By Laurie Essig
This post appeared originally on Psychology Today.
The problem with presidential elections is that they stop us from seeing what’s really going on in our culture. Obsessed with the latest wins and losses, the latest political punditry, we stop keeping our eye on the ball and get distracted by the spectacle of corporate-funded rituals of “democracy.” So while most of us were glued to the Iowa caucuses, real change was happening in the world.
Yes, I mean the new Barbies. Not Barbie singular, but Barbies as in different shapes and sizes and skin hues and hair textures. If you haven’t seen Mattel’s Fashionistas line, check it out here. Of course the real revolution is both racial (e.g. Black Barbie used to have white hair), but also bodily. In addition to impossibly thin and busty regular Barbie, there are now curvy, petite and tall Barbies.
Curvy Barbie is the one who is getting the most attention. After all, she actually has some thigh and booty to her (as well as a flat stomach and impossibly small waist) whereas Petite and Tall Barbie meet the “rush this person to the emergency room because she is starving to death” requirement of many of the “fashion dolls” (including Bratz and Monster High dolls).
So what does Curvy Barbie mean? What sort of political revolution is going on when Barbie can look as if she might be a real person (albeit an incredibly attractive one)? Perhaps the same sort of revolution that is going on when the Democratic frontrunner is a woman? A revolution of optics (which is not to say an unimportant one).
And yet this revolution is not exactly the one many of us have been waiting for. Indeed, this election cycle has seen the GOP frontrunner spew misogyny and a constant commentary on whether women are pretty or not. We have seen articles in respectable newspapers like the New York Times about what Hillary Clinton is wearing. And poor curvy Barbie? Well she is not being respected for her ability to do calculus. Instead, when little girls were observed playing with her, they called her fat. Fat, fat, fat!
So Mattel, which was just trying to increase profits (which have been dropping in recent years) has now managed to further the impossibility of embodying femininity. There is no way to run for president or be a plastic doll without people constantly commenting on your appearance. There is no way to “win” female embodiment because even if you actually manage to look vaguely like the fantastical freak that is original Barbie, say the way that Cindy Jackson did, even if you have cosmetic surgery after cosmetic surgery and find yourself at fifty looking more like Barbie than you did at twenty, you still have not escaped the impossibility of female embodiment because the “dream” is always just out of reach, just one more procedure away, especially as the body starts to age.
And so rather than having the effect of helping young girls escape the unsolvable riddle that is the female body, Mattel has further written it onto their bodies. When Barbie was just an impossible symbol, one that M.G. Lord likened to the White Goddess in her book on Barbie, few girls imagined embodying that impossibility. Now that Barbie is being marketed as “realistic,” girls will imagine themselves as potentially like her. But even if they imagine themselves as “Curvy” Barbie, they have to figure out how to have a thigh gap and no muffin top (plastic being what it is, an actually realistic doll would be impossible to produce).
Which is why Barbie works better as a performance of femininity, a kind of drag queen rather than a presidential candidate. As long as we mark it as “impossible” or “an act” we can get on with our lives and demand that we not be judged on the basis of our bodies, our hair, our clothes or our prettiness. Even if in the current political climate of misogyny, refusing to be any sort of Barbie is a revolutionary act.
About the Author
Laurie Essig teaches at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont where she directs the program in Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies. She has written for a variety of publications, including Salon, the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Essig’s blog, “Social Studies,” at Psychology Today is a sociological take on being human. She is the author of American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection.