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Guest Post: Barbie the Feminist

This is a guest post from former Teen Skepchick contributor Elles.

The phenomenon of cartoon shows written to be enjoyed by adults is fascinating. In the case of My Little Pony and Barbie, they take a toy for which all you can do is brush the hair and dress it up, but instead turn those inanimate eye candies into, well, actual characters. They become icons of role models who have substance instead of just models.

I played with Lego a bit as a kid with no particular aptitude, but with my Barbie dolls and dinosaur figurines I had to create storylines to make playing with them interesting (maybe if I had fashion sense at the time I would have been content to create ~matching outfits~). With the dinosaurs I would sometimes mimic Land Before Time, but without a TV show about Barbie I often ended up pretending they were Captain Janeway and the Borg Queen (true facts about my childhood) thus imposing my own role models onto the doll.

(oops, wrong series, but Starfleet for a brief time let male-bodied officers wear dresses because they almost looked fab as Barbie)

There are often complaints that there’s not much you can do with a doll while you can do stuff with Lego and Lincoln Logs. While spatial reasoning may be important, that you can do nothing with a doll to develop the mind is so utterly untrue; the doll can become a conduit through which the equally important skill of story telling and imagination come to life. These skills can be applied into the middlebrow art of TV writing.

A show like Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse turns Barbie not only into a mind as well as a face, but she becomes the voice of some rather intelligent writers making witty jokes and clever references to everything from Indiana Jones to The Godfather (by the way, anyone else noticed the recurring pony in at least season 1 who always has the line “the horror, the horror?” Joseph Conrad, ladies and gentlemen and genderqueers). We all want girls playing with Barbies to become electrical engineers, but is it so bad if some also become intelligent writers dropping references to classic movies? Even if I can’t buy my kid Erudite Blue Stocking Barbie I’d buy my kid Tasteful Film Buff Barbie.

Another point to address: is the wittiness of such shows the reason My Little Pony appeals to male audiences as much if not more than female audiences? After all, wordplay is often viewed as a sign of intelligence. This highlights the need for intelligent programming to make wordplay more appealing for girls as they grow up (while wordplay isn’t the end all be all of intelligence, it certainly could be a tool to gain male respect that doesn’t involve a woman’s body), or at least to change the perception of male viewers that girly things are inherently dumb/stupid/gay (Barbie’s recurrent shortening of “amazing” to “amaze” may sound like bad slang, but it’s actually a subtle Borges reference… uh… well… okay, you’re right to have skepticismed that last one out of the water). Guize, this show makes Barbie educated, witty, and cultured. This show makes Barbie educated, witty, and cultured. This show makes Barbie educated, witty, and cultured.

As for body image, yikes, this animated Barbie also has a scarily tiny waist-line and everypony doll in Malibu has the same figure (not to mention there only seems to be one token doll of color, come on some of the extras in the background could be of color!). Indeed, much of her life’s dreaminess seems to be based on white socioeconomic privilege and consumer culture. Many episodes focus on Barbie’s luxury lifestyle that would make any celebrity or reality star green with envy, but the show is such a satire of this that, if anything, it highlights how unreal Barbie’s lifestyle is. Barbie is so perfect she is a satire of the perfection held to be damaging to girls’ selves-esteem, more powerfully so than a feminist critique because who’s really still reading this post?

(a reminder that this show is NOT ABOUT REAL PEOPLE)

Barbie’s walk-in closet (which puts the Louvre to shame, not to mention Carrie Bradshaw’s “Sex and the City the Movie” walk-in closet) is staffed by an artificial intelligence robot who keeps going evil, complete with glowing red dot (I can feel it, Dave, ya feel me?). A glitter shortage in Malibu drives the Barbie sisters to creep up on the youngest, Chelsea, who is still in possession of a small can (“give us the precious”). This is followed by her sisters coming to win her favor in hopes of gaining some glitter. “Make me an offer I can’t refuse” she says before opening a trap door under her sister and turning to the camera: “she dishonored the Family”.

(Dave Closet blasphemes his chauvinist creator, Ken)

Reality TV format is frequently parodied with confession-room style intermissions. Raquelle Kardashian‘s constant catty gimmicks to steal the spotlight or Ken from Barbie, but our heroine is always the bigger person and thinks none the less of her friend-villain. She doesn’t stoop to petty revenge and always comes to Raquelle’s aid when she is in need of a friend.

To the show’s credit, one episode has Raquelle unhappy about her feet which are larger than Barbie’s. She attempts to plastic surgery them with a shrink gun only to shrink both her and Barbie. There’s no blatant “Raquelle learned her lesson to be happy with her body” but at episode’s end she does find massive contentment from being transformed into a giantess that can literally hold Ken in the palm of her hand against his will. Empowerment metaphor?

In an episode where Barbie is trying to decide on a gift for Ken’s birthday, Chelsea suggests a tiara but is told that boys don’t want that (“what about a blue tiara?”) but like sports and cars. They “primp” his ride to be manly, but by the end have stuck on pink Barbie speakers which Ken does not complain about.

(not the best at dismantling gender roles, but Ken doesn’t mind a bit of pink on his ride)

Meanwhile in the episode, Chelsea beat Ken at checkers, poker, and thumb wars every single round.

(Girl Power)

Ken may chauvinistically dote on Barbie, building her dream house and the massive Closet to house her clothes, but he is usually more incompetent than Barbie (why does the Closet AI have an evil setting in the first place?).

(Barbie also used to be a race car driver and is technologically self-sufficient when she isn’t too lazy to make the patriarchy work for her.)

The show certainly doesn’t espouse radical feminist views, but it’s, like, 100 times less problematic than you would expect Barbie to be. Maybe this is just a ploy on the part of Mattel to get increasingly progressive parents to be comfortable giving their children a toy which feminists have long decried as problematic, but isn’t it nice to believe that the company actually cares about giving girls (and boys! and genderqueers!) some positive messages?

Play the intellectualized fake-Barbie-theme game:

Scientifically Informed Legislator Barbie (pink suit a la Legally Blonde, error bars earrings accessory, and mini Nature magazine)

Repentant Pawn-Broker-Murderer Barbie (tattered outfit, axe, crucifix accessory, and fold-up Siberia backdrop)

College Graduate Bella Swan Barbie (flesh-colored, comes with birth control pills and Dartmouth diploma in biochemistry)

Elles used to blog for Teen Skepchick before she became fed up with the general tone of the movement she herself formerly took on, interested in expanding her intellect in the areas of art and social justice, and overall too lazy to write blog posts. She is currently in her third year as a biology major at a weird hippie liberal arts school with no grades in Florida.

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Mindy is an attorney and Managing Editor of Teen Skepchick. She hates the law and loves stars. You can follow her on Twitter and on Google+.

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