Kevin S. H. Chen 

Pr. Kate Liu 

Cultural Studies 

6 November 1997



a Prostitute or  

an Ordinary Woman?

Barbie, the most well-known doll in the world, has played an important role in a lot of girls¡¦ childhood all over the world. Mattel, the company that produces Barbie, has successfully made tons of money out of it. As a matter of fact, by shaping Barbie into a so-called perfect beauty, Mattel is selling not only a doll image but also a female image. Namely, the doll image of Barbie has developed into some kind of standardized women image. Besides, a pop band from Denmark called Aqua is facing a charge brought by Mattel of lowering and degrading Barbie¡¦s image as well as female image in their new single "Barbie Girl¨. Is Mattel fighting against the subjugation of woman¡¦s image or simply suing itself (or the image that it produced) ? By reading the lyrics of this song and examining the world of Barbie, perhaps we will be able to know more about Barbie, the so-called perfect woman.  

The song sung by Aqua is a duet between Barbie and Ken. Conspicuously, Barbie plays a passive and submissive role in this song whereas Ken is an active giant. The chorus of this song is: ¡§I¡¦m a Barbie girl, in the Barbie world. Life is plastic, it¡¦s fantastic. You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere. Imagination, life is your creation.¡¨ The Barbie girl is singing to her boyfriend Ken and telling him that he can ¡§undress her everywhere.¡¨ At this point, the action of dressing and undressing Barbie, which is usually done by little girls when playing Barbie, is done by Ken. Hence, the sexual allusion is obvious. Then she continues: ¡§ I¡¦m a blonde single girl in the fantasy world. Pick me up, big giant. I am your dolly.¡¨ The Barbie girl describes her as a blonde single girl. And this image is produced by Mattel. She calls her boyfriend a giant and she is just a doll. Then in the latter parts of this song, we can see the Barbie girl is actually a so-called bimbo. She sings: ¡§You can touch. You can play. If you say I am always yours. Make me walk. Make me talk. Do whatever you please. I can act like a star. I can beg on my knees.¡¨ This Barbie girl is utterly a submissive woman who is willing to be under the sway of her boyfriend as long as he says he loves her. In this song, Barbie becomes a dumb blonde who is the toy of Ken. She is obedient and not aware of her status at all.  

On the contrary, Ken¡¦s role in this song is just like a fooling-around debauchee. According to what he sings in this song, ¡§You are my doll. Kiss me there. Touch me there. Hanky-panky. Come on Barbie, let¡¦s go party.¡¨, Ken is asking Barbie to go out and have fun with him. To him, Barbie is a just doll which will kiss and touch him when he asks. In comparison with Barbie, Ken is an active man who has the power in their relationship. Therefore, we can easily find out that there is indeed sexism in this pop song.   

This kind of sexism makes Mattel very angry and decide to press the charge. According to Ming Shen Pao, what makes Mattel exasperated is mainly that ¡§this song depicts Barbie as a prostitute and Ken as a man who goes whoring.¡¨ Mattel thinks that this song seriously demolishes Barbie doll¡¦s fine image and degrades women¡¦s status. In other words, Mattel is protecting Barbie¡¦s and women¡¦s image from being distorted. However, if we put the image of Barbie established by Mattel and in the social discourse, we will find out that Barbie, in some certain way, does harm to female image. At this point, Mattel is suing itself for degrading female image.  
Barbie is an idealization of female physical attractiveness. She is blonde, long-haired, blue-eyed, big-breasted, thin, tall, long-legged, etc. She has the so-called best shape or figure. In her plastic world, she always wears fancy dresses and accessories on every occasion, such as lavish parties, tennis court, swimming pool, kitchen, and so on. She must be really rich to afford her wardrobes. Even her boyfriend, Ken, is a rich-looking guy. Consequently, the image of Barbie is formed: she is a rich and stunning young lady who constantly wears an elegant smile on her face. Wow, there comes a perfect ideal woman. Nevertheless, this image is not true. It is simply a plastic doll produced on the assembly line. It is just an imaginary and dreamy world. Yet, this world becomes a goal of billions of young girls throughout the world.  

By using interesting commercials, Mattel successfully promotes Barbie to almost every country and every family which has little girls. In Taiwan, we can find one to two commercial films of Barbie during the cartoon hours on TV. That is to say, children are very likely to watch Barbie¡¦s commercials for many times if they watch animation on TV for hours. I watched Cartoon Network and Disney channel with one of my nieces during this summer. And I could watch Barbie¡¦s commercials three times within an hour! In this case, little girls are most likely to crave a Barbie of her own. The TV commercials successfully reach their target: consumption. I think that Mattel also uses commercial to sell Barbie in other countries. At this point, the plastic ideal image reaches globalization, which means that the image of Barbie has influenced the world to a certain degree. Due to its globalization, we have some kind of the discourse of ¡§Every girl should have one and later become one.¡¨ Because through the practice of buying, we can see a process of believing.  

The image of Barbie has become a standard for beauty. First, it becomes a paragon of making dolls. A prodigious numbers of companies try to produce dolls just like Barbie. Later on, it becomes a yardstick for beauty. This kind of yardstick forms some sort of standardization. Under this circumstance, a so-called beautiful woman is supposed to be exactly like Barbie. Then we have Monroe and Madonna, who are originally dark-haired. On October 30, 1997, there was a beauty pageant of ¡§Who looks like Barbie the most¡¨ in Frankfurt. The winner is blonde and blue-eyed. She exactly matches the image of Barbie. This beauty pageant proves how Barbie¡¦s image impacts people¡¦s view of female beauty. In other words, people buy not only a plastic doll but also an image to believe and follow.  

On Taipei streets, I sometimes can see some young dye their hair into blonde. I remember how astounded my cousin, who is an ABC, was to see these girls. He told me, ¡§ So you have Barbies, too!¡¨ Also, my niece¡¦s 7-year-old-birthday wish was to become a real Barbie after she grew up. Then it is not hard to imagine how millions of other little girls treat their Barbie. What¡¦s more, this kind of Barbie complex urges women to go on a diet or go to the beauty salon to reach the standard of Barbie. And I believe that all different kinds of whitening lotions for women have something to do with the Barbie image.  

However, Barbie¡¦s image is just ideal, dreamy, and pseudo. First, it denies individuality. Even though it is impossible to find real individuality in this world because each of us is under the influence of different discourses. However, in terms of outer appearance, which we all have certain individuality in it, Barbie¡¦s image denies fatness, shortness, and so-called ugliness. It is really difficult for women to reach the standard of Barbie. If women believe in Barbie, they will find that they will have to make their dreams come true in their dreams. Secondly, the image is western. That is to say, a beauty is supposed to be white (no wonder we have so many commercials of whitening cosmetics, such as SK II). This standard can raise the issue of racism. As I was looking for lyrics of ¡§Barbie Girl¡¨ on the web, I found that Mattel will have some limited edition of Chilean Barbie, Native American Barbie, Polish Barbie, and Thai Barbie. Actually, one of my sisters bought a Chinese Barbie in New York several years ago. It seems that Mattel pays attention to some ethnic groups in the past few years. However, these Barbies are not the main stream. They are just the limited edition, which means that they are alternative or minority in the world of Barbie. Or, it is just a gimmick of selling. The irony is : can we or do we want to buy a Chinese or even Taiwanese Barbie in Taiwan? Even if we can fine one, it will be the limited edition and ¡§white¡¨ is actually more beautiful, isn¡¦t it?  

Besides, Barbie also distinguishes gender very clearly in terms of the one who are supposed to play with it. Under the social gender ideology, Barbie only belongs to girls. Boys should play robots; girls, dolls. This kind of social-constructed gender ideology signifies that men are supposed to be like robots and women should be like Barbie. Men are macho; women, soft. This binary opposition causes sexism.  

Now let¡¦s compare the Barbie in the controversial lyrics of ¡§Barbie Girl¡¨ with that in Mattel¡¦s Barbie world The sexism shown in this song is actually distinct from Mattel¡¦s Barbie world in terms of selling. In Mattel¡¦s Barbie world, Ken is not a giant or an active playboy. In terms of selling, Ken is subordinate to Barbie. Namely, Mattel does not produce Ken as much as it produces Barbie. Ken is merely a mate to Barbie. Barbie is always the leading characters when it comes to selling. In addition, Ken has been regarded as a stereotype of gayman, which accentuates the importance of outer appearance. Some critics call him sissy or pansy. Two years ago, Mattel produced a male mate for Ken and caused a certain sensation. Nevertheless, it was limited edition again. Thus, Barbie is always the very source of revenue of Mattel. So, we can see that Barbie of Mattel is not a submissive bimbo who is subordinate to Ken as it is shown in the song from the perspective of selling.

Nonetheless, Mattel¡¦s action of pressing the charge is ironical. Mattel says that it is against the degradation of female image. By saying this, it is not aware of the idealization and standardization of female image which is caused by itself. Instead of producing a realistic ordinary image of women, Mattel gives the world a imaginary and dreamy standard for female image. Isn¡¦t this also an action of doing harm to female image? Therefore, Mattel is suing itself. 

What is the real identity of Barbie? Is she a whore in the pop song or a dreamy woman in Mattel¡¦s world? As far as the market is concerned, these two identifies have both been accepted by the public. The song has reached number one on the chart in many countries, and Barbie is certainly the best gift idea for a little girl. To me, it is really horrible for the public to accept one product without realizing the ideology with which it carries. So, we have a Barbie beauty pageant and a catchy pop song, which both accentuate external appearance instead of inner integrity. When can we use toys which are more realistic to teach and educate our children? Maybe next millennium.