Writing About Barbies

by anna on March 17, 2010

I had a professor once who wrote academic papers (and, eventually, a book) about Barbie dolls. She loved to talk about Barbies.

In the foyer to her home was the biggest Barbie collection you’ve ever seen. Right there in the entrance, where you were forced to confront it, and immediately faced with the challenge of not making fun of it, and so become complicit in the charade that it wasn’t strange for a fifty-something year old woman to have a Barbie collection so prominently placed in her otherwise tastefully decorated circa mid-nineties Southern California track home.

She was a literature professor with a specialization in contemporary African-American thought and literature, and I was in my first year of graduate school. I was having a hard time wrapping my mind around both her and her Barbies, that this was something worthy of academic scrutiny, and something upon which one could base and obtain a tenure application at a top-tier research institution.

In class, this professor would talk about going to Mattel and seeing all of the Barbie parts in big containers, huge vats full of Barbie heads, or Barbie arms, or Barbie torsos, or Barbie legs. And the big outrage — the climax of this and other like anecdotes — was that they would have a “multicultural Barbie” section, complete with its own giant containers full of Barbie parts, and they would be identical to the other, pinkish salmon-colored Barbie parts, except in a darker brown color. The outrage being, of course, that the body image of the black children who played with the Barbies would be permanently damaged by exposure to a doll that suggested that they should have the same bodies as white people, only with a darker skin color.

This was the basis of her academic vision, more or less. A laundry bin full of brown colored plastic pieces, and a budgetary decision made by a circa 1960s toy company trying to appeal to a larger market than it was historically likely upon its initial offering. Never mind the fact that white children presented with a Barbie would be presented with a similarly impossible task of obtaining a Barbie shaped body. Because even if that was true, for this professor, race was the master narrative, and it was always the thing that came up first, mattered the most, in whatever issue she was discussing.

I thought she was a reactionary fool, and she thought I was a racist idiot. We were both probably more right than either of us would ever have wanted to admit. We all have our own master narratives, the things that we look for in life that seem to be the most important, or the most significant. We bring them to everything we read, watch, or see. We walk away from the text convinced that this is what the text was about, when really we should be saying that this is what we’re about.

One day the professor said something that stuck with me, enough so that I actually wrote it down in my notebook, and underlined it twice, so that I would realize it was something I needed to remember.

What she said was, “You write about the Barbies because that is how you get people to listen to you. You write about popular culture because, even if it makes them mad, or make them think you are dumb, or shallow — it will make them listen, and that is when the real work gets done.”

And damn if she wasn’t right. Because I walked into that seminar with the chip on my shoulder that Affirmative Action had carved still intact, irritated by the fact that one of only six courses in graduate Literature courses would be devoted to African-American Thought, rather than a course in Literary Theory Across The Board, and deeply, deeply skeptical of a professor, tenured or otherwise, who wrote about Barbie dolls. But there I was, taking the damn course, and now, years later, it’s the one course that I remember like it was yesterday, and probably the one that changed the way I looked at life the most, if I had a way of gauging those kinds of things. It was the course that changed me, even against my will.

You write about the Barbies to get them to pay attention. They will probably make fun of you, and they might even get mad at you. That’s OK.

{ 38 comments }

Perpetua March 17, 2010 at 3:57 am

I wonder if anyone ever asked your prof is she’s a department troll, just stirring the shit to get the Shakespeare scholars mad. :)

anna March 17, 2010 at 7:35 am

Actually, probably there were some old crusty professors who were tenured in the late sixties, who still believed in the superiority of Dead White Men, who said something similar. These power structures are really not so different from venue to venue, when you look at them on an abstract level.

Kerry March 17, 2010 at 4:56 am

Dude. That is deeeep. Also, true.

Christine March 17, 2010 at 6:53 am

Perhaps there is one on every campus. I had a professor of women’s studies at my large east coast university cover the front wall of a classroom with pictures of Barbies and eerily corresponding supermodels. She then made us write about the “experience.” Although the only thing she really wanted to read was that we had a) been damaged or b) would not let our own children if we chose to have children play with Barbies. Or supermodels, I guess. Interestingly, I often think about that too, and the toys I played with as a child, including Barbie and my brothers’ GI Joes may have affected my vision of self and my master narrative. At the same time, my own daughter does have Barbie dolls in her room.

anna March 17, 2010 at 7:37 am

“Writing about the experience” seems a little sketchy to me, but you know some of these professors have a really political agenda, like they are going to change the world, one Barbie at a time.

eliz March 17, 2010 at 7:29 am

A good writer and thinker, such as yourself, can make anything Important. I think some writers and pundits stick to Big, Deep topics as a crutch because they think it makes them appear smarter.

And the Lady Gaga/Alexander McQueen-armadillo/lobster claw shoes for Barbie! Gah! Must have! Even if there are no Barbies in our house currently!

anna March 17, 2010 at 7:37 am

I know, these crazy Gaga outfits are incredible.

Susan Tiner March 17, 2010 at 9:34 am

What I remember, attending college back East in the late 70s, was that you had to figure out your professor’s master narrative and spit it back out on essays if you wanted to get an A.

anna March 17, 2010 at 11:28 am

In many cases, that is still true. It might get you a B+ though, without a reasonable argument.

monkey March 17, 2010 at 9:59 am

My best friend is an english professor who focused her thesis on yaoi. I call it “idea couture.” Which is actually how I see a lot of academia. For instance, my bourgeois soul would take the crux of her research and launch a marketing campaign for a makeup brand in Asia based on stuff she’s written (yaoi is voraciously consumed by women). It’s kind of looking at an Alexander McQueen show and issuing a Banana Republic sweater, I think.

On the other hand, it does make conversations awkward sometimes. Like the time she was complaining to me about how she showed a zombie movie and asked about what the “shovel” represented and no one got it. And I was all “that’s easy, because it’s a really good instrument for bashing in a zombie’s head!” and she got semi-hysterical because the correct answer was “a phallic symbol” and I had zoomed right in on the troggiest answers she had received.

anna March 17, 2010 at 11:31 am

That’s part of why I left academia — I like what it did/does for how I look at the world, but I like to be able to step out of it sometimes and be reminded of how the rest of the world works. I found myself spending so much time there that I’d get frustrated that the rest of the world didn’t understand whatever point I wanted to make, or whatever I thought was so freaking important. Also, you get to the point where you wake up, and you’re like, “I’m making arguments about how a coquette-figure functions in a text? Does anybody even know what that means?”

Idea Couture is a great way of thinking about it. Interesting, but can you wear it?

monkey March 17, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Your Barbie class is never going to beat that class at Cal where they get to participate in an orgy as a homework assignment.

anna March 17, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Don’t get me started on Cal.

monkey March 17, 2010 at 10:01 am

PS: don’t worry, I get that this post is about something entirely different.

anna March 17, 2010 at 11:31 am

I’m not sure I even know what this post is about. But anyway, a lime popsicle is good every once in a while.

Kerry March 17, 2010 at 11:39 am

You know what’s awesome? Lime popsicles, crushed into a sippy cup with some booze. You drink them at work, while you’re barefoot. That’s how I got to be an executive, y’know.

anna March 17, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Exactly! And you know what, you are totally doing that to challenge the dominant patriarchal hegemony, rather than to be “irresponsible” or “unprofessional.” You are totally doing that as a radical departure from what the Man tells us business should be, amiright?!

Kerry March 17, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Yes. Because if there’s anything I know about The Man, it’s that he hates it when women do stupid shit. That’s why it’s our duty to act like ninnies, to challenge The Man’s buttoned-up stereotype of us. We have to keep him on his toes.

monkey March 17, 2010 at 2:36 pm

I’m trying to sort out my feelings about what part of my eyebrow raising over these antics stems from sexism (so-accused) and what part of me genuinely feels like they undermines the credibility of blogging as a business and platform of entry for serious writers.

Am I an out-of-touch jerk (well, yes, I know the answer to that, but I mean on this issue)? Have I just been in really boring professions my whole life, thus skewing my perspective on these matters? I don’t know. I do think I have a pretty good sense of humour and I’m not even super-traditional or focused on conducting my own business against a backdrop of faux cherry wood and dark carpets-but the thought of demanding respect as a serious! professional! while there are pictures of me on Flickr licking another person at a conference makes me cringe. And I’m pretty sure my feelings on that may be gender-neutral.

anna March 17, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Well, bottom line: can you do work while you’re drunk? Do you take people seriously, male or female, who work while they drink, or work without shoes? I mean, if the person is a yoga instructor, then yes, but otherwise, in my mind it’s not a freaking gender issue. It’s unprofessional because, over the great sands of the hourglass of time, we’ve determined that these things are not conducive to getting things done. Alcohol doesn’t work in the workplace, generally speaking, and most people won’t let you engage in business without shoes!

I get that the NYT article was commissioned and framed as a fluff piece and people want to be taken seriously by the NYT, that there’s a historical tendency of the NYT to not take mommy bloggers seriously. What I’m saying is, perhaps there is a reason. Either you are a businessperson, or you are not. Most mommybloggers haven’t decided what they are yet, and I’m seeing this even in the responses I get to my inquiries for the PF section — the professionals are helpful, they respond to my emails even when they are unsure that they want to answer all of my questions. The sippy cup drinkers act like I don’t exist, or send me nasty emails.

Pick one, and go with it. Keep doing what you’re doing, and you’re going to keep getting what you’re getting, as they say in AA (and yes, that was a saying I used on purpose).

beth aka confusedhomemaker March 17, 2010 at 10:13 am

I agree that getting people to listen can start the real work, but sometimes people just want to hear themselves talk. It’s a fine line.

anna March 17, 2010 at 11:32 am

Absolutely. They absolutely like to hear themselves talk about Barbies, in fact!

Andrew Stevens March 17, 2010 at 2:48 pm

What exactly made her a reactionary?

anna March 17, 2010 at 3:24 pm

She wasn’t “a reactionary” in the sense that it is used to describe Neo Nazis, she was reactionary because she would say things like, “That’s part of living in white capitalist heteronormative patriarchy . . .” in regular conversation.

monkey March 17, 2010 at 4:07 pm

I can’t comment in that cluster upthread so I’ll respond here:

Drinking and socializing and schmoozing is a big part of my profession(s). Both the career I’m in currently and the one I’m planning to move into. That said, I do think that what gets my panties in a wad is 1) the assertion that things like public drunkenness, wearing a McDonalds hat on your head and licking people wouldn’t be looked down upon in a more “traditional” setting or if “men” did it at a professional conference. Yes it would and it does, actually. In fact, my whole class in law school got HUGE lectures about appropriate behaviour at networking events and professional dinners sponsored by big law firms. I’m getting the same ones for business school, especially since the sponsored events are even more out of control/lavish for an MBA program. 2) The inability to differentiate between cutting loose while “off” duty time versus “on” duty-time. I have never been served alcohol during the actual work portion of my conferences and networking events. It usually occurs as part of the off-site socializing element and there is a limit to the rambunctiousness “allowed”. There are people who cross lines, but they get punished for it either formally (through reprimands or progressive discipline) or informally (being taken less seriously).

What I find most obnoxious about the article is that NYT is still sticking articles related to mommyblogging in “Fashion and Style” even though they belong in the Business section. Or that they’re supposed to be written in a “light” style. New York Times Business is nice and all, but they’re hardly WSJ or Financial Times. There are plenty of non-economic/meltdown related pieces that get printed in New York times business that could be shunted off to another section but aren’t. The title made me laugh, but there were a couple of places in the article that were condescending, not even really to mommybloggers, but just to the concept of blogging in general. Really, what purpose did the “You know. For your blog.” line serve? I mean, please, blogging is so old hat and that line is preceded by a paragraph about stuff being so “2008″. The buzz around blogging as business precedes 2008. The “sorority social woman” line for instance-I attend any number of conferences, including one that gets a reasonable amount of attention, and I’ve never seen the speakers being described as “with all the finesse of a used car salesman” or “the scintillating wit of a stoned fraternity pledge” or something. That said, the “you guys” thing was totally up for grabs because I’d expect better public speaking skills from someone whose product I’m purchasing. I thought everything from “Discussions ranged from” down was okay and fairly mundane.

Was it a great article? Not in my opinion. I thought the writer was trying to be funny at the beginning and it came off flat for me. However, I still think roaming around without shoes and referring to professional conference participants (who paid for your advice) as “you guys” while everyone sips on mimosas is unprofessional and I don’t think I’m part of the patriarchy for feeling that way.

Kerry March 17, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Would the reporter have written the article in the same way if she hadn’t seen the bare feet and the sippy cups and the “you guys” (although I don’t think “you guys” is all that bad) at this conference? If she’d seen a more professional conference, might she have written a different piece altogether…one that might have actually made it into the business section?

I don’t mean to blame everything on the conference attendees/leaders, because there’s no law that they have to behave in line with rigid corporate-life rules. I don’t miss those rules either, and if they want to be all casual and quirky, it’s a free country. I just wish they’d own it, instead of saying they got screwed for someone actually reporting on what she saw. No one seems to be disputing the accuracy of the report itself (although,a gain, there’s a lot out there I haven’t read).

I’m also not denying that the people at the Times seem disinclined to take female bloggers seriously. That’s true, and it sucks, and they absolutely need to pull their heads out.

But I think there’s some really self-defeating behavior going on here, both before and after the story was published. I wish people spent some of the hate-energy on figuring out how to better position themselves in the future so that they can be heard (in the business section, where they belong).

anna March 17, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Most of the people leading the charge weren’t even at the conference, so there’s no way for them to objectively state whether it was a fair treatment of the event. I honestly don’t know what they want a reporter to do, lie because she herself writes a mommyblog? I mean, I am predisposed to side with the reporter on this one because I’ve been to an event and reported on it in as objective a manner as possible, and been attacked for it, viciously. So I’m predisposed to thinking that, in this community, you mention a mommy blogger sans HUGGERZ and you get smacked down, bottom line, NYT or not. The only reason my Momversation article didn’t get 50 thousand backlinks is because it was published here, on my blog, instead of in the NYT.

monkey March 17, 2010 at 4:37 pm

I don’t know-my guess is from her post about it is that they commissioned it for that particular section of the paper and asked for it to be written in a certain way, not that she went there, produced a piece and then the Powers that Be at the NYT stuck it in Fashion. Also, there is something to be said about choosing to see what you want to see.

monkey March 17, 2010 at 4:38 pm

As in, the original author’s post about it.

anna March 17, 2010 at 4:58 pm

I do think that it was probably commissioned for Fashion & Style and that, therefore, she was supposed to write it in a certain way. But, I mean, there’s a reason the NYT is the paper of record — they didn’t know that there would be mimosas in sippy cups, but they probably had a hunch, and they were right. Send a reporter to a consummately professional event and ask for her to tailor it to the Fashion & Style section, she’ll at least have a harder time of it if it’s a completely unreasonable bias, is what I’m saying.

A more legitimate criticism of the NYT would be: why did you not commission a piece for Mom 2.0? Is it because you suspected that it wouldn’t lead to a fluffy piece so easily? Because anybody who knows the mommyblogosphere would not have told you that this particular conference was the one to go to to get an accurate portrait of the cutting edge techniques in the business of mommyblogging.

eliz March 18, 2010 at 2:11 pm

The NYT didn’t commission that story. The blogger pitched it. This is how it works at big papers. The NYT most likely had no plans to write about the state of mommyblogging until an enterprising blogger made the pitch, said there was a bloggy camp coming up, I’d be glad to write it for you. (I’m not “supposing” here.) The headline and the graphic were all the NYT’s doing, and there would have been no collaborating with the author. The reason they ran a story about a not particularly professional blogging conference is because that is the story that landed in their laps. They didn’t pick that over Mom 2.0, in that sense. (Though, with BlogHer in NYC this year, there’s sure to be coverage of that, just because of geography.) No one at the NYT building even met her, probably. I’m sure an editor called with some questions and there was some phone editing, but the author had no hand in the hed or the graphic, which were the two most damning parts of the whole package.

As to why it was in the style section, it’s because that’s where it was pitched, very simply. Perhaps the author has a contact on that desk. I don’t have a problem with a blogging story ending up in the style section because, quite frankly, that’s where I’d expect to see any media story that wasn’t focused solely on the company’s day-end stock price. Business sections have come a long way, but it’s still the domain of old white guys doing the business of publicly traded companies. Most bloggers aren’t even incorporated. If blogging were covered by biz, it would be as black and white as the paper itself. So I for one am glad to see blogging (or anything, but I admit, I’m a former features editor, so I’m biased) on the style pages because there’s where you have the best chance of getting looser, more descriptive writing that actually has a pulse and doesn’t follow the inverted pyramid formula. And many important-with-a-capital-I stories get great coverage in features sections. It’s sort of old-school to think that’s the refuge for fluff.

I agree that the author (sorry, I forgot her name) reported what she saw. If she didn’t see bare feet or booze, they wouldn’t have ended up in the story. I don’t fault her reporting at all. The story was … fine. No ground broken, it didn’t do anything to change the uninformed reader’s mind about what blogging is or where it’s headed, but, as I think many have said in a delicate way, it wasn’t a premier conference anyway.

And this should stand as a lesson: If you view these conferences as a chance to blow off steam and get away from the kids for a few days so you can wear feather boas and tongue-kiss your besties, then be prepared to see it reflected back in print. And give the cries of misogyny a rest.

The uproar was ridiculous and really had an inside baseball aura to it. I know these people and issues are important in our world, but to read a story like this as condescending to our work as mothers and writers is overwrought. While I don’t want to see anyone’s writing belittled, even if it’s unpaid journaling, how many bloggers are making the kind of money where they can truly say, “How dare they mock me as I make a living for my family!”? The hubbub was self-important and even downright fake. If you chimed in with your comment about how insulted you were that your “job” was being demeaned, then that *must* mean you’re one of the players, one of the ones making actual money. Most of the people who raced to write a rebuttal post and most of the commenters were using this as a chance to show.

anna March 17, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Yeah, nobody cares if there’s alcohol at networking or schmoozing events. It’s the difference between a producer having a cocktail at a movie premier, and that same producer going into the bathroom and snorting lines of coke. Wait. What? What am I talking about?

Point is, there is context. Alcohol works to a certain degree in business networking events. With moderation, and after 5pm. These women were drinking mimosas, and they were doing it out of sippy cups. If I were writing about the conference, I ABSOLUTELY would have been ALL OVER THAT SHIT. Another thing is, you can say “you guys” and “dude” when you have earned respect from your audience. There are professors who do this all the time, and get away with it, male and female, because they know and we know and you know that they are the smartest person in that room, and nobody is going to think poorly of them for doing it. If you are secure in your actions, you don’t throw up your arms in despair when people write about it.

WHY DID THEY MENTION THE SIPPY CUPS?! Oh, I mean, WHY NOT DRINK OUT OF SIPPY CUPS?! Why do you support the patriarchy?! It’s a hot mess, this response.

And also, let’s be honest, how many of the people leading the charge on this one would have paid money to go to this conference? Because I would not have, and I’m certain that many of the original people bitching about it would never have paid to attend. How about we examine those motives?

Kerry March 17, 2010 at 4:11 pm

“Well, bottom line: can you do work while you’re drunk? Do you take people seriously, male or female, who work while they drink, or work without shoes? I mean, if the person is a yoga instructor, then yes, but otherwise, in my mind it’s not a freaking gender issue.”

Exactly. I’m not sure where these people worked before, but I’ve worked for 39 companies (seriously, THIRTY-NINE), and I’ve never worked anyplace where people wouldn’t mock you (at best) for that. It’s not a gender thing; it’s a social-norms thing. When you do those things, male or female…people aren’t going to take you seriously. So if you want to appear whimsical or cute or something, go ahead, but then don’t complain about the result, y’know?

It’s hard for me to understand how people can say on one hand that a mention of sippy-cup drinking is condescending, and on the other hand say that the sippy-cup drinking is totally A-OK. I mean, if you think it’s okay to drink out of sippy cups, then how can the mention of this okay thing be a problem? And if you think it’s NOT okay, why are you mad at the reporter, instead of the women who drank out of sippy cups in front of a New York Times reporter? I don’t get it.

I wasn’t offended by the article, because I’m not a sippy-cup drinker. So it didn’t apply to me. It only applied to people drinking out of sippy-cups…which is something that, if I’d heard about it, I likely would have made fun of myself (whether the sippers were male or female).

In all the stuff about this article, I haven’t read anything about the links (although I haven’t read everything, so maybe I missed it). There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to who got an actual link and who didn’t. Now THERE is a real business issue, because if you’ve got a blog, a link from the New York Times is a big deal no matter what sort of cup you’re drinking out of. Wasn’t anyone upset about THAT?

anna March 17, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Yeah, that’s part of why I can’t take any of it seriously, and why I can kind of understand why the NYT would commission this piece for Fashion & Style, the response is all over the place — this is egregious! We’re businesswomen. No, wait, we’re not, we’re mothers, how dare you suggest that we were doing work. Or drinking out of sippy cups. Or, I mean, how dare you suggest that drinking alcohol out of sippy cups is bad? Whatever. It sounds so stupid.

Re links: there were some complaints about the links, yes, but that is a good question, I do wonder how they decided to do those. Nobody was questioning why some and not others, they were just saying (as usual) WHY NOT MEEEEE! MSM is pretty notoriously lame about netiquette, like when I was in Forbes they didn’t link me and they got the name of the website wrong (not that this is difficult to do, but I mean, how about using copy and paste?). I wonder if they did it according to who had been associated with other MSM outlets? I also wonder if the article as submitted was different, link-wise, than the one that was published. That’s a real business concern, not the rest of it.

Some conferences are worthy of real business treatment. Mom 2.0 is. Maybe some parts of BlogHer but not most of the stuff I went to last year. Have any of the people complaining, most of whom did not (and would not) pay money to attend the conference asked themselves if perhaps this conference was one that belonged in Fashion & Style? I mean, that sounds really harsh, but I don’t know how much of a social event this was versus an actual business event.

monkey March 17, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Blogher is a mixed bag. Some parts of it are very professional but it also produces an enormous amount of drama every year.

However, New York Times has a Media/Advertising portion of their Business section that currently features articles on the marketing of Tupperware to men (including a comment about catching moose-bait), about Michael Jackson’s estate, an advertising campaign about tampons and 2 articles about social media (including one that starts talking about mystery science theatre and another that features lengthy discussions about various forms of location based social media).

I still think the mommyblogger articles should be shunted to this portion of the newspaper, whether or not sippy cups were involved, because the articles relate to the business of new media and all the other new media articles seem to get dumped there.

anna March 17, 2010 at 5:03 pm

That’s probably true. Either their radar is not on the mommybloggers yet, or they just don’t want to do it. I also think you have to get somebody to propose the story to them — have there been articles pitched to the business section that have been turned down, or said, “We will do this, but only for Fashion & Style.” That’s what I want to know.

Kerry March 17, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Actually, if you could find out, that would make a great addition to the “Business of Blogging” series.

I suspect some of those out there who have been talking about this (Finslippy, for example) have either personal experience or other insight beyond what the casual observer might. If there are people out there who really know firsthand how this has been working, that would be very interesting.

J. March 18, 2010 at 12:17 am

I can’t tell if I really like the dead Kermits, or if they just creep me out.

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