Why wasn’t Barbie a domestic worker? Who cares?


Following her creation in 1959, Barbie leapt from toy store shelves into the hearts and minds of children all over the world.  Her position as an influential figure in American popular culture is undeniable, and her reach has been as expansive and varied as her résumé.  Despite holding a plethora of positions from doctor to rock star to astronaut, Barbie has never been a domestic worker. While domestic work may not have been one of the careers Mattel had envisioned girls dreaming of when Barbie began using her motto “We girls can do anything,” the company eventually did release a doll that was equipped for domestic work, but it was not marketed as such.

Mattel claims that the 1991 Jamaican Barbie wears “a costume native to her homeland”. As scholar Ann Ducille points out, `Jamaican Barbie’ is actually wearing a maid’s uniform, thereby presenting a deeply troubling caricature of  both Jamaica and domestic labor. Clearly there are racist implications behind the fact that domestic work is acceptable for this ethnic other, but not for Barbie herself to have as a career. Jamaican Barbie is the only doll to be depicted as a domestic worker, but that word does not appear in the doll’s name or official description. If it had, that would have spelled out even more troubling consequences for the ways in which Mattel depicts not only domestic work and people of color, but entire countries. Moreover, in overlooking the doll’s actual depiction as a domestic worker, Mattel contributes to the conventional wisdom of domestic workers as an invisible and silent workforce.

The world around us shapes our perceptions of domestic work and domestic workers. The  narrative of domestic work being devalued persists because value and prestige are conflated, suggesting that because domestic work is not prestigious, it is not valuable and vice versa. Barbie projects a specific vision of American upward mobility, aspiration and imagination, and domestic work does not fit the profile of the extravagant and extraordinary careers in which Barbie has dabbled over the years. The idea that domestic work is somehow inferior or less important benefits the State’s capitalist machinery that relies on the extraction of surplus value from low-wage and unwaged labor. In the current neoliberal political moment, the precarization and casualization of labor has proven a formidable obstacle in bringing about any consistency in the way domestic work is regulated, legislated, and salaried.

Add to this the lack of `universal understanding’ of what a domestic worker is or looks like. Ideas surrounding workers’ attitudes, abilities, and obligations are as varied as the workers themselves. While Mattel has a history of capitalizing on difference and constructing a form of multiculturalism that is palatable to consumers, it would be impossible to dress and market a domestic worker Barbie in a way that is accurate and respectful. Mattel would be hard-pressed to convey the nuance and variety in the forms of domestic work. Would consumers buy Childcare Barbie? Eldercare Barbie? Cleaning and Maintenance Barbie? Home Healthcare Worker Barbie?

We need to consider domestic workers not just as consumers, but also as agents who deserve more than to be held to Barbie’s standards of visibility and success. If having an official Barbie doll career outfit really mattered to domestic workers, wouldn’t they have asked for one by now? For domestic workers, life is neither plastic nor fantastic. They face a multitude of challenges with very real impacts on their everyday lives, ranging from lack of legal protection to separation from their families, to living with undocumented immigration status to physical and sexual abuse, and much more. In this context, Barbie would barely register as a priority.

(Photo Credit: The Barbie Collection)

Protection stalks transnational women workers

For many transnational women workers, life in the global economy is hard. They often deal with separation and alienation, abuse, isolation, and more, and worse. For some, the monetary rewards make it worthwhile. For others, the periods of autonomy, however partial, and the developing mastery of strange and foreign cultures is a kind of reward. For others still, over the years, they develop bonds, ties, community, intimacy. And for many, after all is said and done, they did what they felt they had to do, and really there’s nothing to be said, as far as they’re concerned.

That the contemporary world is a hard place for transnational women workers may be worth repeating, but it’s not news, and it’s not new. The `birth’ of the global economy, of world-systems of development and trade, with its reliance on women’s cheap and available labor, produced new species of vulnerability, precariousness, exploitation, hardship; and women workers have developed new strategies of survival with dignity and of struggle. We know this already.

The contemporary world is not only a hard place for transnational women workers. It’s an unforgiving place. Ask those whose names must be withheld. Ask them about `protection.’

There’s a woman from Moldova whose name must be withheld. At 14 she was abducted, forced into prostitution, and shipped from Moldova to Italy, Turkey, Hungary, Romania, Israel and the United Kingdom. For seven years, she was regularly beaten, raped, threatened with death. According to various reports, she was treated as a slave.

In 2003, she was arrested in a brothel in England. No one bothered to listen to, or to ask for, her story. No one asked if she needed, wanted or could use `protection’, and none was offered. Instead, she served three months in Holloway prison, and then was summarily turned over to the UK Border Agency. At Oakington detention centre, she was shot through the Detained Fast-Track system, and then ejected. It was all very efficient. Seek protection in this world, and ye shall find deportation.

The woman was shipped back to Moldova. The men who had kidnapped her in the first place knew she was coming, found her, savagely beat her, and forced her back into prostitution. Four years later, in 2007, she was again arrested in England and sent to Yarl’s Wood. There, someone from the Eaves Housing Poppy Project identified her as a refugee, and helped her to make a successful asylum claim. At last, someone saw her, identified her, as a woman, as a human being.

This week, four years later, the United Kingdom Home Office finally agreed to a `groundbreaking’ settlement with the woman, paying her a `substantial’ amount for having so efficiently sent her back into a place where she was destined to encounter extraordinary violence against her person.

Today, the woman remains anonymous, her name is withheld, because the men who kidnapped, tortured, and exploited her are still out there, and her life and the lives of her family members are in danger.

There is a woman from the Philippines whose name likewise must be withheld. She is a domestic worker in Dubai. She is 42 years old, the mother of one. She has worked as a maid for three years. She has worked in one household, where the conditions have been intolerable. And yet, for three years, she tolerated the intolerable. Finally, in January, she gave her boss a one-month notice, after three years of mental abuse, 16-hour work days, 7 days a week. Her boss refused to accept her resignation. He told her she must stay.

He said he controlled her. Her visa depended on her employer. He placed a visa ban on her, and informed the Dubai Naturalisation and Residency Department. The Department concurred. In Dubai, as in all the United Arab Emirates, a visa ban means one must leave and one can never return.

The employment agency that had placed her offered to replace her with a new maid. The employer refused.

Having exhausted every possible legal means, the woman fled. She sought refuge at the Philippines Overseas Labour Office. They offered to help her fight, to help her stay and find another job, to help her get the visa ban lifted.

But they could not offer the woman protection. In Dubai, every month, over fifty domestic workers appeal to their various embassies for help, for protection. This was just one more case.

The woman was arrested and taken to Al Wasl immigration holding prison, where she now awaits imminent deportation. “All I want to do is work hard for a good family. Now I have to go back with nothing. I can’t stand to tell my family in the Philippines, they rely on me for financial support.”

These stories of abuse are altogether unexceptional. They are absolutely ordinary stories of ordinary violence committed by ordinary employers, States, everyone against ordinary transnational women workers, women whose names must be withheld. They are part of the everyday, of the parable of protection that is global, intimate, and everywhere. In the global economy, protection stalks transnational women workers.


(Photo Credit: scholarlymartyr.wordpress.com)