From the editor and writers of Bright Lights Film Journal
Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran
(Anthem Art and Culture), by Gary Morris (Editor), Bert Cardullo (Introduction), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Foreword). London and New York: Anthem Press, 2009.
"I dare anyone to squeeze between two covers a more varied, useful and flat out entertaining sampling of the personalities that make the seventh art the liveliest."
David Hudson,
Barbie Nation
Tabula Rasa with Tits
Barbie Nation
Is Queen Barbie really responsible for all the ills of the world? Maybe.
There is a specter haunting Europe, and Asia, and America, and for that matter anyplace on earth where people have a few extra bucks to burn. It's a foot-long slab of plastic with big tits, a wasp waist, no genitals, and an empty, vapid stare — in a word, Barbie! While social movements and despots come and go, this comely little creature, who first popped out of the mold in the late '50s, persists beyond all logic, using subtler, more insidious weapons of survival than terrorism and torture.
Susan Stern's entertaining but misnamed documentary Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour — it surely should be Barbie World or maybe Barbie Universe — takes a jaundiced look at the history and vast influence of the disturbing doll. Barbie's been in the news a lot lately; she's under siege by feminists, breast-cancer survivors, ex-bulimics, queens and drag queens who see her variously as an evil vehicle for impossible body norms, promoter of hideous diseases, or as a kind of playground for a rainbow of outre fantasies. Barbie's maker, Mattel, has come down hard on those who've dared to market Barbie-with-a pussy (or a prick), or created "Fat and Ugly Barbie" web sites, or dipped the little harridan in gold paint and nailed her to a cross for an art show. There have been endless lawsuits and threats of lawsuits against makers of "alternative Barbies" and even against fans who've dared to publish unsanctioned zines about her. Yet, as the film says, Barbie's more malleable than her hard plastic implies: "Ideologies stick to her with great tenacity." Mattel's stupidity notwithstanding, that's the risk you take when you create a tabula rasa with tits.
The litigation-crazed Mattel forced the removal of Barbie
from this playful image as Whistler's mother. The inventive
web-folk responsible inserted part of Mattel's threatening
letter in her place.
The documentary creates two intriguing parallel histories. The first is, of course, Her Barbieness, seen in early and recent clips; interviews with "children" of all ages and sexes who covet or revile her; and conventions and auctions, where early models fetch big bucks. The second is the story of Barbie's "mother," Mattel co-founder and businesswoman Ruth Handler, whose commentary runs throughout the film. Handler's understandably disturbed by charges that her creation, which was actually not original but stolen — I mean adapted — from a '50s German doll called "Lilli," somehow promotes illnesses in women. Yet Handler herself was in a sense a victim of her own creation, or at any rate of the kind of culture that creates a "Barbie" and holds her up as the ideal. Handler suffered from breast cancer, and after her mastectomy she was "devastated," thinking "I had lost my femininity." Barbie's position as blank-eyed spokeswoman for the ideal of the mute, mindless, gorgeous woman with supertits is reinforced in the eerie comments of a six-year-old girl who, stroking Barbie's cheap nylon hair, says ruefully, "If you aren't pretty ... people won't like you."
As usual, the drag queens and s&m-ers have the last word, happily challenging the Barbie monolith by creating "Homicide Barbie" (a Carrie-like prom princess drenched in blood); elaborate tableaux of polysexual Barbies and Kens; Skeleton Barbie, a doll's head on a bone body; Crippled Barbie, looking forlorn in her wheelchair; and the alarmingly topical "Asian Sweatshop Barbie, who makes all the other Barbies for $2.50 a day."
May 1998 | Issue 21

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