Satan’s Plastic Sister

Feminism in its latest form has given us something to ponder: a social movement with a mathematically challenged avant-garde. At a time when social arguments often rely on measurements, percentages, and statistics for their powers of persuasion, a modern feminist movement steered by helmswomen afflicted with “math phobia” can be weirdly entertaining.

Take, for example, the case of that pink polyvinylchloride and polyester confection known simply as Barbie. More than a billion Barbies have been sold since this doll’s debut in 1959 and two more Barbies are sold every second somewhere in the world. The average American girl will possess eight Barbies. Feminists hate little Barbie. Betty Friedan has reviled Barbie as a “vacuous blonde.”

So, why all this hostility toward a girl’s toy? Well, for one thing, feminists and politically-correct journalists are a credulous lot who treat the texts of their kindred spirits as if they were Holy Writ.

Some years back some Australians did a “study” (authors unknown) and came to the false conclusion that if Barbie were an adult woman she would have the dimensions 38-18-34. It was the stuff of legend, a feminist “fact” that has been repeated countless times and is now imbedded in countless feminist texts, newspaper stories and school curricula. Feminists insist that the doll is “unrealistic” and proceed to lacerate poor Barbie with accusations that she is responsible for everything from female body dysmorphia to bulimia, anorexia nervosa and teen suicide. It is all politically-correct psychobabble. Not one liberal journalist or feminist “intellectual” has risen to the challenge of actually stripping off Barbie’s clothing and taking her measurements.

In the interest of science, I secured a Barbie doll from a daughter who shall remain nameless. This particular Barbie had lost most of her polyester hair in a tragic fashion makeover, which made measuring her true height a cinch.

The height of the supine Barbie was measured from the bottom of her heel to the blade of a steel machinist’s square pressed against the crown of her head. She measured 11.133 inches tall. If we assume that Barbie is 5 feet 9 inches tall, then we can find her bust, waist and hip measurements simply by measuring those doll dimensions and multiplying them by 6.2, which is the number of times Barbie’s height (11.133) can be divided into her assumed height of 69 inches (5’9”). Barbie’s measurements were taken with strips of paper which were then laid flat and measured with a dial caliper. Barbie’s true bust measurement is 34.5 inches; her hips are 30.5 inches. If she were 5 feet 8 inches tall, as in the bogus Australian “study,” then her bust would be 34 inches, not 38 inches. To have a 38 inch bust, Barbie would have to be 6 feet 4 inches tall!

In 1967 Barbie underwent a change in shape with the introduction of the Twist ‘N Turn model. This new doll swiveled at the neck, hands, legs and waist. The doll’s Scarlett O’Hara waistline (17”) was, according to Barbie’s first designer, made narrow so as to look in proper proportion when clothed. Barbie is, after all, a fantasy. . .with nice clothes. She’s a pink clothes horse. She’s also about fads and fashion and social appeal and changing social attitudes. She’s about striking the right pose. Even as feminists reviled her for being a vapid fashion slave, Barbie was evolving an image very like that projected by the feminists themselves. Perhaps it was the discomfort of self-recognition, of seeing themselves reflected as Barbie that made feminists uncomfortable with this doll.

Back in the late 60’s the feminist movement was bearly in motion; it was just the ugly stepchild of left-wing campus anti-war activism. Acolytes of the emerging new feminism met in small groups and published pulp screeds that argued for all sorts of utopian visions, including concentration camps for men, who were, after all, incomprehensible and incorrigible. A clutch of nobody’s darlings burned their bras at the Miss America Pagent in a desperate bid for media attention. They got terrible press. America thought feminists were weird.

A handful of these women understood that for feminism to become influential it must become “mainstream.” They also understood that for any women’s movement to become mainstream it must also become fashionable. Feminists would have to repackage their left-wing dogmas as fashion.

In 1972 a microscopic number of these insightful women created the Ms Foundation and launched a publication called Ms Magazine. Among them was an English major and one-time Playboy Bunny named Gloria Steinem, who used to pump out articles for Vogue, Glamour, and Cosmopolitan.

As editor of the fledgling magazine, Steinem had a problem: magazines survive by selling advertising and the reliable Daddy Warbucks of women’s magazines was the advertising of cosmetics. Unfortunately, such ads would contradict the emerging feminist anti-fashion fashion that the feminists were promoting. Historically, cosmetics advertisers had also insisted that women’s magazines include supportive articles about how and when and how much cosmetics to apply for every occasion, and the feminists bridled at so much outside intervention.

So who rescued feminism’s most influential mouth organ? The mass distributors of booze and tobacco. Especially tobacco. Steinem could rely on them not to meddle with editorial content, and as for their asking for articles supporting the increased consumption of alcohol and tobacco. . .well, that would be insane.

All the advertisers wanted in return for their millions of advertising dollars was the opportunity to persuade the female readers of Ms Magazine that booze and tobacco were a trendy part of the fashionable feminist persona that modern feminists wanted to project. For the tobacco industry this was a slide on ice. . .it was unbelievably easy. All of their essential marketing research had been completed half a century before the new feminism.

Before the First World War the only people with a taste for cigarettes were Frenchmen and homosexuals. Normal male smokers smoked cigars; women were protected by the heavy hand of patriarchy from a hideous lingering death from lung, lip and throat cancers. After the armistice, our doughboys returned from France with a newfound hunger for the cigarette. The cigarette makers were thrilled; the market for their product was swelling. Their greatest challenge was how to sell cigarettes to that half of the American population that shunned cigarettes: women. Fortunately for the tobacco industry the first wave of American feminism was just getting up to speed and Bloomer Girls were flaunting cigarettes all over the place. The tobacco men hired a smart industrial psychologist and asked him what the cigarette symbolized to women. The wise man reported back that to feminists cigarettes represented “torches of freedom” held aloft. Wow! This insight was a gold mine for the tobacco boys. Advertising campaigns were designed to exploit the desire of women to be modern, to be avant-garde, to be feminists in fashion. These campaigns hooked millions of women on tobacco and ruined their health.

So when Gloria Steinem threw open the pages of Ms Magazine for the exploitation of women by the tobacco industry, the tobacco salesmen knew exactly what song to sing: they simply updated their old tobacco campaigns from the 1920s. The very successful campaign for Virginia Slims cigarettes proclaimed: “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” and contrasted a down-on-her-knees housewife with a tall slender fashionably dressed “new woman” holding aloft her tobacco-filled “torch of freedom.”

It was these carefully crafted advertising campaigns that made feminism fashionable, made it visual, presented it as a repertoire of feminist poses. Let the feminists say what they will, to her credit Barbie never pushed tobacco to her fellow females the way Gloria Steinem did for decades.

At one time Barbie, like feminism, had a problem going mainstream, so the Mattel Corporation hired the pioneer motivational research expert Earnest Ditcher who told Mattel that mothers would not be so disturbed by Barbie’s appearance if only the moms could be convinced that Barbie would show their daughters how to be a “poised little lady.” In other words, Barbie was sold as a template of sophistication in exactly the same way that the model in the Virginia Slims ads is a template of feminist sophistication.

Far from perverting the feminist cause, Barbie diverted countless girls from playtime with baby dolls with whom they might have practiced nurturing. Barbie torpedoed the very thought of nurturing. Barbie has never had a husband or a family to hinder her. When market research indicated that children would like Barbie to have a baby, the Mattel Corporation released “Barbie Baby Sits” rather than compromise her independence.

Here again, Gloria Steinem is the perfect reflection of the Barbie lifestyle. Steinem was interviewed for a documentary about herself that was broadcast on Lifetime, the women’s television channel. When asked why she had never married or had children Steinem shot back “I’ve been a parent to my own mother,” a reference to the severely mentally ill woman whom Gloria had tended since the age of ten. “So a powerful reason why people get married, which is to have children, was less powerful for me, to say the least.” In other words, the woman who has been held forth as an admirable role model for American girls believes that the positive and maturing experience of nurturing a child is identical to the crushing burden of nursing a splenetic delusional old woman. In the grip of such a perverted confusion Steinem stands forth as the very essence of the self-focused Barbie Philosophy in action.

When the public requested a male presence in Barbie’s world, Mattel provided her with a male escort, the Ken doll. Identified as Barbie’s “boyfriend,” Ken’s stiff body and molded hair classified him as a necessary but static presence in Barbie’s life, the ultimate Barbie accessory. He’s just this side of being a paperweight and one step away from the famous feminist dictum: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Try to recall all those forgettable men who squired Gloria Steinem to glittering social events for decades: Gloria’s Ken dolls.

Barbie was created by Ruth Handler, a co-founder of Mattel. Barbie emerged into the American consciousness along with Sex and the Single Girl (Helen Gurly Brown, 1962) and The Female Mystique (Betty Friedan, 1963). The contraceptive pill arrived in 1966. As the co-dependent feminist and sexual revolutions evolved, so did Barbie. Constant market research maintained her as a mirror of evolving American womanhood. In 1971 Barbie lost her demure sidewise glance and assumed a straight-ahead gaze. The look was assertive, liberated and incapable of shame. The new woman had arrived.

Men are rather obtuse when it comes to the language of appearances; women understand this language almost instinctively. Women understand that appearances are created to form certain impressions. Impressions are a form of persuasion, a form of influence. Images can be employed as statements about one’s character. A personal image can be acquired, in part, by the acquisition of fashion accessories, a fashion makeover. Almost anything can be a fashion accessory: a handbag, a car, a man. The images that people, products, or social movements promote through their advertising may have no basis in reality. That doesn’t matter to the advertiser as long as the images produce the desired effect. Things like soft drinks, cigarettes and feminism become equated through advertising with certain altered states, such as “being cool.” Buy the thing or the social pose and you have acquired the desired state. This is how feminism was promoted.

Any man who lived through the obnoxious burgeoning of 70’s feminism remembers all those earnest young women trying out their newly acquired feminist self-images, their self-conscious self-righteous posturing, their clumsy formulaic feminist blather over small issues of etiquette such as the opening of a door. First came the feminist anti-fashion fashion of shapeless clothes, no makeup and no bras; then came understated makeup and power suits and then a bunch of other things. Women could never leave their images alone. Strange females would express grievance at all sorts of imaginary infractions, but none of them could tell you why Susan B.Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton strongly believed that abortion was a crime against womanhood. It was all about their desire for an up-to-date self-image, which is the very essence of being Barbie.

The feminist Barbie self is a simulation, a collection of poses, rather than the expression of a coherent philosophy. Feminism has lost much of its punch because its poses have become mainstream. The feminist anti-fashion “look” can be purchased at The Gap.

Barbie has been a doctor, dentist, veterinarian, athlete, environmentalist, soldier, musician and many other things. She can also party like the Kennedys. Barbie is the essence of self-centered self-fulfillment. She is detached, childless and living for herself, just like every Playboy Playmate biography you ever read. She’s the ultimate robo-feminist.

In 1998 Mattel released two dozen new Barbie lines, eight of which had modified body shapes. The modified dolls had thicker waists, flatter chests, flatter feet and were more tightlipped. Mattel said their motivation for changing the doll’s proportions was to make the doll appear more contemporary. Current teen fashions (hip huggers) don’t fit well on the classic Barbie. Mattel also smelled money. The new Barbie must have her own fall and summer collections, new shoes, jewelry, accessories by the closetful.

Nonetheless, Barbie remains a fantastical object, a vehicle for vicarious play who can burst the bounds of normal living patterns. Girls who play with her can be anything.

If the cranky matriarchs of 70’s feminism are still unsatisfied, perhaps they could create their own line of dolls that better reflect their need for realism. How about Facial Hair Barbie, complete with tweezers and a magnifying mirror. How about Flabby Arms Barbie with droopy triceps and roomier-sleeved gowns. There could be a Divorced Barbie who comes with Ken’s house, Ken’s car and Ken’s boat. The line wouldn’t be complete without Post-Menopausal Barbie who wets her pants when she sneezes, forgets where she puts things, and cries a lot.

Thomas Clough
Copyright 2001