Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Barbie Girl

Why does Barbie have such an enduring appeal?

At first, my mum hated her. She railed against that unrealistic figure - all snap-in-half waist and boobs big enough to cause backache. After much begging from five year old me, she finally relented and let me build up a small collection – but with the proviso of encouragement to be creative in making some of the clothes for them myself.

I had a box full of fabric scraps and bits of ribbon, creating costumes by wrapping, tying and (occasionally) stapling together these oddments and my mum also ran up a few tiny garments on the sewing machine. Alongside homemade skirts, there was a modest array of shop-bought outfits – emerald green gowns, shiny pink dresses, polo-necks you had to wrestle over Barbie’s head, little plastic shoes to jam on her feet. My favourites were some green glittery platforms with chunky heels and lots of straps. Different times indeed…

So, I look back and I don’t think Barbie is necessarily awful. I had such fun with all of mine, whether I was setting up elaborate scenes (I was that child who was more into dressing/ arranging/ making them interact and look great than actually playing) or on occasion urging the dolls to abseil down the tree in the garden. Bratz were out of bounds – an illicit treat I could only access at a friend’s house. My Barbies provided hours of entertainment and imagination though, and a good grounding in how to layer up silk and velvet.

Yet there are a few important things to point out. The professions of my Barbies, when first bought, ranged from the ubiquitous (princess) to the rebellious (skater girl) and the professional (photographers and scientists). They weren’t all blonde, long-haired and white either; my mum covertly ensured I had a diverse range. I was perhaps encouraged to play with my dolls in a particularly inventive way. And although there was a certain amount of fluffy female stereotyping, not everything was pink and sparkly and reductively ditzy/ more hair than brain cells.

It seems that in recent years the Barbie stereotype has heightened. Maybe that’s also because I’ve got an increased awareness of beauty ideals and gendered toys. But I do think beyond that, Barbie is less fun than she used to be – even more ‘perfect’ and airbrushed than before. And, yes, the word ‘Barbie’ has always been shorthand for describing a particularly ridiculous, archetypal expectation of brainless femininity, the type that asks boys for help with anything too smart or technical. But I’m sure that the relentless emphasis on looks and proportions and passivity have become more – rather than less – prominent in a world where women are reduced down to their appearance so much of the time.

Add into this the resurgence of Barbie in the fashion world last season - from Moschino to the Karl doll. Apparently all of this is meant to be ‘fun’ and ‘tongue in cheek’ and ‘soooooo innovative’ (fash-speak for, umm, I liked it, but can’t quite articulate how, so I’ll resort to hyperbole). Really though, and I’m only speaking for myself here, I find it quite bizarre. All the Moschino show underlined to me is how ridiculously slender the mould is for catwalk models. In a recent interview with The Observer, Jeremy Scott said that ‘she’s there to bring fun and you shouldn’t really look further into it. She doesn’t promote body dysmorphia, she’s a 12 inch-tall doll. People bring too much of an adult perspective to it. They do to all fashion, really. It’s just clothes and, above all, it’s a choice. Buy it or don’t – you don’t have to have a conniption fit about it.’

As someone whose basic mode of operating is to ‘look further’ into plenty of things, this held no sway. Scott ignores any sense of context or cultural awareness. ‘Perspective’ is bloody important, actually. Yes, fashion is meant to be ‘fun’ (at times) – but one designer doesn’t get to dictate exactly how that ‘fun’ is manifested, and then ignore all suggestions to the contrary. Nothing is ever ‘just clothes’. Designs are rooted in this culture, this age, this society. To claim anything can be separate from all that is pretty laughable. But maybe he’s right. It’s not Barbie that promotes body dysmophia, per se – but the entire ideal pushed forward by the industry. She’s just a kind of vamped up, hyper-exaggerated version of that.

There’s no better exemplification of this than the @barbiestyle Instagram account, which obviously mimics many high profile fashion bloggers/ industry figures. Yet it parodies the conventions, whilst also flagging up the fact that the kinds of bloggers given the biggest exposure and celebration are often those who fit the incredibly slender Barbie-esque measure of what's considered 'attractive'.

Essentially the continued message is that beauty and popularity are constituted online in extraordinarily slender, white figures (black Barbies only make cursory appearances, at best) dressed head to toe in expensive designer gear. This Barbie blogger’s imagined life revolves around shopping, spa days, exercise, jet-setting and taking selfies. Seeing a doll posed to emulate a blogger/ online celeb – but knowing it’s not a piss-take, but rather a seriously clever commercial move – leaves me unsettled. That particular incarnation of Barbie may resemble satire, but she’s not being laughed at. She’s being taken deadly seriously. 

The idea for this post was mainly sparked by realising just how perfectly 'Barbie' this vintage 70s pink satin blazer was - it was a present from my mum (and I actually snaffled the skirt off her too for the shoot). The shoes are from a charity shop, and the Barbie was dug out of the loft and dressed accordingly. And talking of Barbies, a while back I wrote a piece for All Walks on Louise O'Neill's brilliant YA book Only Ever Yours - which imagines a dystopian society where looks are the sole factor in determining young women's futures. It's great, and kind of bloody scary. You should buy it. 


Hannah McManus said...

Really interesting thoughts! When I was a child I have to admit that I don't think I was particularly influenced by Barbie's unrealistic appearance, but as I've grown older I'm influenced more so by what I see on the internet! That Barbie instagram account is very interesting actually, and I think it marks a shift in the role of Barbie these days - younger cousins of mine have absolutely no interest in Barbie and are far more likely to admire successful internet figures. Barbie is always going to be a controversial one!
Hannah x

Melanie said...

I love how your photos and writing work together for this post, and I especially love your crazed face in the second photo. Haha! I never had Barbies. I saved up for one but, unable to wait any longer, skimped and bought the cheaper Skipper. Boring. I quickly broke her.
Our main bookstore downtown now has almost a whole floor devoted to the "American Girl" doll. I'm in Canada; I don't like it. These are not the little Barbie type but larger dolls. While reflecting colour diversity, they are still bathed in pink, red/white/blue, and twee-ness. Bleh.

mariafelicia magno said...

amazing pics...

Lally said...

What a great post. I love the photographs; that blazer really is the perfect Barbie shade. I have to say I was a big Barbie fan when I was small. I was very lucky though; I had my mum's from the 60s and they were much less garish than the 90s ones! Lots of gingham frocks, maxi skirts and sensible shoes! I had a whole family too; ma, pa, children and grandparents. That's one thing that has always horrified me about the new Barbies; SO SO ageist! I think Ari from Advanced Style could design a few fab grannies! XX

Sarah said...

I adored my Barbies too, but if I ever have little girls I would probably not encourage them to play with her. :\ Your outfit is fab, however, and I love your expressions in these photos! xo

Anupriya DG said...

Aaah! You just made me delve into the nostalgic recesses of my mind that stores all the Barbie-playing-with-BFF moments.....what all stories we used to weave around our Barbies and their play-sets! Sigh!! Good ol' days!
And I can totally relate to the stapling up fabric scraps to make Barbie dresses part Barbies had a variety of such put-together outfits made lovingly with my small hands. :)

In adult context, yes, Barbie does represent that stereotypical size zero woman dressed immaculately in designerwear from head to toe; but as I teach my fashion students every year, she is also considered one of the world's popular fashion icons - hence it's no surprise that the fashion industry seeks inspiration in Barbie's blonde tresses or high heels.

Carlota Antolin Vallespin said...

Oh Rosalind!
I have been so disconnected lately... my blog is a bit abandoned and my brain completely empty of inspirations...... uuff sometimes life it tough. Whatever.
I just want to share my barbie experience too. I never really like dolls because I didn't like to touch their artificial hair hahaha but I had a couple of Babies, of course. I remember that one year I asked to the "Wizard Kings" -or the "Three Wise Men"- ( I guess you know that this are the people who bring presents in Spain) for an Action Man to be the couple of Barbie. I will be honest now: I basically made them fuck, that was the real motivation hahahaha and of course I wanted Action Men because Ken seem to me really gay and boring. Action Men was as cool and sexy as James Bond. Am I crazy? :)
I think that in the end Action Man was the protagonist of my adventures rather than Barbie.

By the way, perfect transformation!!! But still, you look more interesting than the blondie blond.


Vix said...

It was good old pear-shaped Sindy for me along with Havoc (Mary Quant's spy). Barbie didn't really get a look in as my Dad always had a hatred of anything American!
Love your Barbie on acid look! xxx

Ivana Split said...

What I didn't do to my Barbies. As I got older, their started to resemble biker chicks. My final memory is of one with her hair cut short and dyed in red (by myself naturally) and covered with numerous tattoos drawn with the pencil. She looked pretty cool, I must say. I wonder what ever happened to them? Maybe I donated them or passed them of to younger cousins...I honestly can't remember.

Anyhow, I have positive memories of my Barbie dolls...and as one blogger pointed out recently, they looked more like woman than today's dolls (Bratz etc) with their skinny bodies and large heads (that some say promote anorexia ).

I do agree with you that it doesn't make sense to say that clothes are just clothes..or that dolls are just dolls. It doesn't mean that to some kid her Barbie doll is just a doll and not an unrealistic role model that promotes feeling bad about ourselves...but that possibility needs to be taken into account as well.

Besides, that is what human beings are supposed to do...analyze things and make decisions, not forever act on impulse. Sometimes I have a feeling anyone who has something to say is being discouraged with that 'just do it' philosophy.

The photographs match the text brilliantly. You have the most adorable way of making silly faces.


My sister used to play with Barbies. For me it was porcelain collectors dolls--my mum had loads and started my collection with 18 Century clothing. I agree with your thoughts about clothing, and for me art and fashion as well, so yes they are never "just" clothing. That's why I always love to share inspiration behind an outfit. You look lovely--an excellent interpretation with your wonderful photos.

Hello Kuo said...

I just happened to stumble upon your blog, and I already adore it! You seem so thoughtful as well as stylish(: can't wait to see your next posts!


Lola Byatt said...

I was never allowed a Barbie doll. I wish it was because my parents were against gendered toys but it was actually just because my parents thought a doll was a pointless item to be spending money on. They wanted every toy to have a learning side so whenever I rushed over to the dolls in the toy section I was steered into the direction of the “toys with education” aisle although one could argue that Barbie dolls can expand your creativity (and how you’ve in fact shown in your brilliantly written article) my parents didn’t see it that way. My sneaky dolly playing came during the holidays when I would take up temporary accommodation at my cousins’. I’m sure most people are aware that Barbie has unrealistic proportions, if she was made to scale, her body would keel over. Barbie would have a BMI in the unhealthy range and would probably have stopped menstruating. Can kids separate what’s real and what’s unrealistic in their heads? I’ve known girls with eating disorders from as young as 11, wanting to be thinner striving for this unrealistic ideal from that young age. Can we pinpoint it down to one particular item/moment that shifted something inside, that caused this new goal to surface? Like maybe a choice in toys? It is of course, as you say, Barbie can’t be held responsible, and she is an exaggeration of the ideal pushed by industries. My mum only came to this country when she was 15, she came from a completely different cultural background and her ideals became my ideals. She was brought up in poverty and therefore averted to being thin. Thin was a sign of poverty , of being underfed, of having parents that couldn’t provide. Every pound that was gained on my body was celebrated and I beamed with pride every time I was on the scales and I noticed the needle had shifted in the “gaining weight” direction. Eventually however, my opinions of weight changed and this “size zero” body took centre stage in my mind. I specifically remember a friend pointing out to me that the images I held so high in my head were photo shopped and not real. I was striving for a level of perfection that didn’t and couldn’t exist. It took me years of therapy to help with this and even on good days these thoughts can come creeping back. I now rely on pinterest boards of women that I admire for more than their looks and have to look at them often to remind me of the overused, thrown-about phrase “beauty is skin deep”.

Izzy DM said...

I love that we had nearly the same exact experience with Barbie. I also loved playing with her, my mother (hippie child of the 60s and 70s) also didn't approve, and also made up lots of outfits for my dolls out of odds and ends. My mom actually kept them for me and recently gave them back to me. I haven't gone through the box yet, but I can't wait to give them to my daughter when she's ready. I am a little nervous about the current state of Barbie. Apparently, there are movies or something? Harper is still only 2, so I'm still shielded from a lot of that. So far I've had Frozen inflicted on me, but she loves it so much I almost don't mind. Bratz were also a little after my time, but they sound...well, scary.

Funny, but it never occurred to me to be threatened by Barbie's looks. She looked like an alien to me; I never thought to emulate her in any way, shape, or form. My mom's friends, who'd make comments about me playing with her and how it might damage my perceptions, just confused me. I'd frown, like, "What are you talking about, woman?" No one looks like this, not even the models I saw in Paris and New York when visiting family.

Didn't realize I've gotten so behind on your blog. Torn between your take on Louise O'Neill's chilling book and reading about your mom. I take it Mother's Day is on a different day in England than America? Having so much fun catching up. Has been a treat!

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