Barbie VIP Packages Fuel Fantasies of Excess and Inequality

 

Last week the luxury resort Forte Village experienced a great deal of backlash for promoting its “Barbie VIP packages” aimed specifically at young girls. Forte Village advertises the experiences as an opportunity for girls to explore beauty, fashion, and glamor and—with the help of stylists—prepare themselves and their Barbie dolls to walk the runway. Those critical of the extremely expensive (£364, or nearly $600) weeklong getaway include feminist writers, Twitter users, bloggers, and moms. Most critiques seem to focus on the extent to which these Barbie VIP packages are unnecessarily gendered, and rightly so. The idea that only girls can participate in the pink world of Barbie both excludes and ostracizes kids of other gender identities who enjoy fashion, makeup, and dolls.

The issue of exclusivity extends beyond gender: at first glance, exclusive marketing seems to be directly at odds with Mattel’s history of universal Barbie consumption. Mattel has (at times quite unsuccessfully) attempted to push Barbie sales all over the world both with “standard” blonde Barbies as well as through its appropriative “Dolls of the World” series comprised of different incarnations of culturally stereotyped Barbies. Thus, it would seem that Mattel would want Barbie established as a global as well as a household name. But this can only be a reality for some households. Even from her inception, Barbie was a decidedly upper-middle class reflection of Ruth Handler, the mother-turned-entrepreneur who “created” her. Indeed, scholars, critics, and consumers refer to Barbie as though she were a real person, a fantasy encouraged by the services Forte Village provides such as doll-and-girl manicures.

As omnipresent as Barbie may be, she has always been a status symbol as well. Girls who could dress their dolls in a plethora of individually sold outfits, provide ever-expanding “dream houses” for Barbie to live in, and supplement their first Barbie with companion dolls and accessories stood apart from those whose working class parents may not have had the time or finances to furnish complete Barbie worlds. Even today, Mattel continues its tiered marketing by boasting several lines of collector dolls that can cost hundreds of dollars. Thus, Mattel seems to contradict itself: the company that lauds Barbie as an accessible means of imaginative play is actually more focused on tailoring its products to those who can experience Barbie in excess, from lunchboxes to school supplies to clothing to these elite vacation packages.

However, a more inclusive marketing scheme wouldn’t make the Forte Village situation much less troubling. For the families who choose this vacation package, Barbie is not a mode of exploratory self-expression; she becomes a restrictive guideline that forces girls to perform an artificially constructed form of femininity that refuses to recognize Barbie’s impacts on our understanding of class and gender. Barbie has always been aspirational in nature, and this VIP package is no different: in choosing between the “Pink” level or “Glamour” level experiences, girls are taught as early as two years old that they should expect and aspire to a world where femininity means exclusive VIP treatment; where the reward for properly performing girliness is pampering and attention.

Moreover, this class exclusivity will likely inform girls’ perceptions of which types of people can perform these services for them. Is there a racial, ethnic, gender, or class difference between the stylists, the makeup artists, and the manicurists? And how does one reconcile life at the resort with life in the Barbie World, or life in the real world? Barbie’s mottos have always encouraged girls to do anything; to be who they want to be. But from what I can discern about this resort, girls are confronted with an extremely limited array of gender possibilities and socially appropriate hobbies. What good are Barbie’s 150 careers then? Disappointingly but perhaps not surprisingly, Forte Village strips Barbie of any redeeming qualities or exploratory possibilities, and turns her into a tool for teaching a monolithic vision of gender, capitalism, and consumerism.

 

(Photo credit: The Guardian / Alamy)

The ordinary household: Dirty little secret

I have a dirty little secret. Well, perhaps it’s not so little. And maybe, it’s not that dirty. But it’s something I like to keep secret. You see, my parents, for as long as I have been alive, have employed domestic workers. I don’t want to self-flagellate in public, but this fact of my life is something that I have come to look upon with a mixture of shame, confusion, righteous indignation and an understanding of the practical realities of the global economy.

I suppose if you’re going to understand where I’m coming from, you’ve got to know where it is I’m actually coming from. I am a citizen of a bustling South East Asian metropolis, where it’s common for members of the upper classes to employ domestic workers. There are over 250,000 registered domestic workers in this tiny yet imposing concrete-glass-steel city of 7 million. For families accustomed to the luxuries that life in this city has afforded them, a live-in maid is just another luxury accessory. In my tight knit South Asian community, our affluence has allowed us to enjoy these luxuries, and so from the time I was literally a baby to today we have always employed domestic workers.

This practice was not something I questioned; living in my upper middle class bubble everyone I knew either in my community or at school had hired help. Our school gates would be crowded at the end of the day with a sea of women’s faces, noisy chatter and swarms of fans fighting off the heat and humidity that is so common to this city. Our kitchens and homes would be busy, busy, busy with deft hands, sweaty brows and tired muscles from all their hard work. At dinner parties, we would laugh, drink and eat while our maids worked to keep us well fed.

It was normal. And I never thought anything of it.

And then my bubble burst.

It was time for me to grow up, to move away and to experience life. I moved half way around the world to the UK, where things were very different to how I had grown up, despite my home city’s British heritage. College would open my eyes to so many new things, but most importantly, it opened my eyes to all the ways my privileged experience made me different. Often when I mentioned to friends or acquaintances how life back home necessarily included year-round air conditioning, ridiculous amounts of shopping and live-in domestic workers, I received looks ranging from incredulousness to derision.

Apparently, not everyone was accustomed to employing domestic workers to carry out the daily chores of cooking, cleaning and care taking in the home.

That experience at college simply taught me that the practice of employing domestic workers was not universal. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school, however, that I really began to question the practice altogether. I had taken a class on global and domestic labour that more than opened my eyes.

It blew my mind.

I had never thought about how domestic workers’ working and living conditions are exploitative; that certain countries like the Philippines are heavily reliant on remittances from overseas domestic workers to keep their economy afloat; or that the women (and it’s almost always women) that leave their families and young children behind are profoundly affected by this distance. Of course, I knew that Maria* and Anna*, our live-in domestic workers, had children back home, whom they saw once every two years but until now I had never thought of this situation as anything other than business as usual.

It wasn’t until after I had taken this class that I realised that the women whom my parents have employed over the years, were people. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t think of them as human beings. Of course I did. But it never occurred to me that their individual stories came together to tell a much, much larger tale – a tale of loss, community, discovery, negotiation, acceptance and, most importantly, survival.

The women who have worked in our home over the years have undoubtedly had an impact on my life, intertwining their stories with mine. I realise this now, and as I share my story with you, I hope to share pieces of theirs too.

Scatterlings: “Shoot to kill”

At this time four years ago, New Orleans residents of color were being hunted like animals by white citizens and National Guardsmen alike as the waters of Katrina receded…

…and now ZA has its own “shoot to kill” policy. On the anniversary of 9/11, it really makes me wonder about how “we” define terrorism. Brutality by the state = law and order, mean to protect “football fans [that] could become easy targets during next year’s World Cup“. The low income (or no income) citizens of South Africa, of course, are always easy targets in the state’s shooting range. Oh wait, did I say citizens? Turns out “those who use illegal weapons would lose their normal rights as citizens“. Is this not terrorism?

It certainly is terrifying, and there are so many more layers yet: the resources being allotted to “security” and construction for this event instead of towards economic justice, the high rates of crime seen as unacceptable for Western tourists but the price of admission for South Africans…and where is the speech at an ANC dinner, the huge push of resources, regarding violence against women and rape?

(Photo Credit: The Telegraph / AFP)