Why stand up for Barbie when she can’t

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Earlier this year, an artist by the name of Nickolay Lamm raised over $95,000 via crowd-sourcing platforms to manufacture Lammily, a toy product whose selling point is how tediously average she is. The target group: body-image conscious parents who wish to reject the cultural norm of presenting their daughters with a doll so disproportionate that she would have to crawl on all fours if she were an actual human being.

To put it candidly, my initial reaction upon seeing Lammily was one of mild horror. It is a sign of Mattel Inc.’s hitherto unchallenged monopoly power over the doll market that I immediately seized on the expansive waistline of Lammily’s athletic physique (contrast to Barbie’s wickedly slender body) and what I saw was an inevitable side effect of her active lifestyle: thunder thighs. Lammily looked like one of us (a UK size 8-10), her hair color was commonplace (subverting yet another blonde All-American Girl stereotype), and the sad truth was that I did not like what I saw. My dad has been encouraging me to read A Gift of Imperfection and “embrace my limitations”, so that tells you a little about my temperament as someone who obstinately refuses to unconditionally accept who we are, but believes in extending enough acceptance to avoid existential depression, but not too much that we stop aspiring to (more often than not, unattainable) socially-desirable ideals. It explains why the ordinariness of Lammily’s appearance, and the unglamorous, albeit more emotionally healthy archetype of “Girl Next Door”, did not strike a chord at first sight.

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 I was also put off by what I thought was a gross imposition of adult concerns on uncomplicated child psyches. Barbie continues to spark off an intense debate over how kids, and especially girls, are brainwashed by male-orchestrated perceptions that women are merely objects of admiration, and not productive members of the economy (the fact that a real-life Barbie would topple over from the glorious size of her breasts attests to this). Strangely enough, when I scrolled through the accusations that Barbie was psychologically impairing young girls, my gut reaction was to defend Barbie from this onslaught. My reasoning was simple: as a child, I had never viewed Barbie as a physical model I had to emulate. Whereas adults see her as an icon of the “disease of the nation” (Beyonce’s term for our collective hankering after thinner, more malnourished bodies),  children see her as a toy. Whereas air-brushed celebrities and swimsuit models are public figures that exert a great deal of influence over society’s definition of physical attractiveness, dolls cannot be blamed for corrupting young minds.

Moving on tangentially, I am intrigued by the question of whether one can corrupt a person with no moral awareness – is one immoral if one commits an immoral act without having sampled the fruit of knowledge from the tree of good or evil? After all, the word “moral” implies an intrinsic awareness that something is right or wrong, and this intention of willfully committing an action must be distinguished from the act itself. One who commits a sin without the possession of knowledge is therefore not immoral, but ignorant. And I had better stop digressing before I bring in moral relativism, which will only complicate matters.

To return to where I left off – I felt that dolls should not be scapegoated for imprinting unrealistic body image portrayals on women because they are catered towards a young audience that has yet to be conscious of the need to conform to social expectations. In other words, their innocence protects them from the insinuations projected by Barbie’s skewed proportions. However, I later realized that this line of argument was quite nonsensical because the experiences of children vary widely. Although Barbie has never aroused any feelings of inadequacy, a kid who grows up in different circumstances may be impacted more strongly. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye immediately comes to mind, where the adult practice of giving blonde, blue-eyed dolls made a little black girl doubt the worth of her skin. Furthermore, there is a growing compilation of research that presents the convincing case that Barbie is actually more damaging than unconcerned parents may think. Lastly, it is simply flawed to assert that unsuspecting minds make it less detrimental – people who think so clearly haven’t read enough dystopian novels to know that the Orwellian construction of an innocuous humdrum reality is by far the most dangerous.

At the same time, I don’t agree with those who feel that Mattel’s current Barbie models should be eradicated from the shelves (this is my philosophy in life speaking, refer to paragraph two). There is nothing wrong with giving our children an ideal to work for, as long as they know that failing to attain it doesn’t mean they should love themselves any less. Rather than boycott anorexic Barbie and replace it with a representative of the masses, the doll market could definitely afford the healthy competition that comes from introducing toys with more diversity. If one were to take away lithe Barbie dolls completely, we would be going to the extreme of turning the tables on women with naturally thin bodies, thereby indicating that they are abnormal and less desirable. We would be making the reactive mistake of replacing one ideal with another.

blackbarbieI went to visit the Barbie website (and was promptly assaulted by the nostalgia), but I was pleasantly surprised to see that Mattel has introduced a range of African American dolls. I wonder if civil society groups have anything to do with the fact that each depiction of three or more Barbies is racially inclusive – they shop together, become doctors together, and presumably also hit on the cute male Barbies together. This is a definite improvement from the truly vanilla Barbie franchise I remember from the past. In some sense, I realize that Barbie has negatively affected the way I saw myself as an individual, though it isn’t in the context of the human body’s dimensions.

Growing up, I had twelve dolls, and all of them were Caucasian, and if I remember correctly, also uniformly blonde. Whenever I revisit the fiction experiments I concocted as a child, I am appalled. Partly because my grammar was atrocious and the plots were rehashed soap operas, but also because of my narrow character development – all my protagonists were white, blonde and blue-eyed. Writing stories about white girls was my way of living out a more concrete version of the the idealistic fantasies I constructed with my Barbies. Make-believe is an outlet for children to develop their own dreams, and it was only natural that the instruments I used to facilitate this picture-perfect world were elevated as ideal “human beings”. I therefore came to believe that being born a Caucasian was a privilege and the toys I played with simply reinforced the domination of American culture and the myth of white superiority. Indeed, it was only until I actually came in close contact with Westerners that I realized they were not all that remarkable. Nevertheless, the Anglophile worship that pervades our culture (from the numerous shirts/bags/notebooks with London, New York or Paris themes) continues to exercise a certain hold on me, for I cannot deny that part of me still feels that Western physiques and Western beliefs are more aesthetically pleasing or alluring. Nonetheless, I like to think that this is because we share a similar appreciation of what beauty is (sharp noses, large expressive eyes and well-defined cheekbones) and it is simply a fact that these three traits occur less commonly in people of Chinese descent. Just trying to make myself feel better about our Asian Chinese insecurities, I guess. (This reminds me that I must write a blog post about the insecurity-plagued, yet arrogant nature of Chinese culture one day).

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I remain disappointed that Mattel’s Asian dolls are all so terribly exoticized into Cheongsam-wearing concubines. I envision a Barbie industry that embraces differences, not just in the area of body shapes (plus-sized Barbies, skinny Barbies, average Barbies) but also in race (can we please just have a Chinese Barbie who is a school teacher or something) and occupations. If you realize, all of Mattel’s career-kit dolls are predestined to cookie-cutter professions such as doctors (which makes me uncomfortable, but only because the porn market panders to sexual fetishes for health care personnel and I cannot help thinking of Barbie as a sex doll in this scenario), teachers and affluent tai-tais who manicure their lives away. It struck me that if more types of dolls were introduced, a girl’s Barbie universe would no longer be a microcosm of one segment of society (blonde, blue-eyed professionals) but a reflection of the world around us (with its messier array of lower-income workers). I would encourage Mattel to step out of its tidy, pretty society, and I hope one day that my children can reenact stories about all sorts of people, and not just that of the rich Dr. Kelly curing the sick, a la White Man’s Burden.

Perhaps you may wonder why I choose to fixate on Barbie dolls instead of broadening my scope of discussion to the superhero toy industry. By virtue of the waffle-defined abs and impressively sculpted biceps, Captain America figurines surely impact the way boys view themselves. However, this is a different issue altogether because superheroes depict an ideal, but there are no illusions about how realistic they are. Barbie dolls, on the other hand, feature roles in every day situations and it makes sense that they should strive to embody women in the most realistic way possible.

Although there are definitely those who think that we are kicking up a fuss over something as inconsequential as a toy, I believe the scrutiny over Barbie’s design ethic is an encouraging sign of a prosperous society where public discussion is vibrant. Only when the bread and butter is settled satisfactorily for the majority of the population do we have the time and energy to move up Maslow’s hierarchy and think more profoundly about fluffy issues. It is a first-world luxury to make much ado about anything, I concede that. In addition, now that we are, in certain parts of the world, slowly moving towards a post-industrial society, we are once again looking back on the ways in which industrialization, and the onset of mass manufacturing, have altered the way we perceive ourselves. Ultimately, I believe that our desire to chase after a uniform body ideal is inevitable, for ever since the factory-line production of clothes replaced the individual endeavor of tailoring our attire to suit our needs, we can no longer afford to not fit in.

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