“Entrepreneur Barbie” Crushes Communities on Her Way to the Top


When Mattel announced that Barbie’s next career ensemble would position her as a tech entrepreneur, The Huffington Post offered a sympathetic piece detailing why the challenges of being a female entrepreneur would make this job Barbie’s “toughest yet.” While Mattel views this career choice as an opportunity for Barbie to “break through plastic ceilings” alongside actual female entrepreneurs (featured in a photo collage with Barbie in the center), the news of this doll—and the mainstream media’s response to it­­­­­–immediately made me cringe.

The Huffington Post is absolutely right to call attention to gender wage gap, workplace discrimination, and underrepresentation of women in leadership positions. And with her hot pink corporate battle armor, “trendsetting” attitude, and upper class white background, Barbie is in a relatively advantageous position to face those challenges. However, the article glorifies female executives like Sheryl Sandberg as groundbreaking role models for Barbie and the enterprising young girls who play with her. This line of thinking is problematic.

By suggesting that women’s reluctance to more firmly advocate for themselves is the primary obstacle in achieving equality, Sandberg’s philosophy of Leaning In ignores external obstacles and systems of oppression that cannot be overcome with a positive attitude alone. Moreover, an increase in female CEOs is a solution reliant on capitalist systems in a society where high profile, high earning jobs are deemed the most valuable. This perspective overlooks the struggles of the many working class women who make up today’s globalized workforce.

Looking beyond Lean In, Entrepreneur Barbie (along with everyone who supports her) seems blind to the issues of gentrification and displacement that have faced Bay Area communities in the wake of Silicon Valley’s successes. For example, research from UC Berkeley shows that when companies like Google expand and use buses to transport their employees to and from work, they drive up the rents in the neighborhoods where those bus stops are located. This often means that the original residents can no longer afford to live there, or must struggle to maintain their standard of living, especially when landlords realize that they can make far more profits from new tech employees than from allowing their current tenants to remain.

In a political moment where communities of color in particular are being targeted and displaced from their homes, supporters of Entrepreneur Barbie are off the mark in hoping that the doll will “bring the next generation of girls with her on her journey to entrepreneurship.” This vision of trickle-down equality is dependent on maintaining the status quo for those already in positions of privilege and suggests that any upwardly mobile path is a good one, regardless of the cost to local communities. Barbie is not “uniquely equipped for this challenge because she’s a trendsetter;” she’s uniquely equipped because she is a marker of privileged whiteness and omnipresent corporate dominance. While Mattel may be aware of gender inequality in the workplace, Entrepreneur Barbie loses any redeeming value when she spreads ignorance of race-and-class-based struggles that no amount of Leaning In can ever solve.

(Photo Credit: Adam Hudson / Truthout)

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)

Artists remodel, repurpose and reclaim Barbie and beyond

 

One of Hassan Hajjaj’s Moroccan Biker Barbie Dolls

Recently, London-based artist Hassan Hajjaj created a photo series in which he dressed Barbie dolls in Moroccan apparel embellished with designer brands. The juxtaposition of designer brands and traditional apparel is particularly striking, allowing the photos to pay homage to women’s biker culture while raising critical questions about the impact of Western consumer culture.

Hajjaj is not the only artist repurposing Barbie dolls. In fact, a large community of artists works with 1:6 scale models and figures, customizing them to more accurately represent objects of fandom. Sculpting, building, and customizing dolls can be an extremely lucrative industry. Those who purchase the dolls do so as a means of displaying their devotion to fandom and attention to detail. There is also a community of artists who work specifically with Barbie, and modify her in various ways. Loanne Hizo Ostile customizes Barbie, Kelly, and Ken dolls (as well as some Disney models) to be more racially diverse and inclusive. And designer Nickolay Lamm gained notoriety for creating a “normal Barbie” who had the proportions of an “average” 19-year-old woman.

These artists, like other 1:6 scale customizers, are creating products that reflect a vision they believe to be accurate, or one that they wish would be accurate. Where Mattel, Sideshow, and other mainstream brands fall short, there is a plethora of artists working toward inclusivity and more nuanced representations of bodies, cultures, and lifestyles. Barbie fandom and Barbie customization are certainly not mutually exclusive; in fact it seems that fandom, or at least wanting to legitimately better the product, can motivate people to customize the dolls.

However, there is also something to be said for detaching Barbie from her fan canon and viewing the doll as a piece of art. Enter AlteredBarbie, an annual art show in San Francisco that features Mattel icons repurposed in every possible way. For the creators of the show, “Barbie and Ken plastic icons represent modernity by having everything a person could desire today. They reflect corporate imposed lifestyles based on greed as well as the ore holistic concept of abundance.” Straddling the line between grotesque caricature and ideal beauty, Barbie and Ken become subjects rendered more complex by artists who “take Barbie boldly where Mattel/Disney would never have the guts to take her.” And the results are a mixed bag.

A list of “Barbie Gone Bad” compiles some of the most striking works from an earlier AlteredBarbie exhibit. Some, like Lavonne Sallee’s Rocky Horror Picture Show dolls, are indeed bold retellings and fusions of cultural icons. But other works in the show include insensitive, stereotyped depictions of eating disorders and drug and alcohol addiction. Even at its worst, the AlteredBarbie show forces us as viewers to consider the ramifications of incorporating Barbie into various scenarios. Dioramas that fuse Barbie with religion, BDSM, or blood and gore create an uncomfortable moment in which we must confront the idea of Western capitalist consumerism (vis-à-vis Barbie) infiltrating every other aspect of life.

Though perhaps less extreme in its execution, this is what Hajjaj’s photo series does as well. By remodeling Barbie, Hajjaj and other artists are radically reclaiming an artistic space dominated by wealthy, white entrepreneurs. By placing Barbie and her companions in situations that are physically violent, sexually explicit, or just plain unconventional, artists are questioning the intentional depiction of Barbie as a wholesome American girl. Stripped of her propriety and normative modes of accessorizing, Barbie becomes a means of powerful cultural critique and a language for cross-cultural artistic expression.

 

(Photo Credit: Over The Edge Books / Hassan Hajjaj)

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)