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
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 didnt work so
well because Barbies out of scale with the house, about three inches too
tall (Saruman et al are almost righttheyre maybe half an inch short).
What really struck
me, however, was just what a crappy doll Barbie actually is. Shes got
minimal articulation, shes stiff and horribly inanimate, she doesnt
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, youd almost
be just as well off with a rag doll or a popsicle stick figure in terms of the
resemblance between what youre imagining and what youre 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? Its 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 Ive actually read. As always, its one thing to read it and another thing to experience it. I dont doubt that Barbie, like all culture, can be poached by its consumers, and made to be and do things that arent suggested by its material nature. All the more so because of Barbie's cultural ubiquity.
At the same time, there just isnt 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.