an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 9, July - December 2012, ISSN 1552-5112

 

 

      Barbie and the Power of Negative Thinking:

Of Barbies, Eve-Barbies and I-Barbies

 

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein

 



 

Introduction

It is easy to see in Barbie an emblem of superficial Western well-to-do middleclass culture imbued by the firm belief that happiness can be conveyed by social status, money, and consumption. Marilyn Motz summarizes a large part of Barbie criticism when writing that the main skills transmitted to young girls by the toy involves the “purchase of the proper high-status goods, popularity with their peers, creation of the correct personal appearance, and the visible achievement of ‘fun’ through appropriate leisure activities” (Motz: 122). If there is anything “cool” about Barbie it is definitely different from the classical Urban, “funky” cool mediated by irony, play, and occasional “warm” outbursts. Barbie-cool comes closer to the White American, Puritan cool determined by self-control and the unequivocal suppression of feelings. However, Barbie is not merely cool in the sense of ‘unapproachable’ and ‘distanced’; a ludic aspect enters Barbie’s cool agenda on another level. Barbie’s freedom is almost absolute because the realization of her ideal self is not hampered by nuisances linked to working life or motherhood realities. In other words, Barbie is cool not because she goes against the current of society, because she fights for something or resists, but because she pushes the values of consumer culture to an extreme. Her uncritical mind is not aiming at the transformation of reality, but she turns the existing consumer reality into a game and this establishes her coolness. According to Mary Rogers, Barbie even “takes the signs of women’s subordination – bodily preoccupations, niceness, perky personalities in many instances – and turns them into the stuff of success, fun, excitement, and glamour” (Rogers: 36). If Barbie was more outspoken and uttering occasional witty remarks to show that she herself is aware of her cynical tactics, we could conclude that she is a dandy. Even her sexiness is attuned to the lightness of a game in which everything is serious but at the same time profoundly unreal. This is the only pattern able to explain the strange fact that such a “cool” adult woman could ever enter the rooms of innocent girls who are still supposed to be cute and not cool.

Barbie is inserted in a particular “modern” play world, which is not “modern” in the contemporary sense, but in the sense in which past generations imagined “modern life” to be: easy going, automated, and cool. Through Barbie, this imaginary has been conserved, played, and perpetuated by children in the form of an unalterable ideal. Motz states that Barbie “seems strangely a woman of the 1950s, or even earlier, untouched by feminism and the entry of women into the work force in large numbers. She remains a conformist whose life is centered around leisure activities” (Motz: 125). However, Barbie has no intention to refer back to the past, especially not to her own past, which is that of Lilli, a German inflatable sex-doll that served as inspiration for the Barbie creators (Rand: 29). Even though her entire existence has already been superseded many times by coming generations, Barbie remains fundamentally future-oriented because she never has to spell out in concrete terms what “the future” is actually supposed to be. The world changes, but Barbie continues radiating the cool and frozen ideal of an optimistic, positive spirit that is neither against nor in favor of progressive feminism or conservative motherhood values but simply exists beyond both. This is possible because Barbie has the privilege of living within the universe of children, that is, beyond economic, social, and political constraints. For more than fifty years, Barbie has inhabited a world of mere potentials where all options have remained open. In this sense, Barbie’s life represents not adult society, but “adult society as seen by children in America” (Motz: 125). Because of the relatively abstract content that dominates her perception in Western societies, it is not exaggerated to say that Barbie represents an important part of the spirit of Western modernity. Rogers finds that Barbie “exists in a cultural context where exaggerated, unrealistic images of girls and women predominate” (Rogers: 18). I on the contrary, think that, for the aforementioned reasons, Barbie can exist simply everywhere. The spirit of Barbie has been criticized by leftist feminists and conservatives alike, but it simply persists, frozen inside a reality that does not claim to be real, but which is still part and parcel of the Western cultural consciousness.

 

 

1. Barbie and the Power of Positive Thinking

Urla and Swedlund find that Barbie is all about “keeping control of one’s body” (Urla & Swedlund: 298), but Barbie is also about keeping control of one’s thoughts. While cuteness is often controlled by parents, cool attitudes can easily get out of parents’ control. Barbie comes in exactly here because she offers the acceptable alternative of playful, self-controlled coolness. Motz writes that “what might at first appear to be a sexually suggestive doll (…) is in actuality a model of self-control, using her sexuality to attract men while ensuring that her relationship would remain platonic” (Motz 129). The invention of Barbie fell into the decade in which Douglas E. Lurton’s book The Power of Positive Thinking (1956) was one of the most bestselling books. A sentence from page 1 reads indeed like a motto coined on the Barbie project: “Adopt the positive attitude and ask for what you want from life.” Positive Thinking is basically self-controlled thinking. In the preface, Lurton tells the story of a bespectacled Midwestern boy (himself) whom everybody called the four-eyed owl and who was even too shy to ask for a free baseball cap. At some point he began thinking positively, was successful and became – cool. Of course, this is not necessarily the cool that everybody would identify as such, but it worked well enough to make Lurton rich and famous. According to Motz, Lurton’s book “provides guidelines to achieving business success through personality and social contacts. Personality (…) replaced character as the primary measure of one’s worth. A pleasant smile, a well-groomed appearance, self-control and conformity replaced honesty” (Motz: 134). It goes without saying that no positively thinking Lurtonian would see herself as dishonest. But still, Motz is right. Dishonesty can be found not necessarily in the evil character of the subject, but in her lack of self-criticism, in her narcissism and in her auto-hypnotic self-aggrandizement; however, she definitely will not admit it or even be aware of it.

Lurton’s cool is the “innocent” cool of positively thinking people like Barbie. Rogers confirms that “this woman is innocent, having no knowledge of evil, to any degree whatsoever” (Rogers: 130). Positively thinking people do not really overcome or solve problems, they simply “decide” that those problems do not exist. Problems have only been created by an earlier persistence on negative thinking and will evaporate once the thinking is changed. Here, reality is very much like a game that has been chosen over another game. Originally, Barbie was the inflatable sex doll Lilli that Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie, saw while visiting Germany. Lilli became Barbie not because her past had been overcome through real work and achievements, but simply because the game had been changed. The negative thinker is urged to overcome the past by thinking positively in order to discover the world as a reservoir of infinite potentials.

Most important is that everything remains simple: positively thinking people do not like to complicate things. The simpler it is, the truer it must be. The first sentence of the preface of The Power of Positive Thinking reads: “This is a simple book.” Understanding the power of positive thinking means to understand its intrinsic mechanics in terms of logic. Logic is presented as a simple structure underlying all phenomena; negative thinking tends to cover this structure with a web of unnecessary complications that must be eliminated by Positive Thinking.

In the 1960s the toy market would be flooded with another toy to which Barbie is not entirely unrelated: Lego. Both Barbie and Lego are toys that are transformable or, to use Kim Toffoletti’s characterization of Barbie, they are “neither entirely inflexible, nor prone to dissolution.” The emphasis of both toys is on metamorphosis and reformulation without permitting a rupture with the established system, which should still be accepted ion a conformist manner: “All the while, the possibility of rupture is denied by the elastic and malleable properties of her plastic frame. Barbie is neither unitary, nor fragmented” (Toffoletti 58). Also Lego is held together by such an underlying “logical” structure.

The first Lego catalogues praise the small bricks as “good toys” because in the world of Lego, play is dominated by “simple” logical connections able to foster, but also to control, the child’s creativity and imagination. Imagination is good as long as it is contained within the right “logical” structure. The child playing with Lego will never have “bad” thoughts because the inherent “healthy” and logical character of the game will simply prevent her from having such thoughts. Similarly, “Barbie allows little girls to dream” but only within a limited range of possibilities (Ducille 1994: 50). In early advertisements, Lego announces that this toy is “the simplest thing in the world.” Also Barbie is “the simplest thing in the world” because she represents the basic, abstract idea of a Western woman. Lego creates regular, geometrical shapes that come in five to six basic colors. Lego creations are relatively abstract and do not permit overly high levels of empathy and identification with the “real” thing. After all, the young Lego engineer is not supposed to become an insane, exalted poet-philosopher, but rather a healthy, creative and positively thinking organizer. Interestingly, also Barbie’s main job is that of organizing. Both Barbie and Lego depend on the modern ideal of the trained humanists who is neither bohemian nor technocrat, but manages to rime a minimal amount of theory (“logic”) with the requirements of practical life. Barbie girls and Lego engineers are useful people functioning within well-established contexts. Neither is supposed to transform the world, but they may turn the world into a game whose space is highly controlled.

Fifty years later, it looks as if Barbie is related to Lego more than ever because Lego has invested in the highly flexible and bendable Bionicles of which Barbie might indeed be a precursor. Toffoletti calls Barbie a “transformer” (58), the toy that can turn from a truck into a robot. Though logic is simple, it is also a matter of science. Indeed another trait that Lurton’s book shares with Lego is that both are so eager to adopt a “scientific” outfit. At the same time it is necessary to introduce a good dose of play into the business of Positive Thinking because it should not appear as dead serious. A convenient way of doing this is to say that once the logic has been understood and applied it will work like magic. The logic-magic paradigm represents one of the most fundamental strategies of Positive Thinking. A search on Google Books reveals that the word ‘magic’ appears at least twenty times in the book. It is also prevalent in Barbie and Lego.

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Lego Bionicle

 

At first sight it looks as if Barbie anticipated Lego’s later competitor Playmobil but the contrary is the case. True, Barbie is a ready-made doll conceived for role play and so are the Playmobil persons. However, Playmobil has a clearly traditional orientation contradicting the futurist spirit of Lego with its spaceships and healthy technology as well as that of Barbie with her exalted visions of a frozen and futurist modernity. Playmobil specializes in traditional values like farms, Blackforest houses, and post offices and is therefore nostalgic towards a past that Barbie never thinks of. Playmobil offers no ideology whatsoever, not even the most basic and “logical” one of Positive Thinking. In a word: Playmobil is not cool because mere role play without any underlying ideology or logic (sometimes called ‘style’ or also ‘lifestyle’) will not make you cool.

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Playmobil

 

The link between Barbie and Lego has been further developed within a body of research where one would perhaps not expect it. The German sociologist Iris Osswald-Rinner analyzes the rhetoric of sex-guides for couples from 1950 to 2010, dividing the sixty-year time span into distinct periods, each of which puts forward characteristic “scripts” that can be derived from the sex-guide culture of the époque. There is the “Sleeping Beauty” script from the 1950s and the “Adam and Eve” script from the 1990s. Osswald-Rinner baptizes the phase from 1977 to 1989 the “Barbie and Ken are Playing in Legoland” script because it seems that sex has here been transformed into a creative adult game. In this game Barbie and Ken are exempt from the norms of reality and can discover their unique and personal sexuality and individual morals (Osswald-Rinner: 150). Osswald-Rinner is inspired by Barbie’s and Ken’s basic nakedness as well as by their physical abilities and agility since they have joints that can be turned hundred-eighty degrees (158-60). She justifies the association with Lego with the fact that different sex-game components (foreplay, postponement, interlude, etc.) are supposed to be “put together” just like Lego bricks. The protagonists of the Barbie & Ken script are not only encouraged to combine different elements and techniques but also to engage in “reasonable” discussions about their projects. Barbie and Ken think always positively, see sex as sport and accept all advices to stay healthy (no smoking and a good diet are recommended). While the Sleeping Beauty protagonist from the 1950s could still vaguely suspect her sexuality to be a dark and incontrollable power, for Barbie the world contains no mysteries. Everything is under control and she can even be advised to be more egoistic. Once the libido and the self are established as clearly defined facts or bricks, sex becomes creative play following logical rules that can be bent but not broken.

 

2. Barbie and the Power of Negative Thinking

It has been said above that Barbie’s initial cultural environment of the 1950s is superseded, but that her abstract, positive spirit could subsist in altered contexts, even in those contexts that put forward more “negative” forms of thinking. There is a big difference between Barbie herself and the ways in which Barbie can be played with, used or applied. One reason why Barbie could survive for such a long time within the world’s cultural imaginaries is that her stable essence invites subversion. Tap her positive power, adapt it to your own “negative” purposes and you will have powerful art, powerful countercultural expressions, powerful ethnic or political agendas, powerful feminisms…

 

2.1. Eve-Barbies

When Barbie becomes “negative” she turns into Eve. Art Barbies, Feminist Barbies, and Ethno Barbies are Eve-Barbies. Eve-Barbie is no longer innocent but something negative has penetrated her thinking. Eve-Barbie has abandoned all playful attempts at organizing the dream of “modernity” and instead indulges in lengthy phases of creative reverie. A certain drunkenness and romanticism from which the original Barbie had always been excluded determine Eve-Barbie’s modes of experience. The game of life consists no longer of putting together logically coordinated experiential bricks. Instead, Eve-Barbie is able to perceive her life in the form of fluent sequences. Bendable self-control is no longer the word of the day but the focus has shifted towards imagined transgression. Eve-Barbie is looking for “real” or at least imagined adventures. This does not mean that she has turned into her ancestor Lilli, the vulgar (and not very bendable) sex doll and the adult male’s pet. Eve’s model of coolness comes closer to the classical Urban idea of cool: uncool is now everything which is boring, self-reproducing, and conventional. This “positive” and uncool world needs to be transgressed by imagining another, more exciting life that offers different associations and different contents. While the original Barbie contented herself with transcending an existing reality by turning it into a perfect game without changing reality itself, Eve-Barbie has evolved from an athletic player into a spiritual dreamer: instead of excelling in her own perfection she is actively searching for her most authentic self. Eve-Barbie’s freedom remains absolute, but since she has lost her innocence, she cannot enjoy her freedom in the same lighthearted way as did the original Barbie. Eve-Barbie changes the world by creating her own world. The original Barbie was purely bodily, equipped with not more than a dull brain programmed to think positively, which made her merely able to exalt the real world through the power of Positive Thinking. Eve-Barbie on the other hand, is truly cerebral and wants to think or dream her world; and in order to do so she has to look for various inspirations. Eve-Barbie is no longer the self-referential and narcissistic playgirl but she is there for Adam who is dreaming with her.

      The list of Barbie Art or “Altered Barbie Artwork” is quasi infinite and most of them present Eve-Barbies. Barbie Art probably started with Andy Warhol’s painting “Barbie” (1985) and developed further from yard art (described by Jeannie Banks Thomas in her book Naked Barbies, Warrior Jones, and Other Forms of Visible Gender) to subversive installations that turn Barbie into the murderess of several Kens (see the work of photographer Mariel Clayton). Artists inspired by Barbie include Peter Max, Kenny Scharf, Peter Engelhardt, Jim Dine, Donald Baechlor, David Salle, Carol Peligan, Jennifer Barlett and Robert Stern. What is striking with regard to most art that includes Barbie is that in these installations or pictures, Barbie’s frozen smile and positive power persist and radiate, though, or just because they have been introduced into “negative” environments.

 

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Peter Max, “Futuristic Barbie” (Oil on canvas, 1994)

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Carol Peligan, “Icon” (mixed media, 1993)

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Robert Stern, “Colossus of Barbie” (Plaster, sand and wood dolls, 1998)

 

Counterculture has always found Barbie very inspiring as is best shown by Erica Rand’s book on Barbie’s Queer Accessories (1995). According to Rand, Barbie “has some features particularly conducive to lesbian reappropriation” (Rand: 2). The same can be said about Barbie’s feminist appropriations. Distinct elements of feminism had been enclosed to the Barbie package from the beginning. While the more classical agenda of Second Wave feminism clearly rejected the doll, Barbie culture could evoke themes of Girl Power and Third Wave feminism long before such movements became official. Banks Thomas reports that in 1959, when advertising directed at children was permitted, “mothers were not so positive about Barbie as were their daughters, and it was those girls who made the doll a success” (Banks Thomas: 130). “Mothers hated it, girls loved it” (Rand: 29). This is probably how Barbie could enter forty years later Jennifer Baumgardener’s and Amy Richards’ Third Wave Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (2000), which puts forward Barbie dolls, together with fashion magazines, high heels and girl talk, as objects of a legitimate desire because playing with Barbie should no longer necessarily equate to being duped. Again, Barbie is used within “negative” contexts where positive self-hypnosis is no longer sufficient if one wants to succeed: “Our Barbies had jobs and sex lives and friends” (Manifesta, quoted from Owen: 10).

Barbie is empowering not only here. In Japan, “Japanese women see Barbie as the icon of a kakkoii [chic, stylish] woman since she acts as strong as men and has independence and individuality, which they lack. Barbie is the woman who has a traditional beauty of kawaii [cute] and a new beauty of kakkoii” (Shibagaki: 50).

Third Wave feminists continued inserting Barbie into a combative “Girls Can Do Anything Boys Can!” agenda. Characteristically, it did not take Mattel long to wrench this ideology from the feminist context in which Eve-Barbies are fighting for concrete things and to translate the political program into the more abstract “We Girls Can Do Everything” slogan, a sentence that could come right out of The Power of Positive Thinking. In the thus entitled Barbie promotion video, girls are shown as athletes, astronauts, and scientists and seem to obtain everything they want (what do they actually want?) through play and a generally positive Barbie attitude.

 

2.2. Ethno-Barbies

Ethno-Barbies are another kind of Eve-Barbies though also here Mattel has done everything to reconvert them to the original Barbie status, as will be shown below. Let us first look at those Ethnic Barbies produced not by Mattel but by “local” manufacturers. Most ethnic Barbies have a religious agenda and are designed to suit an Islamic lifestyle. Razanne, Fulla, Jamila, Laila, Salma, Sara, and Saghira represent counter-cultural attempts at producing Muslim Barbies as alternatives to Western Barbies. The Japanese Jenny and Licca dolls are among the few examples of “locally” produced non-Muslim ethnic Barbies. Another one is the very recent Chinese Yue Sei Wawa doll launched by Shanghainese Oprah-style talk show host Yue Sei Kan and representing, according to her namesake, an American-Chinese girl.

When the original Barbie was launched in Japan in 1967 it was unsuccessful, basically because her cool aspect dominated over the cute one, which was unacceptable for Japanese girls. Jenny and Licca have clearly “cuter” and also more ethnic features. Licca was designed by Miyako Maki, the most popular manga writer of the time (Shibagaki: 3) and is produced by Takara, which has meanwhile launched a whole string of other Japanese Barbies. In the Japanese context, the kawaii (cool-cute) quality that seems to be so important represents the decisive “negative” element able to turn Barbies into Eve-Barbies.

Much more than Japanese Barbies, Islamic Barbies pursue an outspoken “anti-ideology” because they want to contradict Barbie’s “Western” hedonistic and decadent lifestyle. Islamic Barbies wear the hijab (headscarf) and some come with the traditional abaya and sometimes even with a prayer rug. Trying to escape western ideologies of consumption and moral laxness, these Barbies are different from the above mentioned Eve-Barbies: they do not really claim the right to exist within more “negative” spaces determined by critical (as opposed to “positive”) thinking, but have been dogmatically equipped with their very own agenda of Positive Thinking. Islamic Barbies are not really ethnic or counter-cultural, but are merely religious. Anne Meneley thinks that “encapsulated within Chador Barbie’s form are two icons of the ‘oppression of women’ that were built on other stereotypical forms. [First] Barbie doll is an icon of sexualized, commodified femininity, associated with the West. [Second] the chadored woman is an icon of masculine control of woman’s sexuality” (Meneley 217). I would rather conclude that here one form of Positive Thinking has supplanted another one or that one form of civilizational progressionism has replaced another one: Lurton’s Positive Thinking has been replaced with religious correctness and piety. Strictly speaking, culture (ethno-culture, counter-culture or any culture) cannot exist here. The spontaneity, critical thinking and irony that artistic, counter-cultural, and feminist Eve-Babies strive for in order to escape all premeditated forms of Positive Thinking has necessarily been cancelled within those enforced religious contexts. These Islamic Barbies are Eve-Barbies that have been forced to play the game of innocence whose rules the original Barbie never had to learn because she was innocent – and this in spite of her coolness. In this sense they are no Eve-Barbies at all. The original Barbie radiated the naïve innocence of a positive thinker and could exalt and exaggerate the consumer world without ever becoming vulgar. Muslim Barbies on the other hand, need to be protected from the vulgarity of this world as well as from their own inherent potential vulgarity through a veil and are asked to follow the rules of a religious life that is deemed more “positive.” Those imams do not understand that the original Barbie is the purest woman on earth because she simply exists beyond good and evil.

At some point Mattel recognized the commercial potential of ethnic Barbies. In the early 1980s, Black, Hispanic, and Oriental Barbies were introduced, and by now the number of Mattel-made ethnic Barbies is impressive. In 2009 Mattel launched the so-called “Ghetto Barbie” who is styled in Hip Hop fashion. However, just like the imams who commodified Muslim culture or even religious sentiment (Shirazi: 11) by creating a religious Barbie, Mattel commodifies the ethnic aspect of Barbies by eliminating any trace of negativity still able to testify of cultural authenticity. This does not mean that this commodification is superficial; far from it - as it is not limited to a change of skin color: many ethnic Barbies are manufactured from specially designed face molds that attempt to insinuate ethnic facial features. Still Urla and Swedlund believe that Mattel reduces cultural difference “to surface variations in skin tone and costumes that can be exchanged at will [and that] ethnicity is tamed to conform to a restricted range of feminine beauty” (Urla & Swedlund: 284). Also Ann Ducille criticizes, in her book Skin Trade, Mattel’s attempts to make ethnic Barbies “authentic” when writing: “Today Barbie dolls come in a rainbow coalition of colors, races, ethnicities, and nationalities, [but] all of those dolls look remarkably like the stereotypical white Barbie, modified only by a dash of color and a change of clothes” (Ducille 38). Also Amina Yaqin writes that the “Indian Barbie” sold at Indian airports is an Indian or South Asian Barbie who is essentially American in body and “plays at being Indian through dress and performativity” (Yaqin: 178). Even more radically, Radha Hedge perceives the Indian Barbie as “an orientalist fantasy of white femininity,” as an “artifact,” a “portable tradition,” or a normal Barbie with “added Indianness” (Hegde 2001: 131).

In spite of Mattel’s efforts to engage in more than mere changes of skin color and the adding of some ethnic clothes, those Barbies persistently yield the impression that Barbie’s Caucasian identity persists and that ethnicity has here merely been commodified and marketed. The reason is that Mattel has turned ethnic culture into a positively oriented aspect of a logic that comes along in the form of the rules of capitalism and commercialism. It is possible that Mattel silently hopes that this logic will have “magic” effects and eventually install something like “ethnic authenticity;” but so far the magic does not seem to have worked. Instead it appears that the negativity of culture with its ethno life, internal contradictions, dreams, and timely inconsistencies has been turned into a harmless variety of itself, strictly determined by a boring formulaic logic of Positive (commercial) Thinking. Still, all critiques issued by the above authors reconfirm the idea that the original concept of Barbie is able to survive many cultural or political contexts at least as long as the doll is manufactured by Mattel. Hedge finds that Barbie “survives as an icon of whiteness and femininity wherever she travels” (132). What survives is not really Barbie’s racial type but the concept of Barbie as a self-referential, positively thinking girl able to turn any reality into a game and for whom all options are constantly open. What those critics see is, in my opinion, Barbie’s radiating positive ego which lives beyond any authenticity because it is purely self-referential. Positive thinking does not strive for authenticity of any kind but wants to exalt authentic reality. It offers a critical approach neither towards the real self nor towards the real Other, but instead it creates an absolute reality in the form of a game. In Japan, Barbie never caught on among children because her cool aspect was found alien. Interestingly, Japanese girls found Barbie “too realistic” and incompatible with their games (Shibagaki 2), which means that they did not reject her because they disagreed with the dream she transmitted, but rather because she conveyed too much of “reality.” In East Asia, such an amount of “reality” is only acceptable for adult women. Barbie clothes and Barbie make-up lines remain very popular in East Asia, as demonstrated by a visit to the six story Barbie store in Shanghai in which even the escalators are pink.

The religious authorities who approved the Islamic Barbies, on the other hand, clearly took the Barbie-spirit out of Barbie because they did not add a dose of negativity to this toy. They erased one form of Positive Thinking and replaced it with another one. In the end, they created neither a Barbie nor an Eve-Barbie.

 

3. The Future: Barbie becomes Virtual

Barbie is bendable and highly flexible in a physical as well as metaphorical sense and in the form of Eve-Barbie she can function in various contexts. It is possible to push this model further and suggest, as does Toffoletti, that “the ambivalence of Barbie’s plastic body anticipates a posthuman form that displaces signs of the body to a space outside of a fixed signifying practice, so that they may circulate as pleasures, possibilities and potentialities” (Toffoletti: 60). Barbie’s transformative power reaches a climax when her body is inscribed in the logic of genetic transformation and, even more radically, when she is no longer real but virtual. Her realness has always been a matter of exaltation and Toffoletti believes that “rather than bound to an established system of meaning, she is a precursor to the posthuman; a type of plastic transformer who embodies the potential for identity to be mutable and unfixed” (50). According to Marc Sagoff, posthumanism announces that “the whole world can now be viewed as a vast Lego Kit inviting combination, hybridization, and continual rebuilding. Life is manipulability” (Sagoff 2005: 88).

It happened to Lego so why should it not happen to Barbie? In 2000, Lego launched the Bionicles, who are sleek and stylized robots or posthuman cyborgs similar to those artificial creatures projected by the scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in the 1960s. Cyborgs live in a typical AI universe in which the boundaries between humans and machines are fuzzed. With this step “back into the future,” Lego retrieved a retro-vision of the future that is also part and parcel of Barbie’s essence. From the beginning Barbie had incorporated something non-human into her self-definition because of her unrealistic measurements. What consequences will this have within a more “futurist,” posthuman context?

Barbie is derived from the inflatable sex doll Lilli and in spite of the radical modifications she underwent there is one feature that she has been sharing with her vulgar ancestor all the time: her inner emptiness. Barbie has a hard shell while Lilli is soft; nonetheless, both contain only air. The Japanese director Hirozaki Kore-Eda shows in his film Air Doll (2009) a man who has married an inflatable sex doll, lives with her and talks to her. The air doll has cute features such as big eyes. The film’s theme is that of the emptiness of people who are living in the inhuman environment of modern cities. Once the air doll has turned – through some magic trick – into a living person, she discovers that many people around her are just as empty as herself, are lonely, have fake relationships, and are substitutes for the “real thing.” The film shows that Barbie’s sex doll past is not merely vulgar but can be linked to an explicit criticism of the modern world. These dolls do not manage to fill themselves with some “negative,” concrete, authentic or ethnic content but simply remain “positively” empty. They do not manage to become Eve-Barbies.

 

By Way of Conclusion: Is the “I-Barbie” the Future?

What will the “cool” Barbie be like in the future? She will be an I-Barbie. In a world where some sort of Positive Thinking recurrent in a form of scientific optimism has delivered us to the civilizational ‘beyond’ of genetic engineering and the virtual existences of Second Life, “emptiness” acquires new dimensions. Second Life, just like a world in which living organisms can be genetically engineered to perfection, are no longer concerned with ethno-cultural realities and authenticities. Theoretically, today even ethnicity and gender can be artificially (genetically) fabricated. Second Life is an online virtual world in which users can interact with each other through avatars and choose their gender and race, among many options. What does this mean for Barbie? Any Barbie living in this world will no longer need to look for herself (as did the Eve-Barbies), but she can simply find herself in the form of an autonomous, pre-fabricated being; and most probably she will find this cool. The problem is that this purely positive form of being is cool but empty: it is not filled with any “negativity” issued in the form of a critical attitude towards reality, it has no spontaneity or irony, but is based on the unconditional acceptance of a (virtual) reality. In this world Barbie will become as a sort of absolute ‘I’, which is the reason why we should call her “I-Barbie.”

In the words of Toffoletti, Barbie “acts as a ‘bridging’ figure between debates surrounding gender and representation, and posthuman, post-gender figurations because she displays aspects of both the modern and postmodern cultural condition” (50). It goes without saying that I-Barbie no longer needs any Adam. Having pushed the self-referential, narcissistic features of the original Barbie beyond all limits, I-Barbie can join a posthuman virtual reality that is more easy-going and automated than any reality has ever been before. The I-Barbie does not love a real Adam but, in the best case, fantasizes about an ideal Adam. The truth is that she loves only herself and because of this, she has become more Barbie than ever. Already the original Barbie could not be bothered by the vicissitudes of reality; it is thus not more than consistent that her most futuristic version, the I-Barbie, will live in a perfect universe in which nobody can strive for anything because thinking has become reality.

 

 

                                                                                

an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 9, July - December 2012, ISSN 1552-5112

 

Bibliography

 

Baumgardener, Jennifer & Amy Richards. 2000. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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Ducille, Ann. 1996. Skin Trade. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hegde, Radha S. 2001. "Global Makeovers and Maneuvers: Barbie's Presence in India," Feminist Media Studies 1:1, 129-33.

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