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Reports from Barbie World: Or nonfiction prose on a fictional character that functions as a tactile object based on humans

veritatemdilexi's picture

 She was everywhere.  Scattered on my floor, under the seat in my mother’s car, with my bathtub toys, and occasionally in the big blue tub labeled BARBIE.  At the age of five I had entered Barbie World and the ensuing invasion of Barbie and cohorts dominated my life for the next two years.  My Christmas list from Kindergarten asked for a Barbie house, Barbie boat, Barbie car, and of course the absolutely essential Barbie Plane.  Apparently I was not alone, Mary F. Rogers, the author of Barbie Culture, quotes a study in 1996, my Kindergarten year, by John Greenwald that states “99 per cent of all girls in the United States between three and ten years old have at least one Barbie; the average girl has eight.”  The sheer number of girls who own a Barbie testifies to her iconic status in our society.  Her iconic status is not what fuels the discussion, it is the attitude and relationship that individuals have towards her that fuels the continual debate over Barbie’s impact on society.  I feel that it would be remiss of me to not state my relationship with Barbie if I am writing a paper on collected individuals’ experience with her.  For me Barbie was a doll, a tool for imagination and the ability to learn how to accessorize.  I never expected my body to resemble Barbie, just as I didn’t expect myself to resemble the baby dolls that I also played with. 

            Writing traditional nonfiction on Barbie can be precarious, the concept of writing nonfiction on a fictional character that is a tactile object, which is based on the human image, is a daunting task.  It is impossible to study Barbie in an academic sense without looking at the attitudes of individuals who interact with her.  Last week in class we came to the conclusion that the attitude of the audience was of utmost importance when determining if a work was nonfiction or fiction.  In this same vein, Barbie as an icon of popular culture is dependent on the attitude of the audience.

             All icons are not created the same.  Some icons are the embodiment of one ideal, but the more successful icons appeal to more than one of the viewer’s aspirations, Barbie is one of these.  In her introduction to Barbie Culture, Mary F. Rodgers introduces the idea that Barbie is both a “fictive and fantastic icon”.  Rodgers then further explains that a fictive icon allows the individual to use their imagination to enact or create a story that they know is not real, in other words Barbie according to the fictive icon description is a tool that allows the individual to create their own world separate from reality.  A fantastic icon is based on reality but exceeds the actual limitations of what is achievable.  While in theory Barbie’s is female, a human with Barbie’s actual anatomical proportions would not be able to stand erect due to the unequal distribution of weight.  I fully agree with Rodgers conclusion that for society as a whole Barbie is both a fantastic and fictive icon; however, I think that individuals who interact with Barbie see her as either a fantastic or a fictive icon and the different attitudes that each of these icons creates determines one’s relationship with Barbie.

            For those who view Barbie primarily as a fictive icon she has the same connotation as many other dolls or toys that are present throughout childhood.  Indeed many children go through the “Barbie phase” where they are emphatic about playing with Barbie but then movie on to other toys or interests.  Rodgers quotes a middle school aged girl named Mattie who declares she “used to play with her (Barbie) all the time.  I always asked to get Barbies for Christmas and birthdays.  Me and my best friend always wanted to be like Barbie.  We laugh about it now.”  One of the many allures to Barbie is her intense consumer nature, which can be alluring to children.  As a child we are unable to buy a car, a boat, and 100 outfits, but our Barbie can have them, which for many children is just as satisfying.  By allowing Barbie to be such an avid consumer we are allowing her to have her own fictitious reality that is based in modern consumer culture.  In this respect Barbie is unique in that she is both the product and embodiment of post World War II and modern ideals about consumerism, her impact on society would not have been profound in society that is not bombarded by consumerism.  Without her accessories and clothes Barbie is just like any other doll that is based on the human anatomy.  By giving Barbie the ability to act as a consumer the individual is able to imagine and play how they would like to participate in a society that is based on consumerism.

            Barbie’s roll as a fantastic icon draws the most intense criticism.  As mentioned earlier, a human with Barbie’s proportions would not be able to function as a normal human being.  Barbie was created as a fantastic ideal of the human body, not what it is.  This concept is not so easily explained to an impressionable audience and some individuals base their perception of what the female body should look like based on Barbie.  Rodgers interviews a middle-aged male, Mark, who describes Barbie’s impact on him, “Perfect hair.  Shapely legs.  Faultless breasts.  An hourglass torso.  For many years this was how I perceived what an ideal woman was supposed to look like.  This spurious notion was implanted in my schema at an early age, probably five or six years old.”  Any ideal that is based on a fantastic and unattainable image that functions as a prototype for reality is problematic.  This mindset around Barbie does draw many justified critiques about how we as a society are forming our norms.  Are these cultural norms based on actual realties, or are they exaggerations of the possible?  To blame Barbie singularly for the objectification of women as objects of delicate femininity is unfair, the objectification of women existed long before in many societies that were Barbie free.

                        This paper is a brief exploration of some of the perceptions that Barbie has in our culture.  I find this segment of nonfiction prose which illustrates factual human behaviors and realities with fictitious tactile characters fascinating! I think that nonfiction writing about Barbie is especially compelling because it relies heavily on the opinion and attitudes of the authors and their subjects who were interviewed and quoted, especially in Barbie Culture.  As we saw in the Thin Blue Line, people tend to exaggerate and fabricate their stories about actual events, but I think that the opinions and truths that people construct about fictional characters can be just as compelling, and in the case of Barbie can elicit very strong emotions.  Going on from this point, I am interested in exploring Barbie as an educational tool for consumerism.  Do children learn how to consume goods outside of their needs from Barbie, or do they perfect their young consumer skills with her?


Works Cited


1. Rogers, Mary F. Core Cultural Icons: Barbie Culture. 1st ed. London, UK: Sage Publications Ltd, 1999. 3,12,13,17. Print.



Anne Dalke's picture

Exaggerating the possible

Since you began w/ your own, I'll open with my own Barbie story: I was determined that my own daughters would not play w/ that doll. One Christmas I spent HOURS making  Raggedy Anns and Andys, complete w/ wardrobes...and then was scooped, utterly, by an uncle who gave my oldest daughter her first Barbie. All was lost. I thought I had failed as a feminist mother.

So I'm delighted (25 years later!) to read your account, not only of this doll who has been such "a tool for imagination" for so many little girls, but is also operating here as a "tactile object" that is the "fictional character" that is the topic of a "nonfictional text." My head is spinning w/ all the intersecting layers of fictionality and non-fictionality you've embedded in your text.

Most of what you write about is how Barbie has been functioning, as both "fictive and fantastic icon," "dependent on the attitude of the audience," a site for expressing and exploring our "intense consumer nature," as --because she is an "exaggeration of the possible"--also a problematic "prototype for reality."

You say nothing, though, about the construction of the non-fictional text itself which is your source for these insights. How "factual," how "fictional" is it in methodology and tone? What sort of audience does it anticipate and construct? What kind of language does it use?

My other deeper series of questions here have to do with the use-value of play, both as offering alternatives to reality (do little kids who play w/ guns thereby acquire a desire to shoot real ones? or work through that desire, in order to move on to other things? do little kids who play w/ dolls that "exaggerate the possible" develop a need to be like those dolls, or work through that desire in order to move on to other possibilities?)

How, in short, does "play work"? There are many leads to thinking more about this in Serendip's playground, if you'd like to explore such ideas further....