Barbie, believe it or not, is 50 and still a dish. A doll is only a
doll, but Barbie illustrates how over the past five decades women have
become a touchstone for judging what freedom really means. How women are
treated in different countries tells you a lot about the politics and
culture of where they live.
The doll that every little girl wants enables tots to test the
possibilities in role playing, giving them a glimpse of what they might
be when they grow up, whether to be frivolous or serious (or both). But
in many countries that's not an option. Saudi Arabia has banned Barbie,
and you don't have to look very far over the toy chest to see that women
confront limits on their freedom greater than merely choosing clothes
for a doll. A woman still can't drive or go out publicly without an
abaya to cover most of her forbidden flesh. Even a liberated plastic
doll threatens the men in charge. Poor Barbie must go.
In America, she represents the swiftly changing roles of women. Barbie's
fun to tease, but she's as American as miniskirts and pantsuits in her
flexible identities and her "growth" from sexpot to astronaut. Some of
her critics say she's still a bad influence because she's too skinny and
encourages anorexia, that she has run through too many "feminine" or
"feminist" stereotypes, that she lends too much significance to the
fantasy stages of child's play. But Barbie in the Muslim world lives no
fantasy. The prosecutor general of Iran warns that Barbie is merely the
moll of Batman, Spider-Man and Harry Potter in the "invasion" from the
In her memoir, "Reading Lolita in Tehran," Azar Nafisi tells how after
the Islamist Revolution in Iran women were no longer allowed to freely
express themselves in clothes or speech; even their understanding of
great literature was inhibited. "They have never been told they are good
or can think independently," says a university professor in Tehran,
explaining the poor performance of women on tests measuring their
comprehension of subject matter. The author, who meets with a small
group of bright young college girls in a clandestine class in her
private apartment, encourages them to throw off their dark robes and
headscarves for a transformation to the Barbie look of colorful
t-shirts, jeans and bright red nail polish.
But as they begin to talk freely about the meaning of Nabokov, Henry
James, Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the teacher must stand
constant guard. Repression has narrowed women's ability to make both
moral and aesthetic judgments.
Women in the democracies of the West are the most privileged in the
world, and sometimes it's easy to be unaware of how those less fortunate
suffer in ways both large and small. When women in the Third World say,
"Women's work is never done," they're not talking about keeping a neat
house. By the reckoning of statistics gathered by International Women's
Day 2009, women in undeveloped countries must typically carry home 10
gallons of water every day, often in buckets balanced precariously on
their heads, for four miles or more.
International Women's Day began as a communist holiday to liberate women
to do the work of a man. A popular 1932 Soviet poster, depicting women
escaping the drudgery of the home, declared, "Down with the oppression
and the narrow-mindedness of household work!" (Then it was on to
cement-mixing and road-building.)
When the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, the holiday was transformed in
many countries into a kind of Valentine's Day, where gents were expected
to bring gifts and flowers to the ladies. Barbie, moving from the
sublime to the ridiculous, inspired a doll-revolution movement. When a
Teen Talk Barbie was programmed electronically to say, "Math class is
tough," she was regarded as a bad stereotype. Guerrillas of the Barbie
Liberation Organization (B.L.O.) stole microchips from G.I. Joe, a
popular toy for boys, and gave Barbie a chip transplant. The liberated
Barbies across toyland soon cried, "Vengeance is mine."
That would have frosted the beards of every mullah in Riyadh. The Saudi
Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice,
something of an Islamic Nice Squad always on the lookout for moral
offenses, decreed that Barbie is a symbol of decadence and perversion.
She was also said to be Jewish, naturally, and now Barbie is big on
black markets across the Middle East.
President Obama saluted International Women's Day this week, saying that
"women are vital to the solutions" for global warming, poverty and
conflict. That's a tall order, assuring that women's work will truly
never be done. We've come a long way, baby, with a long way to go.