Originally written circa 2010 – I am posting this for safe-keeping so I have digital copies of my old essays written for my BFA – footnotes & in-texts have been lost in translation from Word to WordPress to Wix, but references included below – featured image Annette Thas
Of Mere Plastic: A Discussion of Barbie and Plastic
…The doll is propelled through outer space,
A kind of miniature Barbarella.
She sports “Miss Astronaut” (1965),
A metallic silver fabric suit
(The brown plastic straps at the shoulders
And across the bodice feature
Golden buckles) and two-part
White plastic helmet. Her accessories:
Brown plastic mittens,
Zip boots, and sheer nylon
Mattel flag, which she triumphantly sticks
Into another conquered planet.
David Trinidad, from Of Mere Plastic
The first man-made plastic was shown at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London by Alexander Parkes. The organic material, dubbed Parkesine, could be heated and moulded, retaining its shape when cooled, and, unlike rubber, could be made transparent, and at a cheaper price. The use of plastic continued to expand, with the development of materials such as Bakelite, Polystyrene, Nylon, Polyethylene, and many others – until today, life without plastic is almost unimaginable. Plastic is, however, more than just a substance; Barthes suggests that plastic is “the very idea of its infinite transformation”. With this in mind, this essay will attempt to link the popular doll and American icon Barbie with Barthes concept of plastic – its infinite possibilities, and its inherent limitations, and determine to what extent Barbie is representative of these ideas.
Barthes describes plastic not so much as a material as “ubiquity made visible” – an enigma of single origin and plural effects, which rather than being concerned with the end product, acts instead as a trace of the transition from state to state – thus plastic itself exists only as a record of its current state. He considers this infatuation with the transient material to lead to an inevitable state of the production of objects purely for the “sole pleasure of using them”, something which is reflected even in the sheer amount of plastic waste we produce. Barthes describes plastic as a “spectacle”, and sounds almost infatuated when describing its “quick-change artistry” as a measure of man’s power. The very idea of such an enigmatic and magical material being not only at the hands of mankind but owing its very existence to it is an exciting one – and yet Barthes almost immediately seems to turn on the versatile substance and the ideas of transience and power it represents, describing what he considers to be the “price” of plastic and its popularity.
This “price” starts with what seems to be a criticism of what was once revered – its lack of existence as a substance. While the fact that plastic “hardly exists” may have initially been described as its means of overcoming infatuation with the object is now criticised instead, and its existence described as “a negative one”. Despite plastic’s often utilitarian function, Barthes now claims that because of its negative existence, it must be content with merely being able to “resist” or “yield” – to exist as an “unpoetic” substance that, whatever its final state, remains “powerless to ever achieve the triumphant smoothness of Nature”. Barthes also criticises plastic for its popularity and its part in the evolution of “imitation materials” – that instead of attempting to cheaply imitate diamonds, furs, silk, feathers (described as an honourable function), plastic has now climbed down to the level of “household material” – aiming instead to be a common substance, rather than to replicate “all the luxurious brilliance of the world” – whether or not this actually democratises plastic and its functions is not discussed. Barthes concludes by criticising its man-made origin (once espoused as a symbol of man’s power) stating that a “luxurious object is still of this earth, it still recalls, albeit in a precious mode, its mineral or animal origin” – before hammering the final nail in the coffin of plastic and its glory: “Plastic is wholly swallowed up in the fact of being used: ultimately, objects will be invented for the sole pleasure of using them. The hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticised…”
Around the world, two Barbie dolls are sold every second, and in 1992 it was determined that if all the Barbie dolls ever sold “were placed head to toe, they would describe the circumference of the earth four times”. Barbie is “America’s most beloved, most notorious piece of posable plastic” – born in 1956 when Mattel founder Ruth Handler found a risqué doll called Bild Lilli during a trip to Europe. The Lilli doll was a novelty item from a popular adult cartoon strip, designed for men – but she inspired Handler to develop an adult doll for young girls, with the intention of allowing them to project their fantasies of the future onto her. Barbie first experienced controversy – criticised for being too overtly sexual, with her imposing measurements (40-18-32 if she were a real woman), but quickly won over many fans and now has 100 per cent name recognition with mothers of girls between the ages of three and ten. While Barbie is surrounded by huge controversy about her sexuality, whiteness, agelessness and narrow depiction of femininity, it is her plasticity (both physically and ideologically) that becomes apparent when considered in relation to Barthes’ ideas regarding plastic.
Barbie can be argued to be reflective of both the transitory nature of plastic, and of the later criticism of its stiff, fake and common nature. Importantly, she was originally intended to be something of a blank canvas – says Handler: “I designed Barbie with a blank face, so that the child could project her own dreams of the future onto Barbie. I never wanted to play up the glamorous life of Barbie. I wanted the owner to create a personality for the doll” – this same argument has been used to dismiss claims that Barbie’s sexuality influences the children who play with her: “Is there such widespread contempt for the intelligence of children that we really imagine they are stupid enough to be shaped by a doll?” – the doll doesn’t make the idea, and instead gives the user (and their imagination) the power – “excuse the pun, but she becomes plastic in children’s hands”. Barbie is also credited with the power to shift classes, not only switching from town house to camper van to office to spa, but also by forming a link between the demographics of children who play with her. Perhaps one of her most commented on ephemeral aspects is her costume – sometimes remarked upon with horror (Quindlen likens her to Dracula, constantly masking her true nature), but often suggested as being evidence of her power to transcend sexual and cultural boundaries, by opening herself up to any occupation, future or personality. Is Barbie’s fluid state evidence of her inherent ideological plasticity? Perhaps if she is shaped by children’s imagination, she is in a constant state of transformation, just as plastic is identified to be by Barthes – Jong believes that “whether you give children cornhusks or nutcrackers or Barbies to play with, the subversive imagination of childhood will triumph. A toy is a repository of fantasy”.
What then of the other aspects of plasticity mentioned by Barthes? The ones he so vehemently criticises – its commonality, cheapness, fakeness? These too are present in Barbie and her empire. Physically, Barbie has been changed over the years to include a twistable waist and bendable knees, but many still express dissatisfaction with the “inherently displeasing limitations of Barbie’s anatomy”, and describe many often ill-fated attempts to make her sit properly, ride horses, or walk bare-foot. Attempts in 1975 to create a Skipper (Barbie’s younger sister) doll that hit puberty and “grew up” (making her transcend the plastic tomb of age in which she is trapped) are criticised for being lame and ignorant attempts to transform her into two dolls – a child and a teen. When her left arm was cranked backwards, small breasts “emerged from her formerly flat chest” – her function to constantly go backwards and forwards between the two stages in life, never really achieving any meaningful transformation, and never really growing up (Paris points out that this limited view of a girl’s puberty involved only breasts, not blood). Celebrity versions of Barbie have been made – when Diahann Carroll, of TV series Julia saw the doll for which she modelled she brusquely stated: “It looks like all the other Barbies”. She is unable to look different, any more real. This can be considered a symptom of her material – Barthes claimed, plastic is unable to attain the perfection of nature, (although ironically Ruth Handler went on to create Nearly Me, a plastic breast prosthesis with a natural look and feel). Barbie has been developed to increase diversity amongst the range – she has had many careers, and has been released with different skin tones and hair and eye colours – and yet her representation of the white middle-class American ideal remains the same.
Both Barbie and plastic have been criticised for much in their time, and often these criticisms are linked. While Barbie has been celebrated for mirroring plastic’s fluidity – physically, socially, philosophically – she has been similarly criticised for being “plastic in the worst sense: hard, fake, a mass-market commodity”, forever trapped in her plastic state – both ultra-feminine, and robbed of her femininity, sexual, and without sex, she embodies the optimism and economic growth of the post-World War II America in which she was created, and the social and physical ideals of her consumer society. Do her many costumes and occupations function as freedom from any one path, or as disguises and masks to cover her true nature, her true existence – the negative existence of plastic that leads Barthes to turn so viciously against the material which was once an expression of power and freedom? Barbie is a doll “famous for her capacity to constantly change, as well as her paradoxically concomitant capacity to always remain the same” – she embodies the positive and the negative characteristics of plastic, be they physical or ideological, for better or for worse.
Barthes, R., “Plastic” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, Phaidon Press, London, 1973
McDonough, Y., ed. The Barbie Chronicles: A living doll turns 40, Touchstone, New York, 1999
The History of Plastic, American Chemistry Council, Inc., Virginia, Available on-line at: http://www.americanchemistry.com/s_plastics/doc.asp?CID=1102&DID=4665#alexander, 2005-2010