Tag Archives: sexual difference

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

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.

Fulla

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].