Why do girls mutilate their Barbie dolls?
A young girl bakes her Barbie doll in the oven. A San Francisco bar invites patrons to have at the dolls with knives. A New York artist drives nails into Barbie, calling it sculpture.
What's going on here? How did Barbie, history's most popular doll, celebrating her 50th year as a beloved plaything for girls worldwide, become an object that females of all ages cut, burn, bend, spindle and mutilate? And what does it all mean?
Let's start with girls. Barbie is, after all, supposed to be a toy. In 2005, researchers at England's University of Bath, conducting a study of how children play, were surprised at what girls do to their Barbies.
"The types of mutilation are varied and creative, and range from removing the hair to decapitation, burning, breaking and even microwaving," writes Dr. Agnes Nairn. "The girls we spoke to see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity, and see the torture as a 'cool' activity in contrast to other forms of play with the doll."
The study's conclusion--that the abuse means that Barbie is a "hate figure" among 7- to 11-year-old girls--sparked debate all over the world.
Some felt that Barbie was merely getting her due as a poor role model; others argued that battering a Barbie is no different than, say, battering a red wagon--only with a cultural touchstone like Barbie, we notice.
The study's conclusions "smack of academic overanalysis," Anastasia de Waal wrote in TheGuardian, "of grown-ups getting too excited about the symbolism of child's play. ... Testing the versatility and robustness of one's toys is neither new nor sinister."
While the study emphasized the hostility suggested by hacking something apart, the girls actually told researchers they didn't despise Barbie so much as feel they had outgrown her.
"The most readily expressed reason for rejecting Barbie was that she was babyish and girls saw her as representing their younger childhood out of which they felt they had now grown," said Nairn.
When you turn to adults, however, the contempt behind the violence is undeniable. Barbie is not just the most popular doll of all time, she is also a large-busted, slim-waisted, impossibly proportioned ideal that has long inspired odium among feminists.
"Women my age know whom to blame for our own self-loathing, eating disorders and distorted body image: Barbie," Chicago Tribune columnist Amy Dickenson wrote.
One of the more memorable Barbie mutilations happened in 1993 at Christmas time. Dozens of girls whose parents purchased "Teen Talk" Barbies were surprised to hear their new dolls growl phrases such as "dead men tell no lies" and "vengeance is mine." Meanwhile, boys pressed the buttons of their new "Talking Duke" G.I. Joe and heard him coo, "Let's plan our dream wedding."
A group of Manhattan parents, dubbing itself the "Barbie Liberation Organization," had purchased a number of the dolls--they claimed 300--and "surgically" switched their voice box devices, giving Barbie her bellicose outlook and Joe his sudden interest in shopping.
The prank echoes the sense of humor often seen in Barbie mangling. Montana artist Dawn Duane Evans' "I Hate Barbie" calendar photos aren't so much malicious as mocking, with Barbies splashing in cans of paint and labeled a "Pop Tart," peeking, smoldering from toasters.
Of course, most women are not angry artists. When you talk to adult women who abused their Barbies, their motives were inevitably benign.
Ginny Voedisch, who works for the Art Institute of Chicago, did put her Barbie in an oven, but not out of spite--she thought the heat would turn her early 1960s bouffant hairdo into a then-hip late 1960s afro (it didn't). Marj Halperin, a media consultant, stuck straight pins into her Barbie's head, true, but she was attaching sequin earrings.
"Oooh! I loved Barbie and would never ever have mutilated her!" said Amy Latreille, a customer service manager. "However, cutting her hair, reversing her arms and even changing their heads was totally okay." (Several women said that swapping heads on the identically bodied dolls was far easier for a girl to do than changing their elaborate outfits.)
Even those who said they disliked Barbie were acting more from indifference than hostility.
Sharon Allen, a mechanic, melted her Barbie and seemed surprised at the idea she wouldn't. "It seemed the obvious thing to do," she said. "Barbies were just so boring. I never really liked them. You couldn't really do anything with them--except, of course, melt them."
Altering your Barbie could also be a way of bringing her with you on your latest life change. When Kirsten Curley, now a senior corporate manager, went through her rebellious high school fashion phase, her "last surviving Barbie came along."
"She got a Mohawk hair-do, black lipstick, torn clothes and a safety pin through her ear," said Curley.
The way the adult world can impose meaning on Barbie mutilation is demonstrated by Susan Ginsberg's (now a Chicago mother of two herself) alarm at finding a Ziploc bag of hair in her daughter's drawers.
"I was mortified," she said. "Is one of my kids partaking in witchcraft? Then I checked the Barbie drawer--they all had bobs."