Barbie Dolls And Children: Many Mutilations and Mock Deaths
By Elaine Meinel Supkis
British researchers are shocked (well, maybe not all that shocked) to learn that both little boys and little girls love to maul and mutilate and even utterly destroy Barbie (tm) dolls. I will explain some of the background of Barbie and why this might be happening today.
"The girls we spoke to see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity, and see the torture as a 'cool' activity," said Agnes Nairn, one of the University of Bath researchers. "The types of mutilation are varied and creative, and range from removing the hair to decapitation, burning, breaking and even microwaving."If only! But this is not the end of it. Children today are literally mutilating themselves. I remember distracted, out of sorts children in my earlier years, mutilating themselves using knives or needles or pens. By the time I was thirty, it became fashionable to mutilate one's self. Indeed, the speed pill popping that is sweeping parts of America are Barbie-inspired: rail thin. Actresses mutilate themselve to become Barbies: big tits and starved to death.
Researchers from the university's marketing and psychology departments questioned 100 children about their attitudes to a range of products as part of a study on branding. They found Barbie provoked the strongest reaction, with youngsters reporting "rejection, hatred and violence," Nairn said.
"The meaning of 'Barbie' went beyond an expressed antipathy; actual physical violence and torture towards the doll was repeatedly reported, quite gleefully, across age, school and gender," she said.
While boys often expressed nostalgia and affection toward Action Man — the British equivalent of GI Joe — renouncing Barbie appeared to be a rite of passage for many girls, Nairn said.
"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," she said.
Barbie wasn't always the way she is today. In 1960, I possessed a real live Barbie doll, myself. None of the dolls came with anything more than her traditional birthday suit: a zebra striped swimsuit. These dolls had serious faces. They didn't smile and their eyes darted to one side as if to avoid looking directly at any girl daring to manipulate her. She was expensive so getting just one was just fine, you had to care for her. There were two hairstyles and four hair colors. Bobbed or ponytail. The bobbed doll looked remarkably like Jackie Kennedy which made her exotically and seriously elegant. The ponytailed one was the sillier teenager doll. Naturally, I took the bobbed Jackie lookalike.
You were supposed to buy lots of clothing for her but my mother wouldn't do this, being pratical. We had to make clothes for her so I happily sewed away. Then I discovered something: I don't want to play traditional doll games. I liked playing with the supersized Tonka toys. The backhoe was a favorite. So Barbie worked a backhoe. Then I decided she also would be part of an insurrection so I created Resistance Barbie in 1961. She used molotov cocktails and we had a shortwave radio so I would have her tune into broadcasts coming out of Radio Bulgaria and she would leave mysterious messages. She worked in the Himalayan mountains and stormed Prague. Her little molotov cocktails were real. I really did put some gasoline in a small pill bottle and would light the fuse and throw them. Very verboten but then, Resistance Barbie wasn't exactly all about following the letter of the law, was she?
And what happened?
I grew up, put her aside and ran around Europe, street battles galore! More than one government nearly toppled! The Russians invaded Prague and I was arrested and deported! Resistance Barbie flew into Berkeley and had a very joyous time.
Eventually I got my own backhoe and now use it all summer long, a happy situation. When I first mounted a backhoe, I was thrilled. I wondered if it would scare me or be too much. Instead, it was a duck to water! Barbie helped me grow mentally capable of using a backhoe and of course the street fighting and revolutionary actions. Heh. Why did I do that?
Lord knows. But I did. Ask my mom.
Back to Barbie. In the seventies, to popularize her with younger children, they redesigned her face. They turned her into Bimbo Barbie, the vacuous smiling automatom which looks directly at the child. A mommy doll. No longer cold and remote and mysterious, she became a bubble headed gad about who wanted to possess things with a vengence. Namely, she became cheap.
Cheap comes from the name of Cheapside, Britain. In Medieval times, this was where one went to the Faire to buy goods. Then it degraded until it became a place where vagrants hawked ribbon and odds and ends. Thus the word, "cheap" meaning inexpensive and useless.
Now, all Barbies came with various eleborate outfits. The price continued to fall as merchandizers expanded the market. Expensive, collector's dolls flourished right alongside the ever cheaper dolls. Like mistresses of wealthy men, the collectible dolls stayed aloof from the street walking cheap dolls below. As Mattel sought out ever cheaper workers to exploit to churn out these dolls they discovered the Chinese who can crank them out with maniacal determination. Now the world is flooded with these vapid dolls. In response, children now get them a dime a dozen and being smart in a horrible way, they instinctually know the dolls are worthless so they treat them accordingly. As younger and younger children get cheaper and cheaper dolls, they abuse them more and more. Carrying around the Barbie by her long, tangled mess of hair is typical. Once the long hair is messed up, anger causes the child to extend the destruction because the doll now looks like an used up heroin addict and so the child literally will kick the doll around and throw her into the gutter.
Adults my age who remember the fashion conscious Jackie Kennedy style Barbie have kept her from being totally destroyed but the younger generation is certainly increasingly alienated from this doll and indeed, from any dolls at this point.
This is the dark side of capitalism and mass manufacturing. Everyone has the same item which has to seek increasing sales so it grinds out ever more until public revulsion makes it suddenly cease. Kwepie dolls went through this cycle 100 years ago. Barbie has had a longer run only because the sales had to extend to other nations that have had the doll for only the last 20 years. Nonetheless, she is ten years younger than me and aging rapidly.
Children, when given many gifts, end up treasuring none of them. Sometimes, they might cling to one special toy or blanket from the sincere early years when they were aware of only a few select items but by seven, they usually hide these precious things because of public mockery and try out other toys. When there is a flood of such, they sort of jumble together and end up making no impressions on the mind or the delicate psychological landscape of the child's mind and end up a swirling chaos of unattached things. No memories, no history. Just here today and gone tomorrow.
This is a shame for I think it ruins the mind and soul because as we age, we need things to cling to in order to keep our sanity. Having little stable, long time memories can be damaging in unexpected ways.
I once knew a gentleman who used to pose for a famous illustrator 90 years ago. When this gentleman was over 90 himself, he had to move to a nursing home. His mind was going. I came over with an antique toy assessor to go through his attic.
There were many very valuable toys up there. One was a great big teddy bear made in England in 1902. I took it to him and asked him if he remembered it.
"My best friend!" he said, a smile breaking out. He took the bear and hugged it and then began to talk to it. "We should go outside and play! But don't tell nursie," he whispered. He kissed the bear. He then turned the bear to me and had me talk to it. "How did you tear your ear?" I asked it. "We were running around outside and I got snagged on a thorn bush and that is how it was torn but nursie sewed it back on before Mother could see what happened!"
It was so lovely as well as heartbreaking because he normally just sat around, doing nothing. The bear which his child's mind animated reactivated his mind. It went into obvious high gear. Very impressive to see. This valuable bear is now on display.
After all, all that we really have in the end is our memories. And creating them is like any artistic enterprise: if you do it right, you will have many memories, beautiful, painful, glorious or serene. Collecting them and attaching them to parts of one's mind is what life is all about. Not opening presents but opening the present up. Today is tomorrow's treasure.
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