"Around the world, Barbie became an icon aspired to by both mothers and their daughters who identified  desperately with the rich, blonde Barbie from that rich, blonde country." How Yankee had to go home but Barbie got to stay

 by Kathleen Grassel 

{mosgoogle}    I didn't play with dolls as a young girl, and to this day it's difficult for me to comprehend the craze for this doll called Barbie. It's almost 40 years ago that Barbie was "born," advancing since then into the buxom three-dimensional blond beauty we know today, from the flat two-dimensional paper doll that girls dressed with paper clothes with paper tabs to fold around the shoulders and hips. Now Barbie is a foot and a half tall, wears real mink stoles over sequinned evening gowns over real Calvin Klein underwear. She carries a cellular phone, and her plastic ears are pierced for just the right earrings to match her ensemble.

 Barbie started as a toy, the kind of toy that got whisked off store shelves faster than Mattel, the doll's first maker and now, thanks to Barbie, the world's largest toy manufacturer, could restock those shelves. Barbie's star rose with post-war U.S. hegemony that made everyone in the world want fast-food, appliances, Coca-Cola, and, if you were a woman, blond hair, big breasts, impossibly long legs and the latest in sunglasses and sports cars. Barbie never got pregnant, fat, or old. She stood her own in stores as the mute brassy standard not just of beauty but of lifestyle.

Around the world, she became an icon aspired to by both mothers and their daughters; mothers and daughters who, no matter what size, shape, color, language or culture, identified desperately with the rich, blonde Barbie from that rich, blonde country. With their purchasing power they voted against their own perceived repulsive shapes, colors, and cultural identity. Barbie the bimbo, Barbie the liberated woman, it didn't matter. Barbie found herself in the bizarre position of defining culture.

While there have been significant and frequent Yankee Go Home uprisings, wars of liberation, and all sorts of anti-imperial hatred spewed and spat at the United States since it first asserted itself as a world power, there has been no corresponding popular movement against the Barbie culture. Book burnings, flag burnings, hostage taking, terrorist bombs and hijacking, all were aimed to force the Yankee home forever. Barbie, however, maintained her hegemony. Barbie has not only survived the flames; she has been rescued from them by women everywhere yearning to be free, beautiful, and cosmopolitan-just like Barbie. So tenacious is Barbie's popularity that government ministries of culture and moody consumer associations have stepped in with strategies to control or alter the appetites of its female citizens.

In Malaysia, the Consumers' Association of Penanghas called for Barbie dolls to be banned outright. The doll's blond, leggy and non-Asian appearance promotes the wrong aesthetics, they said. Also the Barbie doll does not encourage creativity and the use of imagination in children because dolls are "fixed" and ready-made. The proposal immediately drew strong and angry reactions from the local press and members of the public. Whether this is because of doll demand or of public distaste for bureaucratic intervention in private consumption habits is open for debate.

In Iran, the government condemned the forever young and childless-by-choice Barbie (and her long-time boyfriend Ken. No plans for marriage, ever.) as a threat to traditional culture. Barbie doesn't define herself in relation to children or family as Iranian women supposedly do. Banning the pair hasn't worked, so the government has come up with a pair of its own, allegedly more suited to Iranian culture. Sara and Dara, who are brother and sister, were designed and marketed by the government-sponsored Amusement Department of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. Meanwhile, Barbie dolls openly sell for $700 in Teheran stores. Even though $700 is seven times the average monthly salary in Iran, the tall, blonde saucy, freewheeling Barbie sells briskly.

During an era when the world is seeking to reclaim its cultures, Mattel has done its entrepreneurial share to churn out multicultural dolls to counter the criticism that Barbie is too one-dimensional in her tall blondness. After all, if only 15 percent of U.S. American women are natural blonde, how many could there possibly be in the world? Not that Mattel has targeted these brown, black, yellow Barbies to an international audience reflecting those skin tones; Mattel's marketing has been to young girls, presumably white girls in suburbs who can now play with Japanese, Mexican, and Indian Barbies, and "learn more about history and different cultures."
The brilliance of Mattel's co-optation of criticism is that Mattel retained Barbie's idealized image of beauty. Yes, consumers can now buy darker-haired, darker-skinned Barbies but without the ethnic features that distinguish the darker-skinned women of the world. The fact that Mexican Barbie is brown may be even more insidious if Mexican girls think they must grow up to be tall, thin, buxom, and leggy. African-American Barbies have lighter skin than most of the black population, playing into an often-heard complaint of black women that the lighter their skin, the more attractive they are.

And Barbie, no matter what her color, continues to be clothed in attire that proclaims her trendy, swinging, independently wealthy lifestyle. Take, for example, the recent line of Filipina Barbie dolls. She's called "Philippine Island Barbie." She's dark-haired with darker skin tones and dressed in form-fitting gowns with the Maria Clara butterfly sleeves. She lives juxtaposed in a country with an annual per capita income of $US 580.

Nor do the best-selling Barbies smile any more. After all, the toothy-grinned Barbie of yesterday fails to capture the "mystique" of today's modern woman. No matter what their culture or color, how heavy or slim, women around the world will be laced into the corset of the beauty myth if Barbie is their symbol of freedom. If Barbie seems to be free, maybe it's because doors open for that certain woman who is impossibly tall, impossibly blonde, who always wears the right outfit, and keeps her mouth shut.

Kathleen Grassel lives in New Mexico, where she works as a technical writer, editor and graphics designer at the Institute of Public Law at the University of New Mexico.

This article was published in New Renaissance, Volume 8, No. 4, issue 27
© 1999 Renaissance Universal, all rights reserved.