore culturally valid, “femininity” – “Don’t for a second think Fulla is boring in any way! Fulla is trendy, Fulla is smart. And …. Fulla is modern! She loves shopping, cooking, reading and praying, just like all the other girls.” Deliberately distancing themselves from negative media associations of traditional Muslim dress and behaviour, Fulla’s image of femininity responds less to sexual difference to men [which is negated by her de-genitalised body] than to different images of female  sexuality – with the emphasis upon being  “just like all the other girls” – accepting this definition as authoritative. Although the language here is inclusive [unlike the negative either/or dichotomy traditionally defining sexuality], Fulla’s physical being is still exclusive, in a way that Barbie’s is not. In Barbie, de-genitalisation is a lack openly displayed, and so informs the visual performance of femininity and female sexuality whether its audience chooses to “act out” or “play” genital sexuality, or asexuality. Fulla does not present this choice: genital “lack” is negated by the covering of the body and its performance as a constructed “whole” devoid of the source of female sexuality.


Fulla’s sale in 2003 coincided with the warning of the Saudi Arabian Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice that “Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful.” Barbie was outlawed, and Fulla, along with the later dolls Sara and Razanne, provided the acceptable alternatives. I found the words of a mother on Islamic Voice particularly interesting: “Jenna never tried to take Razanne’s hijab off, though Barbie was usually stripped naked.” Emphasis is also placed again on Razanne’s “private” outfits – “Lest  people think that she’s all about praying, there’s In-Out Razanne, whose wardrobe also includes a short, flowery dress she can wear inside the home, in view only of men in her family.” The very phrase “In-Out” implies a dichotomy between public-masculine and private-feminine space, less breachable perhaps in Razanne compared to Fulla’s concessions to modern style and practicality.


The association of female space with private, domestic, zones is also implicit in the limited career options Fulla and Sara have access to. Although both dolls are apparently keen students at school, their aspirations are to be “dentists, doctors and teachers” – whilst this may seem embracingly liberal, it is clear that these simply fall into the category of acceptable careers. These are not presented in a dichotomy with transgressive career paths, but with the vocation of a housewife and mother. Sara and Fulla’s characters are both younger than Barbie and thus subject to a strong parental influence: for example, Sara’s father works for the “Iran Cultural Heritage Organisation” whilst her mother is a housewife. Both parents uphold traditional gender roles and are portrayed as role models to their daughters. Barbie, on the other hand, comes with little biographical ancestry – she acts instead as the role model to a kinship network of younger siblings, and also has access to a male community in the form of her on/off boyfriend Ken – definitely not an option for Sara, Fulla or Razanne.

Razanne in her packaging

Having said this, I must take issue with my own phrase “not an option” – for as Oliver has asserted, “it is up to the person playing with the doll to decide.” Sara and Fulla’s carefully protected bodies may theoretically ensure the “correct” delineations of public and private space, dress, and behaviour – but the chaos of play asserts the child’s right to transgress the rules. Regardless of whether their doll wears a hijab, hotpants, or irremovable bathing suit, and regardless even of the presence of genitalia, there is no more an authority which can prevent the player “acting out” sex scenes than they can effectively stop the player having sex themselves. Socio-cultural or religious ideology can affect only the player, not the doll; for even if ideology is transcribed upon the text of a doll’s body, the audience can choose not to read, to cover the message, or to wilfully ignore or misinterpret it. Implicit in playing is spectatorship; not passively accepting an image or ideology, but reacting, perhaps unpredictably, to it.

I’m going to leave off here as my word count is making me anxious – look out for Barbie Post. No 3 in the future! The photos are not mine and can be found here [Fulla], here [Razanne], and here [Sara].

“You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere” – “Barbie Girl”, Aqua

15 Oct

I’m a blonde bimbo girl, in the fantasy world
Dress me up, make it tight, I’m your dolly
You’re my doll, rock’n’roll, feel the glamour in pink,
Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky…
You can touch, you can play, if you say: “I’m always yours”

In 2002 Mattel Inc sued MCA Records, the producers of Aqua’s song Barbie Girl, for their overtly sexualised portrayal of the children’s doll. The case was unsuccessful, with the judge ruling that the song was acceptable social commentary. Having dressed up as “Barbies” on Saturday night for my housemate Clev’s birthday, I at first decided it would be interesting to explore the decisions behind our own representations of the doll, but then turned to the preoccupation in the media with Barbie, sex, and female body image.

Barbie was launched in 1959 as a Westernised version of the German fashion doll Bild Lilli, produced between 1950 and 1964. Bild Lilli had started life as the cartoon creation of Reinhard Beuthien; a representation of the sexually liberated post-war woman, she was depicted with captions that emphasised her new place in the socio-sexual and political world. One image showing her with her boss [she worked as a secretary] quips “As you were angry when I was late this morning I will leave the office at five p.m sharp!” The first Lilli Dolls were marketed to an adult audience in bars and tobacco shops, and despite the disapproval of some parents she evolved into a children’s toy, with a range of fashion accessories, houses and furniture.

Barbie in 1959

So – this was Lilli, but who is Barbie? The story goes that Ruth Watson, an American mother, noticed her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls, sometimes giving them adult roles. Watson saw the German doll Lilli and modelled her own version for market in 1959, naming it after her daughter. The market for young girl’s dolls seems to offer two choices – the “infant” doll, to whom the child assumes a motherly role, and the “adult” doll, a role-model for the child’s emulation. Although dolls are primarily marketed and sold as female toys, Action Man and Ben10 offer “masculine” choices for young boys. There is a clear gender-role division whereby the infant dolls are marketed solely to young girls, shaping the stereotype that girls will grow-up to have children and be there sole care-providers. I may be wrong but I have never yet seen a “masculine” infant doll that asserts the right and ability of a boy to grow-up and be a stay-at-home Dad. In my eyes this is just as problematic as the perceived sexual element of a Barbie doll, which undoubtedly stems from the viewpoint of feminists like Ariel Levy, who in her work Female Chauvinist Pigs condemned Barbie as a “sex doll,” as well as her origin in the Bild Lilli. Certainly within the mainstream media it is not hard to find images of sexualised Barbie dolls, for example in More magazine’s latter pages, where they are used to demonstrate sexual positions to readers. Although marketed at an older audience than the dolls themselves, such magazines can easily fall into the hands of younger siblings, and in an age where Barbie is as prevalent online as she is in shops, finding sexualised images of her through Google is not at all challenging either.

The problem with this for me, is that Barbie dolls [both the female and male version], have no sexual organs. Sexualising a barbie doll is sexualising a eunuch, and perhaps a reason why Barbie, rather than Ken, attracts so much media attention – emasculated Ken has little authority in the development of a masculinity defined on male and female sexual difference. True, Barbie has breasts, long legs, a teeny-tiny waist and a  bottom, but I would argue that again, none of these bodily parts are sexual organs, they are parts of the female body that have been claimed by a male discourse that portrays them as desirable, and so sexual. Thus Barbie in herself is asexual – but through a male gaze [a gaze which inevitably penetrates the female, for aren’t we all concerned by how desirable we are to men?] her figure is sexualised. The problems do not end here, however – accepting that Barbie represents a product of masculine desire, the question arises: why do moralists assume that girls are more impressionable than boys? Whilst media attention is sporadically given to the damaging [or reinforcing] effects violent computer games have on masculinity, the issue of female sexuality and its susceptibility to external influence is so much taken for granted, and indeed ingrained within us, that it is hard to escape. This manifests itself in the much greater protection of ideals of femininity – for example the media outrage at beauty pageants conducted for young children or make-up ranges designed for the prepubescent – compared to a much more laissez-faire approach to young boys’ exposure to the sexual world, for example through porn [again, available readily on the internet for anyone to find]. Unfortunately the masculine sexual ideal is to be dominant and protective of the weaker, and more susceptible, feminine – therefore this is a cycle that is likely to be self-repeating until such sexual-stereotypes are broken down.

Barbie in the Nude, 2011

There is however, in my view, a positive interpretation to Barbie’s association with female sexuality. Having studied the dichotomy of sex vs intellect that moralists and masculinists imposed upon the “New Woman” who saught liberation from Victorian sexual ideals in the 1890s, the figure of Barbie becomes a cultural icon representing the victory of this struggle decades later, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s and onwards. As women entered previously “masculine” workplaces they were caught between a desire to maintain their gender identities and reclaimed femininity, but also to achieve success in an environment defined and dominated by masculine parameters. Barbie, in her many career guises, asserts the idea that women can be both “career girls” [see the 1963 and 1999 editions], whilst retaining the right to be lovers and mothers. In other words, their sexuality was not in a dichotomy with intellect, whereby choosing one eroded the value of the other – they could choose both. Barbie furthermore posed in aspirational identities, such as the 1965 Astronaut Barbie, who was designed even before the first man had landed on the moon.

Barbie could choose her career, but she could also choose to have a family, and a boyfriend/husband in the form of Ken. Although the official line was that all the younger Stacey’s, Skipper’s and Shelley’s were Barbie’s sisters, as a child my dolls formed nuclear family units, usually with extra women in each household as friends and relations, as my gender ratio was extraordinarily overbalanced – I only had two Kens’s to service dozens of women. Interestingly these two Ken’s formed what I would now call “conservative husband Ken”, who had plastic moulded brown hair and wore sensible clothes, went to work, and whose head stuck out the sunroof of the pink BMW; and “surfer boyfriend Ken”, who had “real” blonde hair, a bead necklace and “beach” style clothing. But this is getting besides my final point in this already over-long consideration of Barbie. In an age where the media calls for greater Sex Education in schools and at younger ages, arguing that the current curriculum offers advice “too little, too late, [and] too biological,” the very sexual element of Barbie dolls must surely be of benefit to the exploration and development of young girls’ awareness of their own bodies; more helpful I would argue in an environment where sexuality is readily available than prolonging innocence, or ignorance. This is not only relevant to a consideration of issues like sexual health and STD’s, but also to shouting the message that female sexuality is not dangerous or weak, but that the right to sexual liberation, exploration and satisfaction belongs to women just as much as men – and we need only to open the pages of More magazine, with their Barbie dolls instructing and guiding, to tell us exactly this.

Barbie and her Dreamcar, 2011

“We Can Do It!” – J. Howard Miller’s Rosie the Riveter

6 Oct

"We Can Do It!" - J. Howard Miller's Rosie the Riveter


J. Howard Miller’s image of Rosie the Riveter, the iconic factory girl of the American second world war propaganda machine, demonstrates visibly that beauty in a woman is not incompatible with brains and brawn. It also loudly shouts that women can operate just as successfully as men, even in traditional areas of “masculine” expertise. Now my housemates and I may not be about to commence work in a munitions factory, but we have recently taken on the “masculine” world of flat-pack furniture. What is more, we have tackled it without masculine assistance!

I should begin by explaining that as a child my preferred toys were Barbies, alongside other dolls, soft toys, and figurines. Lego simply did not come into the equation – although my mother informed me recently that I did possess some for a brief stint when I was very young. It was evidently a phase that did not last, for I distinctly recall in first school attempting to cheat and choose arts and crafts over building blocks above the permitted number of times. Whatever my tactic was, it didn’t work, and I was reprimanded by an exasperated teacher and forced to go and play with those dreaded bricks! Things have not advanced much since, with imaginative simulation games such as the Sims far outweighing strategic or logical computer games in my repertoire. This is not to say that I sucked at Portal 2; but it did take me rather a few attempts to finally defeat Wheatley.

The same story returns when we come to the matter of a flat-pack desk, this particular one in the possession of my housemate Clev. The first hurdle was presented in analysing whether the flat-pack boxes would fit in my car. It transpired none of us owned a measuring tape. Measuring tape duly procured, and after much configuring of seat angles, we decided it would – but only with two out of the three of us in the car at the same time. I should probably mention that my car is a Ford Fiesta, not exactly designed for transporting bulky items of furniture. Anyway, we drove to Ikea [and I wonder how many Rosie’s would even have been able to do this?], found the aisle, whizzed the boxes on the trolley to the loading bay, and after a bit of shoving and budging, managed to not only squeeze in the desk and all three of ourselves, but a bookshelf, all of our handbags and shopping, and also a French Baguette [after all this hard work we were having cheese fondue for dinner!].

The next hurdle to present itself was the actual construction of the desk [after actually getting the boxes upstairs, also quite a feat]. This was a three-woman job: Clev read the instructions and did the hammering, I did the screwing [cue hilarious jokes], and Puce, well Puce mostly just watched Jeremy Kyle. I think it is safe to say that the project was an overwhelming success. There may be one or two screws missing from the right door hinge which accidentally got removed and refused to go back in, but hey, the door opens and closes which is all it is required to do! It also looks rather splendid, in fact I think I may be suffering desk envy – my own specimen is rather battered and exudes lots of ‘character,’ i.e. a missing drawer.

Opening this month’s issue of Cosmo, it seems that all our manliness may actually have been “feminine” after all, with a statistic claiming that 72% of Britons think women are better at DIY than men. This doesn’t quite seem to tally with my experience of growing up with programmes like DIY SOS, where overwhelmingly women were left stuck with the product of their husband’s incompetence, and the men who came to rescue them were just that – men. The role of the curly-haired Deborah Drew was to pick the colours and decide where the furniture went, often coming to blows with the team; a somehow traditional duel between masculine practicality and feminine aesthetics. Perhaps the gender roles here are outdated; certainly the author of Cosmo’s article Do Women Still Need Men?, Gary Bainbridge, seems to disagree. He argues that women are not only better at “Woman Stuff,” but at “Man Stuff” too. He remarks: “it’s sobering to know that I can basically be replaced by a stepladder,” – although the notion that men are more likely to be taller and so able to reach things off high shelves [whilst admittedly completely true and relevant in my case], still reinforces a perception that men must be big and strong, whilst women are little and weak – and that that is the natural and desirable way of things. Take for instance the photograph of Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s engagement, shown to us in a lecture on Tuesday. The image shows Charles as taller than Diana, his hand placed protectively, and possessively, on her neck. He is of course standing on a step; his masculine height an illusion constructed and presented by the media.

I’ve come a bit off the topic of DIY, but since I’m aiming to try and make these posts shorter I’ll refrain from moving on to analyse Sex and the City’s Samantha and the episode when she realises she has no man to fix her curtains – instead I will offer you a very grateful and warm thanks for reading this blog so far, and for all the lovely feedback you have offered! Especial thanks to Balloon [or should your nickname be Hot Air?] for being such a sweetie and motivating me to write this instead of going to bed like I should have done!