Torture Play: Girls, Women, and Barbie Dolls

Barbie is without doubt one of the most controversial and widely discussed toys of the modern era. Interwoven with gender stereotypes, the doll further plays them out against young and adolescent girls (who are expected to treat the plaything as the depiction of an adult woman). Mattel’s toy could be seen as evidence that the company has no veristic intentions; but there’s more to it than just the sanitized female image. The elastic properties of plastic have enabled the company to create bodies that allude to reality, but adhere to it only to the extent required to demonstrate to the toy’s users certain characteristic, selective, and abstract corporeal models that are impossible to replicate. Barbie can have unnaturally supple breasts, feet shaped to fit high-heeled shoes, an impossibly slim waist, and permanent makeup – and yet none of the toy’s thousands of models have nipples or genitals.

One of the features of Barbie dolls, which exploit and transform popular notions of beauty, is their mutual similarity. Their hyperfeminine bodies exist in worlds conjured up by toy companies, realms in which young consumers are persuaded that “anything is possible.”1 At the same time, these depictions consistently draw on the repertoire of everyday life: objects, fashion, interpersonal relationships, and professions. It appears, therefore, that in order to achieve success and amass unlimited capital, one must pursue a specific yet unachievable visual type. Here we arrive at the source of the criticism leveled against the doll’s unrealistic depictions, the tailoring of its dimensions to the male gaze, and its negative influence on the children who play with it.

The purpose of this essay, however, is not to repeat well-established critiques.2 Instead, I attempt to explain why this Mattel toy so frequently becomes the object of violence. I discuss artistic projects in which the bodies of dolls and the bodies of girls/women are often treated in contrast to each other, and are sometimes equated. My exploration of these relationships runs through artworks that straddle the boundaries between the visual arts, drama, and literature. The violent imagery contained in these examples appears to stem directly from Barbie’s own attributes. Each of these works, however, portrays different attitudes towards the doll. Crucial context is also provided by theories and articles on the psychology of play and new materialism.

Plastic play

First model of the Barbie doll, 1959

Barbie was a rather risky project when she debuted at the American Toy Fair in 1959. Industry investors, who at the time were almost exclusively male, showed little interest in the bikini-clad doll designed by Ruth Handler. Others observed, at the manufacturing phase, that Barbie resembled a prostitute. This was not far from the truth: the doll was modeled on Lilli, the main character in an erotically tinged comic strip that ran in the German magazine Bild-Zeitung. Her adventures revolved around encounters with her girlfriends, her boss, and her boyfriend – a relevant fact in the context of Barbie stories intended for young audiences. Although Lilli made a living as a secretary, she earned extra income on the side as a prostitute. Her lines contained obvious sexual subtexts (“I could do without balding old men, but my budget couldn’t!”). The popularity of the strip led to the creation of the Bild Lilli doll, which became a popular novelty gift at bachelor parties.

Ruth Handler stumbled upon Bild Lilli at a German market stall on a European trip with her children, and soon purchased the rights to the doll. The result of this investment – the first version of the Barbie doll – bore a strong resemblance to Lilli. Both dolls had long faces; high eyebrows painted with a light brushstroke; broad eyelids covered in eyeshadow; black lines around their eyes, which were more cat-like than human; suggestive, sidelong gazes; narrow noses; and lips painted red. Handler skirted the matter of the figurine’s German heritage, and Mattel also distanced itself from the disreputable past of its most famous product.

Undeterred by the lukewarm reception at the Toy Fair, Handler invested in television advertisements in which the doll was portrayed wearing a wedding gown. Barbie flew off store shelves, and Mattel soon became the world’s leading toy company. But this success did little to prevent further controversy. Barbie’s manufacturers were accused of encouraging anorexia and an unhealthy obsession with one’s appearance, of favoring the fair-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed version of the doll, and of orientalizing her other incarnations (her Latina friend Teresa was advertised as “wet ’n wild”).

Today, Barbie is described – depending on one’s preference – as either the idealized, hyperbolized, or warped image of the average young woman. Barbie is endowed with a disproportionately slim waist; a rather large head; big blue eyes; long blond hair; large breasts; feet shaped to fit high-heeled shoes; long, thin legs; perfectly smooth skin; and a permanent smile. Her slender body becomes the representation of desire from the male perspective. The ubiquity of that position means that the doll’s body influences, by means of reflexive projection, women’s preferences regarding their own appearance. Enchanted by the attractiveness of this plastic idol, its users (or at least some of them) engage in the process of mimicry, making themselves resemble the dolls to a greater or lesser extent. At one end of this range of reactions lies a fondness for the color pink and the habit of collecting gadgets related to Barbie and other beloved characters; at the opposite end is the penchant for plastic surgery and the Human Barbie movement.3

However, depictions of Barbie as a passive and harmful figure have disappeared from recent cultural and sociological analyses of the doll. In the book Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body, Kim Toffoletti argues that the continued analysis of Barbie as a symbol of women’s oppression under capitalism and patriarchy is no longer effective.4 Much like post-structuralist feminists, Toffoletti focuses on how representations of reality in the Barbie body type affect people and their perceptions. The author thus approaches the Mattel toy with an eye for subversiveness in popular culture, exploring how many artists use the doll to challenge cultural stereotypes;5 how, to people in the LGBTQ community, it can become part of the process of fostering one’s identity; and how it can be a figure that corresponds to queer forms of expression.6

Beginning with the idea that novel forms of visual culture have changed the way we look at images and understand corporeality, Toffoletti points to Barbie as an example of an alternative and transformative concept of the body. She broadens this interpretation with an analysis of plastic as a democratic, widely available material that serves as a metaphor for freedom. Underscoring the role of plastic in the lives of humans, particularly its use in prosthetics, she questions beliefs about the autonomy of the “natural” human body. This is an attempt to challenge convictions about the unity of objects and formulate a more fluid concept of the human being: humans shape plastic – and plastic, in return, shapes humans. By drawing attention to the matter from which the toys are made, Toffoletti challenges the widespread notion of the doll as an artificial and passive figure. Instead, she conducts a dialectic analysis of the doll, pointing out that Mattel gives Barbie the option of transformation, though not in the kinetic sense. The doll’s metamorphosis occurs through the change of clothing, the objects in her possession, and the professions implied by different outfits.7 Barbie can perform many roles without having any coherent identity of her own, yet the finiteness of those transformations is made plainly apparent by the limited flexibility of her body.

Furthermore, the scholar observes that the unrealistic, exaggerated, hyperfeminine dimensions of Barbie’s body point to the inherent limitations of male-centrism by posing a threat to its privileged status. As the bearer of a powerful paradigm that is impossible to imitate properly, the toy begins to threaten not only the women who cannot fully copy her, but also men themselves. In this interpretation, Barbie embodies male fears of female domination. The strong sexual identity represented by the toy threatens to rupture the patriarchal canon, often causing boys and men to forcefully reject the doll. This strikes me as the source of the violent acts Barbie experiences, and, in a broader sense, the source of the aggression that targets many women today. Plastic may give the doll greater possibilities, but it turns out that further transformation is associated not with freedom, but with enslavement and violence.

A study of American schoolchildren conducted by Tara L. Kuther and Erin McDonald revealed different play activities associated with Barbie. The most surprising one involved torturing the doll: cutting her hair, painting her, and tearing off appendages and burning the toy. Doll torture typically occurred in the presence of boys or was initiated by them. When asked to explain why she tortured her Barbie, one of the subjects answered, “because she is the only one that looks perfect.” Doll torture, when it isn’t performed by brothers to spite their sisters, can stem from a person’s ambivalence towards the status of women and the social concepts of femininity and beauty. The third of these play activities involves anger. Participants of the study explained that this way of playing with the doll was a means of releasing anger and emotion. It can be concluded, therefore, that the doll allows its users to vent emotions and even serves a therapeutic purpose.8

The existence of practices that can also be described as “Mondo Barbie,”9 which involve the torture and brutal transformation of the dolls, demonstrate that “Barbie is an icon, perhaps, of how gender and violence are knotted together in modern societies – gender and war, gender and domestic violence, gender and rape, gender and child abuse, gender and aggression.”10 The doll’s strong presence in culture is no longer associated solely with her appearance, though her external attributes are among the causes of these radical responses. Barbie has come to represent women who fall victim to physical abuse; this, in turn, places her in a different canon of representing the body than the one from which she started.

The doll is typically abused by boys, who take revenge on their sisters for devoting too much attention to the “perfect” toy. The source of these reactions can be traced back to the different upbringings of boys and girls, both of whom are consistently made aware of the differences that determine their genders. These are manifested, for example, in the choice of color: blue is assigned to boys, while pink is for girls (though this division is relatively new).11 As children grow up, they enjoy a more diverse palette, but the color pink permanently retains its girlish associations. Another important step in this early stage of parenting is the attribution of particular toys to each gender. Even toys that could potentially be enjoyed by both, such as Lego, are often carefully profiled: boys are given sets involving fantasy worlds, mechanical devices, Westerns, and space travel, while the house- and farm-themed sets go to the girls. All of this consistently fosters a sense of alienation among children as they grow up, and serves to multiply differences that are based solely on gender.

Popular culture naturally plays a key role in this process, as it educates, hooks, and draws its audience into a reality based on specific models and divisions. It also provides more entertainment than the sober world represented by school, adults, and the institutions associated with them. As James E. Combs observes in his study Play World: The Emergence of the New Ludenic Age:

Everything from movies to video games to sports conveys the message that if you want to win, you have to aggress against someone else. The popular culture has long entertained the idea that violent solutions, usually by force of arms, are the way to get what you want. A century of Western movies and books, police and private-eye tales, the folklore of G.I. warfare, sports such as football and hockey, the covert youth culture of bullying and fisticuffs and gangs, all perpetuate the popular ethic of violence. For some impressionable people, popular culture legitimates violence as playful, as a powerful social tactic that achieves results.12

Inflicting violence upon toys owned by others thus combines the desire to play and become more like the chosen character, and the desire to exert control over those considered alien or threatening. The destruction or torture of dolls typically involves pulling off their limbs, asymmetrically cutting or burning their hair, undressing them, tearing their clothes, dirtying them, or writing on their bodies. Video recordings of these acts are not only posted online regularly – they have acquired characteristic depictions of their own in many works of art. However, in art the vengeful boys give way to men, and the Barbie dolls are abused as stand-ins for oppressed women.13

Violent play

Many of the art projects that portray Barbie as the victim of violence depict her in a domestic setting, in the familiar playhouses and farms sold as accessories, testifying to the role that child-rearing plays in increasing gender difference. Below, I discuss several projects that address the complex consequences stemming from Barbie’s agency.

Sam Humphreys, It's A Matter Of Trust, 2014 (source)

One of the best-known undertakings of this type is Samantha Humphreys’ series of photographs It’s A Matter of Trust (2014), which she made for the project Speaking Out at the University of Leicester. Her depictions of the dolls’ pale, bleeding, and bruised faces remind us of the possible contrast between real life and its idealized version.14 This issue is particularly relevant in the context of child-rearing and its idealized artifacts, one of which is the popular Mattel toy. With their focus on the detailed depiction of bodies lying still at a crime scene, some of Humphreys’ photos bring to mind the aesthetic of forensic photography. By accenting Barbie’s characteristic beauty features – her strong makeup, lustrous blond hair, and bright, colorful clothing – the artist links the doll’s trademark style with the brutal aesthetic of violence. In doing so, she also emphasizes the surprising relationship between the two, pointing out that by ignoring these topics, parents might be leaving their children ill-equipped to identify violent behavior as they grow up.

Barbie also loses her innocence in the projects created from 2011 to 2018 by Mariel Clayton, who describes herself as a “Barbie doll photographer with a subversive sense of humor.” The artist typically portrays the toy as a sadist, a perpetrator of domestic violence, and a murderer who delights in kinky sex. Scenes depicting the aftermath of various crimes (a man’s head placed in a bathtub or refrigerator, for example) are slotted between everyday household chores (childcare, bathing, making sandwiches). But Clayton’s interests don’t stop at domestic violence: she also touches upon issues such as the aestheticization of the everyday, anorexia, bulimia, abortion, psychotic disorders, and nymphomania. Her choice of themes suggests that the visual and consumer standards promoted by Mattel underlie these phenomena. Depictions of Barbie as the perpetrator of violence appear to be atrocious visualizations of male fears. Domestic man is transformed into a submissive (often openly homosexual) Ken, who becomes subordinate to the hyperfeminine doll’s will.

Mariel Clayton, For You Valentine A Piece Of My Heart, Well, Not My Heart, 2011-2018 (source)

The situations that Clayton presents are, for other artists, transitional moments between portrayals of a “world of endless possibilities” to physical violence, which, in this transformed world, stakes out the limits of the manifestations of femininity.15 If we were to approach Clayton’s pieces as visualizations of an internal perspective, we would have to conclude that they depict male anxieties about being dominated by women; if we interpret the depictions as external, it would follow that the artist’s intention is to depict figures responding to symbolic and physical violence, rejecting the demands of reconciling their own ambitions with the fealty and subservience required by the patriarchal world.

Ostensible similarities to Mariel Clayton’s work can be found in a project by Magdalena Poprawska. The artist first presented her photo series Let’s Play in 2006 at the 2πR Gallery in Poznań.16 Its four photographs capture a sequence of events enacted by dolls in a mockup of a brightly lit, sterile apartment. Each of the images depicts one or two figures, in a manner that suggests they were taken randomly or surreptitiously. The camera angles are irregular, implying haste and chance. The violence here takes place behind closed doors, and likewise the observer remains anonymous. None of the pictures offer full-frontal views of the figures; parts of their bodies always remain outside the frame, subversively foreshadowing the image in which a splatter of blood is all that remains of the doll-woman. Accompanying the characters in the photos are a few plastic objects: a chair, a table, a chicken on a tray, a knife, a mirror, a hairbrush, shoes scattered on the floor, and – in the background – a display cabinet with a candelabra.

The simplest interpretation of these photographs would imply that the viewer is watching a crime unfold. In a luxury apartment, a woman waits, with dinner on the table. Perhaps she’s so agitated by the prolonged delay that she begins nervously brushing her hair, tearing most of it out in the process. A man comes home, and violent sexual intercourse ensues, after which he murders her in cold blood. But it’s possible that the photographs are not intended to be interpreted as a cause-and-effect sequence, as they seem difficult to arrange in a logical order. Such a linear interpretation is also derailed by the illogical use of accessories: why, for instance, does the woman await the man in the nude, and why do we see clothing draped over the chair when the man enters the frame?

Magdalena Poprawska, Let's play, 2006 (source)

Our attention is drawn to the cold colors of the interior and the warm hues of the food, the blood, and the dolls’ plastic bodies. The relationship between the figures remains unclear, however: is this a depiction of an abused or murdered woman and the man who committed the crime? Was this a role-playing scene staged for a more intense sexual experience (as implied by the ambiguous title)? Is the hairless woman expecting the arrival of the man, or is she inspecting the effects of her brutal mistreatment in the mirror? Poprawska’s work differs in this regard from Mariel Clayton’s staged scenes of Barbie’s everyday life. The aesthetic found in the American artist’s work is largely inspired by the depictions produced by Mattel. She surrounds the classic, smiling Barbie doll with the overabundance of accessories that defines her world. These staged portraits of daily life are marred by events that radically disrupt their internal order: murders, vomiting, Ken cheating on Barbie with another man. In Poprawska’s images, the dolls are transferred to an aesthetically different reality, to which dread, anxiety, and crime appear to be intrinsic. This space is nothing like the “world of endless possibilities”; it does resemble, however, the cold laboratories found in other Polish artworks featuring Barbie, among them Alicja Żebrowska’s Original Sin (1994) and Monika Zielińska’s Lebensborn (1999).17

Poprawska also draws our attention to the radical divergence between the conventions of child’s play and popular cinema (particularly horror films). Let’s Play seems to be – although we can’t be certain – a game of physical violence, partly based on torture play. A perfect Barbie doll is brutally abused; the blood from her body stains the sterile room. Stripping the attractive doll of its hair, which many girls consider to be the toy’s most important attribute, is an attack on the beauty myth so carefully nurtured in Mattel’s world. The staged scene reminds us that representations of Barbie routinely omit depictions of pain, bodily fluids, and anxiety. The artist deceitfully directs the viewer’s gaze away from the toy’s flawless appearance, inviting us instead to replay each step of the alleged crime, its aftermath, and the possible motive for the attack. As the visual product of an oppressive patriarchal society, Barbie herself becomes a provocation and a form of entertainment – a movie-game, a staged instance of sexual intercourse, rape, and violence. In a world such as this, torture play becomes the norm, rather than the exception.

Her girlish body

The novel Barbie (1999) by Zbigniew T. Gieniewski tells the story of two teenage boys, Rambo and King. One day, having skipped school on a whim, the two meet Marta, a little girl who reminds them of Barbie: “And then, all of a sudden, it struck me. It was like standing in front of a real-life Barbie, with her eyes, her hair, her clothes. Like she was this personification of girlish beauty.”18 From the moment they meet her, the boys speak to Marta as if she were a doll, and the girl doesn’t mind the newly bestowed name at all.

Rambo and King come from broken homes devoid of emotional intimacy, and have experienced physical violence. They spend most of their time away from their apartments, which they return to unwillingly.19 King describes himself as a misfit, and attributes this to “the lack of everything that Barbie talks about: hugs and kisses, family baths, a father’s anger, a mother who would weigh me and draw lines on the door jamb in my room, and a room itself, and even a childhood itself, which is something I never had.”20 The boy is lonely and overweight, and therefore must also deal with the non-normativity of his own body and the violence he has suffered. His favorite activities are hanging out with the more capable and confident Rambo, and fantasizing about sex with Czereńka, the teacher on whom he has a secret crush.

The two characters’ encounters with Barbie are limited to long walks, during which the boys wander increasingly far from home and draw closer to the girl. Their fawning treatment of her, while psychologically unconvincing, gradually intensifies as they share physical encounters and repeatedly enquire about the intimate details of her parents’ sex life. As King carries her on his shoulders, feeling the touch of her body, he wonders “what it’s like down there, between her legs […] is it like those VHS tapes Rambo showed him, or are little girls different somehow?”21 Barbie is depicted as a trusting, confident girl who isn’t shy about giving the boys kisses or baring her own body: “Barbie suddenly fluttered her eyelashes, opened her eyes wide like a flirtatious artist in the movies, and surprised me with a kiss right on the lips.”22 Despite her young age, the character is depicted as being aware of her attractiveness and knowing how to use it.

Having grown up surrounded by an abundance of readily available pop-culture models, the lonely boys wind up causing a tragic event. The two begin imitating sexual intercourse with Barbie; it is the first time King has done anything like this, “and with a little woman, no less, because that’s how she behaved, and I kissed her and touched her girlish body as if she were a woman.”23 As they imitate intercourse, King imagines he’s having sex with his beloved teacher. Barbie, who is aware of her parents’ sex life, appears to treat intercourse like another game that imitates the lives of grownups. But she stops having fun the moment Rambo joins the game. When they spot police nearby, searching for Marta, Rambo climbs onto the shrieking girl and covers her mouth with his hand, unintentionally asphyxiating her. King eventually contemplates the lifeless body: “Something told me to stare at Barbie, at her lopsided head, her bulging eyes, her open mouth, agape as if ready to scream mommy mommy, and the doll-like body that looked as if someone had twisted its rubber joints.”24 Bewildered by this sudden turn, King takes advantage of Rambo’s brief absence, bends down to spread her vagina open with his fingers, and is surprised to discover that the sight is nowhere near as exciting as he had expected. The boys then dispose of Barbie’s body in a nearby swamp.

In the boys’ minds, the girl’s blond hair and blue eyes immediately evoke associations with an object – inanimate matter that encourages play and imagination. “All I know is that it started the moment I laid eyes on Barbie – when she looked at me with those blue eyes that so made me want to hold her tight and do something else, I don’t know what.”25 It was Barbie’s presence that enabled them to unleash the “animality”26 that had lay dormant within them for so long. Thus, precisely those features that represent the most popular version of the doll, characteristics that Monika Zielińska ties to Aryanness in Lebensborn, evoke in the boys the extreme reactions of awe and violence.

Ghost Sonata, Nowy Teatr in Warsaw, 2017. Photo by Magda Hueckel, press materials of the theatre

It’s worth noting that the unexpected consequences of playing with dolls is a theme that is also addressed, albeit sporadically, in the play The Ghost Sonata, by August Strindberg, as performed at the Nowy Theater in Warsaw (2017). In director Markus Öhrn’s version, the Colonel’s daughter (played by Magdalena Popławska) plays with deformed Barbie dolls, which she hangs from various objects, tearing at them and hitting them against her body and parts of the set. In this radical critique of the modern middle-class family, the character thus expresses her lack of control over her budding sexuality, and her inability to distinguish violent behavior. The similarity between the head of the girl and that of the doll (the actor’s faces are obscured by spherical papier-mâché masks) points at their sad affinity, which involves social objectification and the mindless repetition of aesthetic and ethical standards. The juxtaposition of the adolescent girl and the doll affects the behavior of the former in the play’s second half, when the Colonel’s daughter simulates an erotic act with the Student. While this behavior goes beyond innocent play, it is unsurprising, considering the dreamy and drastic setting of Öhrn’s staging.

In both of the above works, the activity of play unexpectedly spins out of control in a way that involves premature, dangerous sexual contact. Although Barbie is an often simplified and psychologically unconvincing tale of two teenage boys infatuated with a little girl, the story Gieniewski tells is in fact relevant in a broader context. The boys remain unmoved by their murder of the doll-like girl, an act which, in their experience, is just another insignificant, everyday event. While Barbie’s death is not the result of revenge, and is depicted as accidental, the boys’ objectification of the girl reinforces an existing social norm, which states that a specific type of female appearance is reflexively associated with passivity and susceptibility to outside control. This is why Gieniewski so emphatically highlights the influence of popular culture, the consequences of gendered parenting, and the absence of authority figures who could change Rambo and King’s perspective. The inevitable result of the boys being caught playing with a doll is that they must dispose of it and attempt to return to a world in which the impossible poses no threat to the practices established by the patriarchal norm. In this world, the Barbie-like girl is considered exceptional, as pretty as a doll, which leads to an adoration that is ultimately revealed to be superficial, because it condemns the girl to even greater danger. There is no place for this innocent being among imperfect people.

A world of limited impossibilities

By depicting imperfect versions of Barbie, artists can express the anxiety evoked by the norms promoted by the doll’s canonical incarnations. Not only does the excessive idealization and hyperbolization of the female image in Barbie’s body lead to the transgression of social mores, but it also affects the ways in which women are depicted. Their excessive idealization seems coupled to an opposing dynamic – namely, brutalization. A bleeding, dismembered Barbie seems to tempt the viewer’s gaze because, instead of stopping to think about her condition, they begin to analyze the ways in which she has failed to meet the standards of her canonical representation. Magdalena Poprawska takes a complex approach to this problem by challenging the viewer’s cognitive certainty and directing their thoughts towards the essence of the depicted scene.

The artists and authors behind the works described above seem to believe that by depicting perfect (and hence nonexistent) figures, they provoke reactions that are the opposite of that idealization: fear and its resultant violence. Barbie is the dream product of a consumer and patriarchal society; at the same time, it stirs fear among society that excessive adherence to this world’s standards will turn into its own opposite. In this society, the effect of symbolic violence becomes too foreign even for its creator, and is annexed by the subject of oppression (girls playing with perfect dolls as their impatient brothers look on, unable to understand their sisters). The response is physical violence, an act that serves as a reminder of the prevailing order and leaves the mark of its agency on the body that disobeys its creator.

***

In early 2016 Mattel introduced its new Fashionistas series of Barbie dolls.27 Their dimensions, appearance, and racial and ethnic identities differ from the toy’s previous norms. Customers now have four body types from which to choose, along with seven skin colors, twenty-two eye colors, and twenty-four hairstyles. A more diverse selection of clothing was also introduced alongside the products: a few months earlier, the advertisement for Moschino Barbie became the first Barbie commercial to feature a boy, depicted as thrilled to be playing with the new doll. Last year Mattel also diversified Ken’s appearance, and released a promotional film that showed fathers talking to their daughters about playing with the dolls together.28 It would appear that, after a series of artistic interventions and innumerable critical statements, the world of Mattel is gradually becoming more democratic. The rediscovery of plastic’s elastic qualities should have a positive influence on the emancipation of a figure made of this material; nevertheless, some will likely still be tempted to set the toy on fire, if only for the sheer glee of watching an emancipated doll melt.

1One of Mattel’s main advertising slogans. In 2014, while continuing to describe Barbie’s realm as a “world of endless possibilities,” the company launched a campaigned titled Anything is Possible in several (mainly Eastern European) countries: Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia, Greece, Turkey, and Hungary. For this event, Mattel created a special application that taught users how to sing and dance. It was designed to help girls take part in the company’s song and dance competition. Users of the app can read a manual that features the profiles of famous women, from Audrey Hepburn to Marie Curie, who proved that “anything is possible.” “Barbie szuka małych tancerek i piosenkarek” [Barbie’s looking for young singers and dancers], Marketing przy kawie, September 2, 2014, https://marketingprzykawie.pl/espresso/barbie-szuka-malych-tancerek-i-piosenkarek-wideo (accessed January 8, 2018).

2Reflections on femininity are directly tied to analyses of corporeality in all feminist theories. See, for example, Mary F. Rogers, Barbie Culture (London: Sage, 1999).

3These individuals undergo a series of plastic surgery procedures to make their appearances more like that of the doll. Interventions range from subtle facial injections of Botox, hyaluronic acid, or collagen, to rib removal. Crucially, in light of the discussion above, “Human Barbies” are typically seen as extreme cases, ones that promote unnatural body types and are worthy of criticism and ridicule, the fullest expression of which can be observed in the abusive online comments about them.

4Kim Toffoletti, Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 57–80.

5One noteworthy example is the film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), directed by Todd Haynes, which tells the story of the famous singer for The Carpenters in the 1970s and her struggle with anorexia. Other relevant pieces include Zbigniew Libera’s Ken’s Aunt and the more realistically shaped dolls made by Nickolay Lamm.

6Ken is sometimes interpreted as being a homosexual, with Barbie being a drag queen (proving that femininity is created by the costume).

7It follows that toys targeted mainly at boys – for example Transformers, whose very essence is their mutability, and Action Man figures, which can be posed to imitate movement – no longer function in complete opposition to the more static toys made for girls.

8Urszula Kluczyńska, “Barbie… to tylko (?!) lalka. Jak plastikowa zabawka socjalizuje w ideal piękna i zdrowia” [Barbie… she’s just (?!) a doll: How a plastic toy socializes (children) into ideals of health and beauty], Pielęgniarstwo polskie no. 2/3 (2007), 254. See also Tara L. Kuther and Erin McDonald, “Early Adolescents’ Experiences with, and Views of, Barbie,” Adolescence vol. 39, no. 153 (2004), 41–43, 47–49.

9Marie F. Rogers uses this term in her book.

10Rogers, Barbie Culture, 29.

11As late as the 1910s, the color pink was considered more appropriate for boys, while blue was for girls. This began to change in the United States during World War II. The shift was guided by manufacturers and retailers, who encouraged consumers to make their children’s clothes more like the wardrobes of adults. In the West, infant clothes in separate colors assigned to either gender began to appear in stores in large quantities in the mid-1980s. This was prompted by the development of prenatal sex determination, to which retailers quickly responded by offering customers the option of using color to differentiate gender. At the same time, the change was also driven by growing spending on accessories for children, which begin to identify with a particular gender by the age of three or four. Colors are used to emphasize this identity. Jean Maglaty, “When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?,” Smithsonian.com, April 7, 2011, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-did-girls-start-wearing-pink-1370097/?no-ist=&preview=&page=1 (accessed May 16, 2018).See also Jo B. Paoletti, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012). The use of color to construct gender norms is also addressed in JeongMee Yoon’s photo series The Pink & Blue Project, in which the South Korean artist photographs children posing with monochromatic objects. See “JeongMee Yoon Explores Color And Gender In ‘Pink And Blue Project’ (PHOTOS),” Huffington Post, April 17, 2012,https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/17/jeongmee-yoon_n_1432203.html?utm_hp_ref=feminism (accessed May 16, 2018).

12James E. Combs, Play World: The Emergence of the New Ludenic Age (Westport: Praeger, 2010), 66–67.

13Kim Toffoletti notes that feminist critiques of Barbie have often drawn associations between the doll and mannequins, femininity, consumerism, and violence. See Toffoletti, Cyborgs and Barbie, 66.

14See “Domestic Abuse Barbie Project Shows Realities Of Violence Against Women,” Huffington Post, February 12, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/02/11/domestic-abuse-barbie-reality-violence-against-women_n_4765119.html (accessed January 2, 2018).

15Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s 2015 film The Lure uses a Barbie doll context in a related way. The main characters, a pair of mermaids named Gold and Silver, are pulled from the Vistula river in the 1980s and discover the world of Warsaw dance clubs. While men aren’t too surprised by their fish tails, they mock the girls’ deficiencies: “There’s nothing down there. It’s like a Barbie doll.” After spending a long time out of the water, the characters decide to get rid of their tails. They then become vampires, picking up confident men and biting their throats. Smoczyńska reconfigures the plot of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, deploying vampire and Barbie themes in response to the patriarchal realities of the depicted world. She achieves this by introducing two women who did not grow up in it or understand its norms. Their response is to take revenge on the men for the way they treat women.

16“Fotografie Magdaleny Poprawskiej w Galerii 2πR” [Photographs by Magdalena Poprawska on display at the 2πR Gallery], Świat Obrazu,http://www.swiatobrazu.pl/fotografie_magdaleny_poprawskiej_w_galerii_2960ruznoilns.html (accessed December 30, 2017).

17In these spaces experiments are conducted on Barbie’s body, producing alternative versions of the doll or subjecting it to extreme circumstances (childbirth, murder, rape). This focus on the doll’s impossible corporeality in the entirely real setting of a hospital or doctor’s office seems meaningful: society wants to know how Barbie works and how it can become more like her. If we are to believe the artworks discussed here, the doll is impossible to copy perfectly, and any attempt to do so will inevitably be undermined by human imperfection.

18Zbigniew T. Gieniewski, Barbie (Warsaw: Prószyński i S-ka, 1999), 74.

19As King says: “What for? To pretend I’m doing my homework? To watch TV? To nod as if I’m actually listening to them? To that noise in my headphones, because I’m not allowed to play it too loud? To sit down at the trough and then go to bed? To be bored?” According to Rambo, his mother “rises like clockwork and you never know how the day will go. It all depends on her mood. But as soon as he senses the nagging coming, off he goes into the mountains […] and that’s the last I’ll see of him for the whole day or more.” Ibid., 8.

20Ibid., 116.

21Ibid., 88.

22Ibid., 105.

23Ibid., 108–109.

24Ibid., 159.

25Ibid., 93.

26Ibid., 52.

27Aleksandra Kisiel, “Po 57 latach lalka Barbie w końcu może zrezygnować z diety. W ofercie Mattel w końcu pojawiła się krągła lalka!” [After 57 years, Barbie finally gets to go off her diet: Mattel finally releases a curvy doll]], Kobieta.wp.pl, January 28, 2016,https://kobieta.wp.pl/po-57-latach-lalka-barbie-w-koncu-moze-zrezygnowac-z-diety-w-ofercie-mattel-w-koncu-pojawila-sie-kragla-lalka-5982323978408577a (accessed January 9, 2018).

28https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGPbKS8XUMY (accessed January 9, 2018).