Tuesday, March 6, 2018
Barbie: You always hurt the ones you love
Saturday we revisited comforting the Ken doll on his 50th birthday. So it seems somehow fitting to pivot to Barbie, and I happen to have this article Forbes assigned me in 2009 on Barbie mutilation, part of a Barbie 50th birthday package. Approaching a story such as this requires a plan: should I quiz female friends? Present myself at playgrounds and try to talk to girls? That seemed a bad idea. I scoured academic websites and posted a request on Facebook, and was surprised at women lining up to tell me about cutting up their Barbies. An early lesson in Facebook's value as a widely-flung net.
A young girl bakes her Barbie doll in the oven. A San Francisco bar invites patrons to have at the dolls with knives. A New York artist drives nails into Barbie, calling it sculpture.
What's going on here? How did Barbie, history's most popular doll, celebrating her 50th year as a beloved plaything for girls worldwide, become an object that females of all ages cut, burn, bend, spindle and mutilate? And what does it all mean?
Let's start with girls. Barbie is, after all, supposed to be a toy. In 2005, researchers at England's University of Bath, conducting a study of how children play, were surprised at what girls do to their Barbies.
"The types of mutilation are varied and creative, and range from removing the hair to decapitation, burning, breaking and even microwaving," writes Dr. Agnes Nairn. "The girls we spoke to see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity, and see the torture as a 'cool' activity in contrast to other forms of play with the doll."
The study's conclusion--that the abuse means that Barbie is a "hate figure" among 7- to 11-year-old girls--sparked debate all over the world.
Some felt that Barbie was merely getting her due as a poor role model; others argued that battering a Barbie is no different than, say, battering a red wagon--only with a cultural touchstone like Barbie, we notice.
The study's conclusions "smack of academic overanalysis," Anastasia de Waal wrote in The Guardian, "of grown-ups getting too excited about the symbolism of child's play. ... Testing the versatility and robustness of one's toys is neither new nor sinister."
While the study emphasized the hostility suggested by hacking something apart, the girls actually told researchers they didn't despise Barbie so much as feel they had outgrown her.
"The most readily expressed reason for rejecting Barbie was that she was babyish and girls saw her as representing their younger childhood out of which they felt they had now grown," said Nairn.
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