Get-a-grip Barbie


Lately, I've been thinking a lot about Barbie's body. Not about her figure, which is, of course, preposterous, or her sorority girl nose, or even her permanently high-heeled feet.
No, what's causing me consternation is Barbie's thumbs. Sure they're small but, with a few notable exceptions, all of her features are. That isn't the problem. The problem is that her thumbs aren't truly opposable. In other words, Barbie doesn't have a grip.
What this means, as any anthropologist worth her weight in sharpened sticks will tell you, is that Barbie cannot fashion or manipulate tools of any significant complexity. Oh, I suppose if you position her arm just right you can wedge the handle of a camping lantern between her thumb and forefinger, or more to the point the strap of a purse, but anything she would have to hold is a no go.
Wait a minute, you say. She's a doll, a plastic toy, and besides, she's older than you are. Show some respect. Okay, admittedly she is a toy and perhaps she doesn't deserve the unforgiving scrutiny of critics. But if you accept that toys can and do serve as indicators of societal norms, then Barbie's digitally challenged nature says some pretty damning things about our cultural expectations of women.
Most of the action figures made for boys can hold something. While it is true that a majority of the things they hold are weapons of some sort, these do at least allow the characters to affect their environment. The nature of that affect is usually destructive and violent, but it is also almost always heroic.
So what tools does Barbie have at her disposal? The answer is precious few. Even if Barbie were aspiring to be like her action figure counterparts and had the grip to prove it, about the best she could do would be to try to run over Ken in her Porche 911. Not that a successful attempt would be meaningful. Ken's no world menace, he's just a putz. (And if that justified a death warrant, more than a few of us would be in serious trouble.)
To be honest, Barbie doesn't have equipment; she has accessories, the differ-ence is important. Equipment denotes necessity, and while high-fashion clothing and pretty-boy companions are nice, necessities they're not.
Action figures and the equipment they come with are designed with outwardly directed action in mind. GI Joe, in case you hadn't noticed, doesn't come with a hair brush. He's got better things to do than worry about personal grooming.
By all appearances, Barbie is the embodiment of all that the leisure class holds dear. There are few jobs we can imagine Barbie having that could possibly provide her with the extraordinary wealth she possesses.
To start with, Barbie has a wardrobe that would make Ru-Paul green with envy. She's got a Porche, a Ferrari Testarossa, a Jaguar and a Corvette. She's got a jeep, two motor homes, a yacht, a Hawaiian bungalow and a dream house. I hate to think about Barbie's primary residence, and I suspect that the only reason Mattel hasn't put it out yet is because it would strain the world's plastics reserves.
It really is unfortunate that Barbie is squandering her time in the pursuit of leisure activities and vanity, and it is telling that Mattel can market and sell with such stunning success this particular character concept: "Hi, I'm Barbie. I don't do anything; I just look good. Math is hard. Let's go to the mall."
This same character concept, if aimed at boys would fail dismally. Boys are expected to do, to act on their environment and their toys reflect this expectation. Girls, on the other hand, are expected to exist as objects d'art, to be wealthy and beautiful. How much they are valued depends upon how closely they come to actualizing these ideals. In all her tanned and permed splendor, Barbie is presented to girls as womanhood fulfilled, the perfect state to which they should aspire.
Still, you could argue that Barbie does indeed have a job - actually several. After all, Army Barbie, Airforce Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, Doctor Barbie and Police Officer Barbie are available. They are advertised under the catchy slogan, "We Girls Can Do Anything."
Mattel might consider changing the slogan to, "We Girls Can Dress Like We Can Do Anything," since none of these Barbies come with any equipment of note, nor is any available for them.
There is no jet for Airforce Barbie. There is no Humvee for Army Barbie. There is no surgical suite or office for Doctor Barbie and there is no space lab for Astronaut Barbie. Police Officer Barbie doesn't have a gun or handcuffs or a flak jacket. She doesn't even come with a pad to write up traffic violations.
What Police Officer Barbie does come with is a gown, high heeled shoes and a plastic hairbrush so that she can go to the policeman's ball and accept an award (I'm not making this up; it's on the box). What award she could possibly be getting, I can't fathom. Perhaps it's for having the shortest skirt.
The point is that none of these professional Barbies have the tools to ply their trades. They have the look of the professional, but none of the substance. They are, in essence, impostors.
The truth is it isn't really acceptable for Barbie to have a job because that would make her valuable and powerful and, hence, threatening. If Barbie works, even if only to defend the status quo in her own universe,she threatens it in ours by providing girls with an example of participation.
Beauty is inherently more subjective and ephemeral than the skills necessary for production. Even if physical perfection were attainable by the majority of women, it still wouldn't warrant the struggle involved. The fact remains that production capacity is more important to a society's progress and well-being than beauty can ever be. While Barbie is most certainly beautiful, that and her considerable purchasing power are all that she has. Aside from bolstering the economy, she is contributing nothing and is, therefore, doomed to a life devoid of meaning.
The solution, at least in the fantasy world, is simple. Get Barbie some equipment and give her the grip she needs to use it.
The changes to Barbie herself would be minor; the results startling. Barbie would become much more dynamic and interesting, and would provide girls with an early example of their equality.
Astronaut Barbie could rescue satellites that had gone adrift. Doctor Barbie could save Skipper with an emergency appendectomy. Police Officer Barbie could stop an armed robbery and receive an award for valor instead of for having the nicest looking legs.
Barbie's world would expand just as fast as Mattel could develop, produce and package the new Get-A-Grip Barbie line. And what objection could there possibly be? Barbie would still be just as beautiful and glamorous as she ever was, and she would have evolved a little bit too.

Jeremy M. Hanna is a health physicist and a freelance writer based in Columbia. He has also squandered way too much of his recent spare time on the Barbie aisle in Toys R Us and watching Saturday morning television.

© Copyright by POINT, 1995
Last modified 10/11/95