January 13, 2004

Nazgul the Baby Doctor

I have read a lot and taught about Barbie several times in the last ten years. But my last material, physical encounter with the doll itself was probably around seventh grade, when the kids on my block used to hold big confabs of all our various dolls and action figures and we all did the venerable “GI Joe in the shower with Barbie” thing.

We got a pretty nifty dollhouse for Emma this Christmas, and we figured that enjoyable as it might be to have Saruman, the Lord Humongous, Dr. Zaius and Tomar Re from my action figure collection hangin’ at the house, Emma might appreciate a couple of dolls of her own. So we swallowed and surrendered to the inevitable and got a Baby Doctor Barbie for her. Well, first, this didn’t work so well because Barbie’s out of scale with the house, about three inches too tall (Saruman et al are almost right—they’re maybe half an inch short).

What really struck me, however, was just what a crappy doll Barbie actually is. She’s got minimal articulation, she’s stiff and horribly inanimate, she doesn’t stand up on her own no matter what you do, and in order for this particular Barbie to grip her neonatal medical instruments, they have to be jammed through a hole in her hand like a stigmata. If you actually wanted to play out a narrative of Barbie treating the two little babies that come with her, you’d almost be just as well off with a rag doll or a popsicle stick figure in terms of the resemblance between what you’re imagining and what you’re holding.

Contrast that with action figures, almost any action figures, not just the especially cool ones I tend to collect. Good articulation, vivid expressions, great accessories that the character can readily grip and use. Now it so happens that those accessories are usually used to maim, kill and destroy, but what of it? It’s a lot easier to imagine my Nazgul figure as a baby doctor (if I take away his sword) than Barbie. At least he can stand and hold things, and strike a wide variety of poses while clutching a baby.

Barbie, in contrast, really is only one thing: a platform for clothes and an object to be looked at. At this point, feminist cultural studies scholars are saying, “Well, duh”, and wondering just how much of Barbie scholarship I’ve actually read. As always, it’s one thing to read it and another thing to experience it. I don’t doubt that Barbie, like all culture, can be “poached” by its consumers, and made to be and do things that aren’t suggested by its material nature. All the more so because of Barbie's cultural ubiquity.

At the same time, there just isn’t any way to dodge what Swarthmore students have been telling me for a decade in my History of Consumption class: boys’ toys are still vastly better-made, more varied, more complex, more interesting, than girls’ toys.