Fun with Barbie: Culture jamming an American icon

Kathleen Knight Abowitz

Miami University

February 2000

 

Like most American girls of the last several generations, I have a Barbie story or two. I remember begging my mother to buy me Barbies. She wouldn’t, but not because she’s a feminist. My mother thought Barbies were expensive and a waste of money. As a grandmother, she therefore cringes when she realizes what a Barbie junkie my 5-year-old niece has become. She has no less than 13 Barbies and the required accoutrements: Barbie house, Barbie car, and full-size Barbie jeep that my brother was desperately putting together in his basement on Christmas eve two years ago. It was 2 in the morning and he was blearily peeling and attaching the pink and purple stickers that decorate the jeep. My niece spun around in the jeep all Christmas morning, but now, over a year later, it only serves as an expensive Barbie storage unit in the corner of her room.

In this essay, I want to examine the cultural production known as Barbie. I will discuss how a group of citizens are resisting Barbie’s message through a practice known as "culture jamming." Groups such as the Barbie Liberation Organization are engaging in cultural critiques through their activism, resisting and re-coding the signs and meanings of Barbie.

Barbie as a mediated cultural icon

First, let me dispel the notion that Barbie is "just a doll" or just another piece of plastic formed and dressed by factory workers. As the example of my niece indicates, "Barbie" is not just a doll but a whole world of toys, games, and objects purchased for girls. The label of "Barbie" is attached to everything from books to Websites, from games and toys for girls, to conventions and clubs attended by the thousands of adults who collect and love Barbie. Barbie is a cultural icon; she is an object of uncritical devotion for millions of girls and parents around the world. I understood this completely when I told my sister-in-law, mother of my niece, that I didn’t want my baby daughter to ever have any Barbies. You might have thought I had told her, "I’d like to sell my daughter into slavery when she is fourteen," or, "I think I’ll shave off my eyebrows." Her incredulous look was accompanied by a speech on how every girl plays with Barbies, and what was wrong with Barbie anyhow?

Barbie is a cultural production that has become an icon through a mixture of market capitalism and media culture. Ruth Handler invented Barbie in 1959. Paradoxically, Mrs. Handler was a businesswoman in an era when most women were only present in corporate America as secretaries. She and her husband started Mattel toy company, and Ruth came up with the Barbie idea and convinced her husband and the company designers to produce a three-dimensional, full-figured adult female doll. Of her intentions with the Barbie, Handler stated that she thought Barbie would be helpful for little girls adjusting to the full-figured problems of adulthood: "I felt like little girls growing up had enough difficulty adjusting to their own breasts as they start to develop. I remember how self-conscious I was. I felt if they got a grown-up doll with breasts, it would ease their feelings about themselves" (Stern, 1998). Regardless of the intentions of "Barbie’s mom," as Handler is known among Barbie collectors, Barbie’s breasts and the rest of her body have become a powerful cultural production in American and global culture.

Barbie and her world are mediated through television, print media, and the internet. In other words, Barbie narratives and images are presented to a wide audience through various forms of media, mostly for the purposes of profit. Market capitalism drives the largest bulk of Barbie media, since Mattel, like all large companies, puts lots of money into advertising and promotion of all kinds. Barbie is one of Mattel’s primary products; Barbie sales topped over $1 billion in 1997, and according to a Mattel spokesperson, "two Barbie dolls are sold every second somewhere in the world." In the U.S. the average girl has eight Barbies. In Germany, that number is seven; in France and Italy, that number is 5 (Stern, 1998).

So Barbie isn’t just a doll; indeed, the trademarked name Barbie symbolizes an entire line of cultural productions and mediated images that have been shaping American culture, and in particular, American girls, for over forty years. How do we both absorb Barbie’s values and critique those values?

Resisting Barbie through culture jamming

Barbie’s image presents a powerful role model for girls; remember that the average American girl owns eight Barbie dolls and that in humans and other animals, child’s "play" is actually serious work – in play, animals not only amuse themselves but prepare for the adult roles they will inhabit. Little kittens practice hunting; baby eagles learn to fly and fish; young girls in American culture learn to be a woman through doll play.

Barbie represents the idea of beauty presented by the dominant culture in our society. Barbie’s long golden hair, perfect (and unobtainable) figure, her ever- tanned, flawless skin, and skinny legs represent a cultural ideal that has been a powerful image promoted in cultural media of various kinds: fashion magazines, movies, television programming and commercials. As the Barbie doll her 40th anniversary, cultural critic Ophira Edut wrote: "…You’re busted, Babs. You’ve been found guilty of inspiring fourth-grade girls to diet, of modeling an impossible beauty standard, of clinging to homogeneity in a diverse new world. … Your time is up. Pack your bags and be outta the Dreamhouse by noon" (Edut, 1998, p. xix) Critics like Edut have declared war on the Barbie image, and one of the ways that activists have waged this war is through a practice known as culture jamming.

"Jamming" is CB slang for the illegal practice of interrupting radio broadcasts or conversations between fellow hams with lip farts, obscenities, and other equally jejune hijinx. Culture jamming, by contrast, is directed against an ever more intrusive, instrumental technoculture whose operant mode is the manufacture of consent through the manipulation of symbols (Dery, 2000).

Culture jammers poke serious fun at the powerful cultural symbols that dominate our lives. One example of culture jamming that resists Barbie’s image and messages comes in the form of the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO), a group of "activists and media intervention superstars "whose most famous action involved switching the voice boxes in 300 Talking Barbie dolls and Talking G.I. Joe dolls during the Christmas season of 1989. The goal of the action was to reveal and correct the problem of gender-based stereotyping in children's toys" (Brillo, 2000). The corrected G.I. Joe doll said things like, "I love school. Don’t you?" and "Let’s plan our dream wedding!" After her voice-box surgery, Barbie was programmed to say, "Eat lead, Cobra!" and "Vengeance is mine!"

A spokesman for the BLO told the New York Times, "We are trying to make a statement about the way toys can encourage negative behavior in children, particularly given rising acts of violence and sexism." (Dery, 2000) These activists were responding directly to both the figurative and literal messages that Barbie sends. Teen Talk Barbie, in 1992, was a Mattel product programmed to say "I love shopping," "Meet me at the mall," and "Math class is tough." The BLO hacked the technology of Barbie and Ken’s voice programming to confuse and challenge the meanings of the dolls. (You can down-load a copy of the BLO instructions for changing the dolls’ voice boxes at http://www.mse.berkeley.edu/staff/eve/barbie.html).

Another infamous example of hacking Barbie takes the form of the Barbie Disinformation Organization. This group reconfigures not the dolls themselves but their packaging:

They print up stickers in a style identical to traditional Mattel packaging and slap them on Barbie products on the shelves (front and back), effectively replacing Mattel's pleas to the daddy's little girls of the world with their own. And what tow-headed little princess wouldn't want the "Barbie Lesbian Barber Shop" (formerly "Barbie's Stylin' Salon"), complete with instructions on how to give Barbie "Dyke Haircut no’s 1 & 2". And what father wouldn't want his daughter to beam in psychotic gratitude for "Lipstick Lesbian Betty" (formerly "Barbie's Best Friend Betty") (Marguiles, 2000).

By changing the context of the Barbie doll on the shelves, activists hope to humorously spark some critique about Barbie’s cultural power and the norms that Barbie products reinforce.

Culture jammers use sarcasm, creativity, and humor to challenge the ideologies behind Barbie, Ken, and their world. Barbie products generally promote conservative moral and political ideologies, and through hacking Barbie’s messages produced in toy voice boxes and on packaging, activists resist, challenge, and reconfigure the meanings of the dolls. As Dery sums up:

…Culture jammers are Groucho Marxists, ever mindful of the fun to be had in the joyful demolition of oppressive ideologies. As the inveterate prankster and former Dead Kennedy singer Jello Biafra once observed, "There's a big difference between 'simple crime' like holding up a 7-11, and 'creative crime' as a form of soul...What better way to survive our anthill society than by abusing the very mass media that sedates the public?...A prank a day keeps the dog leash away! (Dery 2000)

Barbie represents dominant ideologies of femininity, beauty, and heterosexuality. Efforts of resistance are any efforts that subvert these messages and help to reveal their underlying logic to another reader. When Barbie says, "Eat lead, Cobra!" and Ken exclaims, "Let’s plan our dream wedding!", we can glimpse how stereotypical and gendered these phrases are. We can, in these moments, imagine how little girls and boys might engage in play that helps them to develop ideas of womanhood and manhood that are free from these dominant scripts and images found in Barbie’s world.

As Kellner (1995, p. 4) notes, "a critical cultural studies is concerned with advancing the democratic project, conceptualizing both how media culture can be a tremendous impediment for democratizing society, but can also be an ally, advancing the cause of freedom and democracy." Media culture is not simply an oppressive, monolithic, all-powerful force; its tremendous power and influence can be interrupted through activism like culture jamming, a form of resistance and critique. Culture jamming can expand human freedom and democracy by freeing women (and men) from the predictable scripts of gendered stereotypes that limit women to feminine scripts of perfect beauty, homogeneity, and cheerful submission.

As a feminist reader of culture jamming acts of resistance, I am especially prone to seeing the crimes of these jammers as humorous, creative, and justifiable. The Barbie Liberation Organization, for example, is not switching voice boxes for profit or simple prank, but are trying to make a political and moral point through their acts of product tampering. My own ideological perspective causes me to forgive (or at least temporarily forget) the illegality of the act in praise of the cultural resistance that the act symbolizes. Other readers of these acts will no doubt take other meanings away from the culture jamming done by the BLO and similar groups, but no one will be able to dispute the cultural power of the 8-inch hunk of plastic known as Barbie. Come on over to my niece’s house and she’ll give you the tour of Barbie’s world. You might even get to ride in the Barbie jeep, if you’re lucky.

 

References

Edut, O., ed. Adios, Barbie: Young women write about body image and identity. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1998.

Kellner, D. Media Culture: Cultural Studies, identity and politics between the modern and postmodern. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Marguiles, P. "The Barbie Disinformation Organization" from SurReview (on-line publication) retrieved on July 14, 1999 from http://www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs/user/jthomas/SurReview/reviews-html/bdo.html

Dery, M. "Hacking Barbie's Voice Box: 'Vengeance is Mine!'" (originally printed in New Media magazine, "Technoculture" column, May 1994) retrieved on February 25, 2000 from http://www.levity.com/markdery/barbie.html

Dery, M. "Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the Empire of Signs," on-line publication retrieved on February 25, 2000 from http://www.levity.com/markdery/culturjam.html

Stern, S. Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour. New Day Films, 1998.