Doll Parts: Barbies, Bodies, and Binaries
by Kendra Cooper
The Barbie doll has been one of the most contentious toys in history. It has been debated for years, so much so that it is considered cliché to discuss in gender studies classes. I am reluctant to address the Barbie as “her”, but for the sake of clarity, I will. The Barbie and her rigid plastic form is different from dolls of the past; she’s the first toy to display the “female” body in an exaggerated, sexualized form. The Barbie is problematic and controversial because her body is unrealistic, over-sexualized, and presented as the ideal.
What is a body? When is a body considered whole? Does your body define you? There are many answers to these questions, and they differ depending on lived experiences. Everyone has a different perspective, different answers, based on gender, race, class, etc. What I’m interested in are the possibilities that rise when we can’t quite pin down the definition of the body (as seen in the phenomena of the Barbie) in one solid, unchanging, unifying answer.
It’s not news that Western culture and the media privilege certain bodies. These bodies are white, cisgendered, and able. If your body fits into one or more of these categories, you obtain privilege. These categories are also part of socially constructed hierarchal binaries like male/female, abled/disabled, culture/nature in which the dominant category has privilege and cultural power over another. How do we deconstruct these dualisms and, in turn, dismantle them? Will the body and its perception in our culture contribute to this necessary change?
Anyway, back to Barbie. She is considered unrealistic, and I must acknowledge she also tends to represent a white, able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual rich woman. This, of course, is a generalization, as there are many Barbies that do not fulfill these stereotypes. The main concern of activists, feminists, and parents is that girls will assume that this is what a “real” body should look like, and then try to emulate it. This is the same concern some have about girls seeing models in the media.
The difference between the media and toys is that a toy offers the opportunity for manipulation, while an image that passes by on the screen might not. In her book Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture, and the Posthuman Body, Kim Toffoletti cites a study by Rakow and Rakow from 1999:
“Interviews with young girls also indicate that instead of reinforcing ideals of women as passive and objectified, Barbie can act as a site for girls to resist and reject the stereotypes of femininity she embodies”.
Things like cutting Barbie’s hair, drawing on her, or switching limbs are flickers of resistance against the original anti-feminist idea that Barbie offers, as well as to extreme femininity. Creating a unique and individual Barbie is a refusal to accept what is packaged and handed over to us.
Theorist Donna Haraway suggests in her famous paper A Cyborg Manifesto that technology that offers the opportunity to edit the body carries the possibility of blurring the real/artificial binary and that breakdown could possibly lead to the breakdown of other dualisms. Haraway argues that anything that doesn’t fit into the standard presented ideal is actively subverting and resisting it. The boundaries are dissolved when the essentialist idea of the body is challenged.
So, we are acknowledging that the doll’s body is “unrealistic” and we are concerned that those playing with the toy assume that this is what a body should look like. Especially with the rise of plastic surgery, we’re worried that people might want to change their bodies to fit this image. But with this concern comes the question: what even is a real body? Simply exclaiming that “the body” is the human form we are born in can be problematic, especially for transgendered people or people with a physical disability. If this is the definition we choose, we are excluding many people. So what is the definition of the body? Shouldn’t we be able to define our own bodies based on our own experiences, individuality, and identity?