Free To Be Whatever You Want To Be As Long As You Consume

The “Barbie” movie completes the conversion of Barbie from a symbol of paternalistic sexism to a hero of feminism.
Nobody but old Boomers will remember that when Barbie first came out in 1959, it quickly became a symbol of women’ subjugation to traditional paternalism—her oversized breasts alone seemed to fulfill a man’s fantasy more than a woman’s and certainly served as a terrible image model for preteens, who could never hope to have the fantasy figure that Barbie showed. Criticism of Barbie focused on concerns that girls considered Barbie a role model and might emulate her, leading to anorexia and bulimia, an epidemic of which started sometime in the 1970s among teenaged girls. Some research connected the unrealistic body proportions in Barbie dolls to this increase in eating disorders in children.
Moreover, Barbie was interested only in fashion clothes, and then in boys when Ken came along. A perfect doll living in a pre-Nora doll’s house. I remember in the late 1960s and early 1970s hearing people call women who cared about nothing but consumerism or who dressed as fashionable teases “Barbie Dolls.” It was not a compliment.
Barbie always had careers, but at the beginning they were traditional female service or allurement professions. She started as a fashion model, but quickly added fashion designer, singer, ballerina, flight attendant in the day when only women had that job, cheerleader, candy striper, and student teacher. Note that Barbie did not get to be a real nurse or real teacher, professions known for their intellectualism, not for their subservience to a male idea of beauty.
Oh yes, one of Barbie’s early careers was as a businesswoman, and that was what the Barbie collection was always about. Business. But somewhere along the line, Mattel, out of the desire to extend the brand and sell more merchandise (it was before the days when we simply called branded junk “merch”), decided to fight the criticism and turn Barbie into a modern, liberated woman. By 1973, there was a surgeon Barbie, but the start of the new Barbie did not really come until the 1990s, when Mattel started 10-20 new careers for Barbie every year. In 2012 alone, Mattel issued versions of Barbie, clothes, and accessories for thirty professions, including actress, arctic animal rescuer, artist, astronaut, ballerina, doctor, fashion designer, fashion model, fashion photographer, figure skater, flight attendant, floral designer, gymnast, marine biologist, martial artist, music teacher, nurse, paleontologist, pancake chef, pilot, preschool teacher, skier, snowboarder, swimmer, tennis player, track-and-field runner, United States presidential candidate, veterinarian, waiter, and yoga teacher.
In the 21st century Barbie is free to do anything and therefore represents the feminist ideal.
Barbie can now also be anyone and have any shape. While Barbie had a Black friend Christie as early as 1968, it was not until 1980 that there were Black and Hispanic Barbies. Only in the past few years has Barbie—or should I say Mattel—embraced true diversity. Since 2015, Mattel has introduced heavy-set, petite, and tall versions of Barbie, Kens with different body dimensions, Barbies with disabilities, and a transgender Barbie.
It is this new icon of feminism that Greta Gerwig’s summer spectacular Barbie movie celebrates. A Barbie who represents not the constraints of paternalism, but the possibilities open to all women (and men and those identifying as both or neither) in today’s free society.
No wonder right-wingers. White nationalists, and cultural troglodytes hate the Barbie movie. They liked the original Barbie—enormous breasts, sexy clothes, subservience to men. They feel threatened by the new, “woke” Barbie, who by being allowed to do anything and be anyone represents both an emotional and an economic threat to these so-called believers in tradition. Fox News and other right-wing watering holes (or should I say, Kool-Aid watercoolers) are full of accusations that because one of the characters is transgendered, the Barbie movie advocates a “trans agenda,” a non-existent entity that can serve as effectively as a punching bag for the cultural right wing as the equally non-existent Antifa organization.
But the argument between those who love what the woke Barbie represents and those who hate and feel threatened by new Barbie conceals what both sides have in common: a dedication to conspicuous consumption, consumerism, and the celebrity culture that both exemplifies and fuels consumerism. The modus operandi of the Barbie business is to sell ever more Barbie merch—more Barbies, more clothes, more accessories, more, more, more.
We can see the underlying consumerism that animates Barbie by its fixation with celebrity. Many Barbies through the decades have been celebrities like the Black “Julia” Barbie, which first came out in 1969 and was named after the nurse whom Diahann Carroll played on TV. The “trans” Barbie is based on a trans celebrity, Laverne Cox. Beyonce, Tina Turner, David Bowie, Grace Kelly, Cher, Cyndi Lauper, Elvis and Pricilla Presley, Audrey Hepburn, and Joan Jett are a few of the dozens of celebrities with Barbies modeled after them. I have, however, scoured several lists of celebrity Barbies and have found only three who were not actors, singers, or entertainers—Jane Goodall, Eleanor Roosevelt, and J. K. Rawlings.
The right wing has expressed messianic thoughts about a billionaire celebrity who failed at everything he ever did except for self-promotion. His initial fame derived not from being a businessperson, but being a celebrity who played a businessperson on TV. And what does this celebrity offer his adoring audience other than his dissociated spew of angry racism and self-serving economic lies and the opportunity to contribute to his defense fund?—merch: Trump and MAGA posters, hats, tee-shirts, mugs, NTFs, action toys, photographs, stickers, beach towels, buttons, doormats, cards, flags, candles, refrigerator magnets, pens, aprons, and stuff for pets.
Merch. Just like the Barbie movie. Just like Barbie. Celebrities sell merch, and that is what Barbie has always been about and will always be about—peddling cheap products to assuage the consumer lust that the mass media inculcates into us and is partly responsible for the environmental mess we are in. Whether pursuing Fast Fashion and the latest phone or fetishizing private ownership of cars, most Americans worship daily at the alter of consumerism.

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