So, I’m going to confess something here: I loved Barbie.
I loved Barbie until my teenage conditioning no longer allowed it; social mores are far more destructive than we are willing to admit. I loved her in her varying peach skin tones, sometimes sun-kissed tan, sometimes victorian pale. Her silky hair – sometimes wavy, sometimes straight; sometimes blonde and sometimes an auburn brown. And let’s not forget her killer fashion sense and knock out unrealistic measurements. Oh, oh, and her various careers which included everything between an Astronaut and Zoologist. I think she, or one her subset friends, also ended up in a wheelchair once for PC reasons.
Wearing the traditional Islamic dress, the iconic doll is going undercover for a charity auction in connection with Sotheby’s for Save The Children.
More than 500 Barbies went on show yesterday at the Salone dei Cinquecento, in Florence, Italy.
Of course, not everyone shares my enthusiasm for this. The outcry has been minimal but still rather angry. My fellow Canadian, Barbara Kay wrote a fierce critique of Barbie’s ‘desexualization’ recently in the National Post. In it she deplores Save the Children and Mattel:
I have seen some pretty tawdry advertising campaigns in my time, but I must say this one takes the cake for insensitivity. What’s next in dolls that are “important for girls” to play with? “Illiterate Barbie”? “Forced-Marriage Barbie”?
One has to wonder what was going through the heads of these people. Mattel is a gigantic company with, one would presume, the cream of the advertising world’s crop at its beck and call. Save the Children has for many decades been in the business of rescuing children from poverty, despair and injustice. And yet neither the world’s biggest advertising brains nor the world’s most child-sensitive hearts saw the impropriety of “clothing” the world’s most instantly recognizable toy in the world’s most instantly recognizable symbol of oppression.
In the eyes of the majority who do consider both dolls and guns natural objects of play, however, there should be no moral distinction between Burka Barbie and a putative G.I. Joe figure in a suicide vest for essentially they both represent a medieval Islamist worldview that flies in the face of the West’s most cherished values: equality of men and women and respect for human life, including one’s own.
It’s unfortunate that Ms. Kay is not alone in having these rather annoying and uninformed opinions. First of all, I was unaware that Barbie had ever been a symbol of liberation and already representative of our cherished values of equality between men and women and respect for human life. If anything, Barbie has been an oppressive tool which has engrained into the minds of millions of young girls what their body sizes, faces and lives should be like. Whiteness, blondness, thinness, Ken-ness. Barbie has propagated for long a standard of beauty and perfection which even the majority women who share her skin-tone do not meet.
Secondly, her point about the burqa not being a traditional Islamic dress is also kinda completely flat out wrong. Harsh? Maybe. Disagree? Listen: the debate regarding the burqa is about whether it is Islamically required or not; it is not about if it is a recent invention – because it, quite simply, is not. The Taliban did not randomly decide that blue bags over their women would suffice Islamic requirements for modesty. That’s not how it worked, Ms. Kay.
Time to problematize this assumption. The burqa has several manifestations and is also a pre-Islamic cultural garment, owing itself to Bedouin culture amongst several other tribal cultures across Eastern regions. Regardless of whether or not it is a religious requirement, it has become a part of the vast Islamic culture and is something which has not always been forced. In fact, at various times in various places, it has also served to help women’s engagement in the public sphere. My favourite person in the world Lila Abu-Lughod covers this rather well in her piece Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?:
First, it should be recalled that the Taliban did not invent the burqa, It was the local form of covering that Pashtun women in one region wore when they went out. The Pashtun are one of several ethnic groups in Afghanistan and the burqa was one of many forms of covering in the subcontinent and Southwest Asia that has developed as a convention for symbolizing women’s modesty or respectability. The burqa, like some other forms of “cover” has, in many settings, marked the symbolic separation of men’s and women’s spheres, as part of the general association of women with family and home, not with public space where strangers mingled.
Twenty years ago the anthropologist Hanna Papanek (1982), who worked in Pakistan, described the burqa as “portable seclusion.’ She noted that many saw it as a liberating invention because it enabled women to move out of segregated living spaces while still observing the basic moral requirements of separating and protecting women from unrelated men. Ever since I came across her phrase portable seclusion, I have thought of these enveloping robes as “mobile homes,” Everywhere, such veiling signifies belonging to a particular community and participating in a moral way of life in which families are paramount in the organization of communities and the home is associated with the sanctity of women.
This is not to say that the burqa, or hijab or chador or niqab or purdah or whatever your heart desires, has not been used to enforce a male hegemony over women. It, unfortunately, has been. But it’s no different than any other piece of clothing, for men or women, which has been socially (or legally) enforced to reach a certain ideal of an ethos – be it sexiness or modesty. And I know this line has been beaten to death. I know that the whole blah blah it’s all relative blah blah discussion has been exhausted and is tiring. I really wish I didn’t have to say it, but people like Barbara Kay just force people like me (minimally educated) to point out the obvious.
So, how do I feel about Mattel coming out with a veiled Barbie? To be completely honest, as much as I now despise everything Barbie symbolizes and is, and as much as I have a general distrust of corporations doing “noble” things, I think its kiiiinda somewhat cool. I think its cool in its context, which creates Barbies in various traditional cultural outfits for charitable purposes and not in a completely tokenizing manner.
I remember as a child how much Barbie meant to me in those moments of childhood isolation, where you find only yourself and your imagination. As much as I, as a 7 year old, aspired to look like her, I also sought to make her look like me – I would sew her clothing, I would create stories in which no man was ever required for emotional or physical fulfillment (and if so, I’d always reach for my brother’s Wolverine because I never saw it necessary to invest in a Ken) and I’d give her my own names. As much as Barbie is big-O oppressive, she, as with any other doll or action figure, is also a tool of creativity if properly used. And that possibility of creativity, in this case, is assisted by how Barbie is made culturally relatable to girls who can’t find any similarity in this woman. Is that really all that bad? Plus for god’s sake, they can take off the burqa and smack on a cocktail dress. Quit being so anal, Kay.
Now, if we could only make her a size 12 and mass produce these culturally representative dolls to girls of all different cultural and ethnic backgrounds….
…then we’re really talking.