May 16, 2016 Musings on Mattel and Superheroines
Guest blogger, Abigail Pannell.
Intro Quiz: Are you Barbie, or Wonder Woman?
Are you a girl?
Are you goal-oriented?
Do you triumph over evil?
Do you have a passion?
Do you wear outfits that you love?
Do you consider yourself a good role model?
Choose the face that best represents your personality:
It was late July when I broke down. I bought the thing I’m not supposed to want as an emerging adult woman in the 21st century: Barbies.
Let me back up.
First and foremost, I am an artist. I recently discovered the beauty of the graphic novel and decided it was the best medium to combine my two passions: visual art and writing stories. In both mediums, my inspiration stems from childhood experiences. As a child, two sources of entertainment were Barbies and books. I loved them separately as a child: the Barbie world was a beautiful and grown-up place that I was too young to be a part of, but I looked up to it. And the books I read were almost exclusively fantasy-adventure and children’s books geared towards female readers. Despite spending much time in these genres, I rarely read an older-than-me, strong female character. They were not superheroines like Marla Drake from Miss Fury and Kamala Khan in the new Ms. Marvel. In a sense, all my older female role models were girls extremely close to me in age, babysitters, and my mother.
Almost by default, I used movie and television characters as my model for womanhood. And who were these older females on television? Lizzie McGuire, Disney princesses, young but older-than-me Lindsay Lohan. I especially enjoyed Mattel’s film productions, all of which are spin-offs of toy lines. In the Barbie films of my youth (Barbie and the Nutcracker, Barbie as Rapunzel, and Barbie of Swan Lake), animated Barbie voiced by Kelly Sheridan plays the main character in popular folk stories. I ate these films up. When I was a kid, the Barbie movies were all exclusively fantasy, but they were the Disney princess stories that Disney never made. Though I still enjoy watching them in the company of younger children, it’s hard not to notice the lack of strong, “real,” women like Marla Drake, and Kamala Khan.
These fictional Barbie women were my role models. I was sure that I would have very similar experiences to Barbie and other Mattel creations. But that isn’t really a bad thing, in my opinion. Along their journeys they support ideals of friendship and love and sacrificing yourself for others. Maybe I didn’t open my mind to fighting crime, or becoming a doctor, but the Barbie characters were into art, dancing, and singing–all the activities I adore. (Sub-hypothesis: sometimes Barbie’s journeys were ridiculously long and on foot. Maybe that’s why I’m super into hiking?)
Yet, after being shaped by role models like Barbie, I’m supposed to be ashamed of my relationship with the Mattel toy kingdom? (Please note that I mean Mattel circa 1997-2006; I cannot speak for what it is like to grow up with Barbie today.) This relationship is not embarrassing in the normal way, no–it’s embarrassing in the politically incorrect way that by supporting the Barbie industry I support terrible ideals that women have to be girly and pink, into shopping and decorating, have big boobs, a thin waist and legs longer than anything evolution created (except flamingos?).
Despite my education and teachers and feminist friends telling me that Barbies represent what’s wrong with society, I crave them, because now I am their age, and the game has changed.
Which takes me back to the hot, lonely summer when I spent $70 on 27 Barbies (in case you’re wondering, that is a deal). It was a random July day and because I was living in Lexington with only a couple housemates, I often felt alone and isolated. Quite happily, I remembered feeling that way as a child sometimes, except being alone as a child was totally awesome. I had total control over whatever game I wanted to play, how I wanted to play it, and where it would take me. I was never alone because I had a whole world of imagination to do whatever I wanted. So I got the idea to get new Barbies. I’d wanted them for a while, but I never told anyone. My trip down memory lane would stay secret until it became art.
Now I should probably say that I didn’t do anything creepy or weird with the Barbies. But I totally did, because I’m an artist, and I make it my job to be creepy and weird when I’m on the prowl for a new subject to study. I baptized them all and took away their clothes and cut off all their hair. Then I studied them. I named them, I gave them personalities, I gave some of them family members, and I looked at each of their bodies. Mattel labels Barbies with the year they came out. Some of mine were from the 60s. One wasn’t actually a Barbie—she just looked like one. Some were scratched, permanently marked. Some had jewelry. All of their makeup was different. Some of their limbs were bended oh-so-slightly. But that’s the point: they were all different. So different, that I still to this day know their names and faces by heart. (Pictured below, Darla, who played a major role in my artwork:)
After studying the Barbies for months, I decided they were imperfect reflections of imperfect human ideas about humans. Yet still people brush off Barbie as a toy that supports homogeny and unattainable beauty. Except as soon as you take Barbie out of the plastic case, it’s not Barbie, it’s your Barbie.
My newfound superheroines are similar. I grew up with superhero TV, but I have never seen a female superhero protagonist on television or in the movies (though I never actively sought one). When there are superheroines in film, my immediate reaction is to say she’s unrealistic. I’ve also heard: “oh she’s just the male version of blah-blah-blah.” Personally, superheroines get just as bad a reputation as Barbie. And why? Maybe because of people like me. And you, that loud person in your favorite coffee shop, and people unassociated with female superheroes everywhere. We hear that “oh she’s just the male version,” and she’s not realistic, and unfounded statements push us away from these women and their stories because just like my ridiculous clan of Barbies, they’re built up to all be the same.
So here is my conclusion: role models are only what we make them. No one is a bad influence because they belong to a line of similar toys or because they don’t wear enough clothes. The bad influence is the way we interpret and judge the individuals we don’t get to know. It’s easy to read characters like Marla Drake and think, “wow, she’s badass,” and then read Ms. Marvel and sympathize with Kamala Khan’s journey through adolescence. Their stories may create all the individual qualities for us as readers. I believe we can reverse this mode of thought and give every material individual the benefit of the doubt.