So, I read today that the designer of Mattel’s Barbie doll was obsessed with sex. Seriously? We need a book-length study to tell us that?
We in the land of feminist academics have been teaching the pernicious sexual politics of Barbie for years. The breasts that defy gravity, the hair, the long, long legs and of course the cruel, nipped in waist. Oh, don’t forget the tiny clothes, the f*ck-me pumps, not to mention the well-equipped kitchens in every Barbie Dream House. The message of Barbie seems unambiguous to me.
Still, many students (and not a few colleagues) consistently resist seeing Barbie as a miniature sex toy, claiming instead that the doll was a good role model for little girls. (One could, after all, purchase a Barbie doll dressed as a doctor.) Or claiming, equally untenably, that toys had no impact on their ideas about gender roles or their own sexuality.
These students, mostly women, want to rescue Barbie, to protect their own childhoods from academic interrogations of pop culture and what those interrogations might reveal. That’s understandable. Yet, many of these same students sit in my class pouring out of tank tops, squeezed into low-rise jeans, or tugging on mini-skirts so short they are nearly impossible to sit down in. That is, dressed like Barbie.
It’s an experience I regularly have as a feminist critic of popular culture: a media event, book or news story demonstrates that I’m not wrong, my ideology is not based in “over analyzing,” “hyper sensitivity,” or “reading too much into things” (the three most common criticisms feminists tend to encounter). It’s disappointing, frankly, to stumble so often upon evidence of society’s sexism and to keep having to explain that it’s there. Disappointing that Barbie was so obviously a sexed-up, misogynist, bad idea for little girls and to realize how thoroughly our culture embraced the toy anyway.
So, here we are again. Feminists were right: no one but a sex-obsessed man with a perverse idea of female anatomy would create a female toy like Barbie. And, as is too too often the case for feminists, being right isn’t something to celebrate.