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In The Barbie World
Life In Plastic, It Sure Is Something!
I (Dame Karen) saw Barbie this week and thought it was fine. I was so, so pumped for it and very happily put together what I called a Garden Party Barbie look and went to the Regal MGM Springfield theater at the casino with a big group of friends, had an overpriced pink cocktail, and happily shouted out “Hi, Barbie!” to all the other pink-clad attendees I saw in the parking garage, at the foot cart, and of course waiting to take pictures in the homemade booth in the lobby. I haven’t had this much fun getting ready to go to a movie since the first time I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show in high school! What I loved best about the movie was the entire opening in Barbieland and I would easily spend about ten hours just watching the Barbies waving at each other, getting dressed, driving cool cars, working competently, and doing choreographed dances. It’s what I wanted to grow up to be when I was a little girl. As Jourdain Searles put it in The Cut, “Barbieland is a little girl’s idea of a feminist paradise, or more accurately, what the people making Barbies believe little girls want. Yes, it’s limited, but that’s the point of the fantasy…The catharsis lies in the exaggeration.”
It all made me think about my own history of seeking out Barbie in popular culture. As someone who has always been interested in feminism but also a lover of pink and all that entails, I have always had a love-apathy relationship with Barbie. As a teenager, I ran into some under the radar creative work that for the most part grappled with the sexism of Barbie, the image of her as powerless vessel very literally made to be played with. This kind of Barbie-centric art is partly responsible for us now living in a time in which Mattel actually sought out artists who would specifically examine the complicated history of Barbie and critique and contend with the, well, stereotypical aspects of Barbiedom (the heroine of the movie literally refers to herself as Stereotypical Barbie) w hile both specifically criticizing and lampooning the patriarchy. (Side note:I actually laughed out loud the first time movie Ken excitedly announced his discovery of The Patriarchy because while I am have been reading and thinking about how much the patriarchy sucks for a very long time, it’s so rare for me to hear it mentioned in a mainstream film that brought me up short.)
Ultimately, the film celebrates not only the reality of Barbie but the possibilities that Barbie represents, hence Mattel’s funding of it, right? Anti-Barbie sentiment may no longer be a priority for most feminists, but that’s in part because Barbie isn’t as popular anymore. As Searles further pointed out in The Cut, Barbie was replaced by Bratz (created by a former Mattel employee), which got its own share of feminist critique, and Monster High (a Mattel brand), which I don’t know much about but combines fashion doll sensibilities with sci-fi and horror. Barbie needs to get up to speed, and in this case, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are certainly springboarding off the work of people who were often in danger of getting sued by Mattel for copyright infringement because the company was so protective of Barbie that they didn’t want anyone else to have anything to say about her. (Almost…patriarchal, really, when you think about it hmmmmm…)
Electric Literature not only ran A.M. Homes’s seminal short story from 1986 “A Real Doll,” under the title “The Most Iconic Barbie Story Ever Told,” a story I remember reading and loving as a teenager, but also a discussion between Homes and MG Lord, author of Forever Barbie, which gets into the history of the story, including how hard it was to find a publisher because publications were concerned that Mattel would come after them for copyright infringement. The story was eventually published in the now defunct gay men’s magazine Christopher Street, which, by the way, Barbie the movie could have been so much more gay, right? The story also led to the publication of the 1993 anthology Mondo Barbie, which I’m pretty sure is where I found it Back In The Day.
The Special Collections section of the library at my alma mater, Smith College, did a cute Barbenheimer Facebook post in which they included selections from an issue of of the ‘90s zine Hey There, Barbie Girl in which the author writes “I’m Riot Grrrrl Barbie…I was wondering do you know what oppression means? I hear it all the time and I don’t know what that word means; ‘like oh my god’” and includes a photo of a naked Barbie from the back with “Kiss My Ass” written on, yes, the ass. I did a quick Google to see if there was any more information about Hey There, Barbie Girl, only to find a 1995 article from The [On It] New York Times titled “These Magazines Offer More Than Just Girl Talk.” They talk to the editor of Hey There, Barbie Girl, who will only give her first name, Barbara (?!?!?!?!?!?), because she’s retired the zine “after receiving a letter from Mattel warning her of possible copyright and trademark infringements.” [N.B.: The article mentions the author’s new zine, Plotz, which means it was Barbara Kligman. Plotz was a great Jewish zine; would love to hear what Barbara Kligman now Rushkoff thinks of Barbie!]
When I was in college, I took a film class and the professor brought in a bootleg copy of the 1987 short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which was what brought director Todd Haynes notice for the first time. It’s the story of Karen Carpenter’s rise to fame as a ‘70s soft rock icon as told using Barbies as the actors, which was considered particularly provocative at the time, as Barbie had by then been criticized for her physically impossible body and Karen Carpenter famously died of complications from anorexia nervosa, which many people point to as the first time eating disorders entered into general conversation and public awareness. It’s still hard to get a physical copy of Superstar; the Museum of Modern Art has a copy but is unable to legally exhibit it; it’s on YouTube, for now. In this case, the rarity of the movie seems to stem not from Mattel’s legal wranglings but rather those of Karen’s brother and bandmate Richard Carpenter, who sued Haynes for copyright infringement, as he used Carpenters songs in the film without permission. Per an Entertainment Weekly interview with producer Christine Vachon, Mattel came to their office when the film was released, however “Todd bought all those dolls in garage sales. They were Barbie rip-offs, so he was able to prove to Mattel that it was an off-brand. That it wasn't Barbie, but it was what you got if your parents couldn't afford Barbie.”
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Appreciations, reminiscences, personal narrative obituaries, whatever you want to call them, are something we and our guest editors are particularly good at here in the Bossy Aerie, so if reflections on the significance of 1990s lady rage and cultural icons who deserve groveling apologies are your jam, it’s one you won’t want to miss.
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