The Unbearable Lifelessness of Barbie

Mon Mar. 5, 2001 4:00 AM EST

No matter how much we wish she would, Barbie just won't go away. And maybe that's for the best; the ways in which Barbie comes under fire are often extremely culturally instructive. The plastic supermodel fails so majestically in representing any true reality, she incites creative culture-jamming of the highest order. Recall, for example, the Barbie Liberation Organization swapping a talking Barbie's voice box with one from a GI Joe doll.

Barbie was again in the news twice recently, on opposite sides of the world. In Iran, muslim clerics are concerned that the surge in Barbie's popularity among Islamic children amounts to Western cultural colonization, and a serious threat to the Islamic idealism at the country's core. Iranian leaders say the doll teaches consumerism, inappropriate dress, and loose sexual morality, so they are busy developing an Iranian version of the doll. Know word as to whether the Islamic Barbie will be liberated by having bendable knees.

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On the other side of the world, the hussy Barbie we're all accustomed to came under fire in Colorado last month for actually helping kids learn something. In Boulder, 8-year-old used two Barbies -- one black and one white, each in a different outfit -- in her science fair project, and discovered that the children she surveyed tended overwhelmingly to pick the white doll, while the adults tended overwhelmingly to choose whichever doll happened to be wearing the lavender dress. The experiment, while relatively unsophisticated, was insightful enough about race affects us to frighten school administrators. School officials would not allow the girl to display the project because, "A science fair is not the way we choose to discuss race relations."

If Barbie can't teach a lesson, at least she can be taught a lesson. The will to counter Barbie's materialistic message and encouraged by the Barbie Liberation Organization has inspired a wave of Barbie knock-offs and "adjustments" all over the world. In Australia, an enterprising woman came up with a Barbie alternative she calls "Feral Cheryl," a hairy, pierced and tattoed doll of somewhat more resonable dimensions than Barbie.

Similarly, cosmetics company The Body Shop developed a rubenesque lovely named "Ruby" to help counter the Barbie stereotype of beauty and was quickly told to cease and desist by Mattel, which said the generously proportioned doll (which appeared on a poster which read "There are 3 billion women who don't look like supermodels and only 8 who do") was "disrespectful to Barbie." Apparently allowing consumers to have positive body images is bad for Mattel's business.

The Barbie Disinformation Organization has been known to creatively alter Barbie packaging for maximum shock value, changing, for example, "Barbie's Stylin' Salon" to "Barbie's Lesbian Barber Shop," compelete with instruction on how to cut Barbie's hair into a "dyke shag" or "mullet."

Mattel's own attempts to make Barbie a positive role model in the US have been hard to swallow. One of Barbie's friends, Becky, is in a wheelchair, but she's a Paralympic gold medalist. Able-bodied Barbie is sold as a doctor and a lawyer, a dentist, a professional soccer player, a delegate at the Republican AND Democratic National Conventions in 2000. It's enough to make our already overextended kids head for the shrink with inadequacy issues.

Of course, not all reconfigurations of Barbie are socially constructive, but the ones that aren't downright offensive (and, let's admit, even some that are), are pretty funny.

Bits and Pieces

SORTA LIKE STARBUCKS WITH ORGANIC SOY MILK
Jonah Paretti tried to order a custom pair of Nike shoes from the Nike.com with the word "sweatshop" embroidered on them. Nike refused to fulfill his order, saying that the word "sweatshop" constituted "inappropriate slang" and therby violated the policies of Nike customization service known as NIKE iD. The ensuing exchange of civil emails (peppered with thinly veiled antagonism) is a hoot ...

AOLTIMEWARNERYAHOO.COM
Is AOL/Time Warner slavering over Yahoo!?...

SO MUCH FOR THE SHARON/GATES TICKET
Web geeks with too much time on their hands enjoy their conspiracy theories: Type the abbreviation for New York City on your computer and then convert the letters into Microsoft's venerable symbol font Zapf Dingbats. You'll note that up pops a rather disturbing sequence which some suggest advocates the extermination of Jews.

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