Tag Archives: Ruth Watson

“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