When I was a kid, I had a couple of Barbies. Not more than two or three. And I didn’t have any of the blonde ones. The only one I really remember was my Tropical Miko doll. I used to bring her to my best friend’s house and we would play. We never had a lot of fashions for our Barbies, so we mostly just devised these really elaborate soap opera narratives and would then spend a few minutes having our Barbies act them out. I’m not particularly proud of this aspect of my childhood. But, there it is. I was one of the Barbie girls. I’ve been amused by the recent Femen protest—where topless protestors burned Barbie on a crucifix in front of her new Berlin dreamhouse. The Barbie industrial complex is totally damaging in a gross way, so I respect the critique. I think it’s important. But it’s also making me think that Femen would do well to learn more about this facet of social life we call religion. I think it would be good for their feminist politics.
When it comes to Barbie, the one thing that’s stuck in my mind, all these years, is the fact that my best friend used to chew the feet of her Barbies. I think it was a nervous habit. And, the fact is, those Barbie feet were so tiny, and the plastic was so fragile and chewable, it was just too easy to do. It was almost like Matel designed Barbie feet to be chewed on (which would be super misogynistic). Barbie hands, for those of you who don’t know, are made of hard plastic. But the legs, which are soft and bendable, terminate in these tiny pointed feet that were unable to support Barbie, standing up. You actually needed a special Barbie stand if you wanted her to be fully upright. I don’t think my friend ever ate the plastic, but she definitely had a couple of Barbies whose feet were basically just gone. I also remember the afternoon that I decided to give Miko (who had really beautiful, long hair) a nice cut. When I realized that her hair was never going to grow back, I remember feeling a little sickened—partly with guilt. The Barbie of my childhood was a precarious creature. She had feet that were easily destroyed, and couldn’t support her large-breasted frame. Her body parts couldn’t regenerate. Her boyfriend was a eunuch. Barbie life was sad, a little horrifying. I don’t recall ever once feeling that plastic was fantastic. This isn’t to say that Barbie dolls didn’t contribute to the deep-seated neurosis that would haunt me for the rest of my life—that I should have a tiny waist, long legs, huge conical breasts, and beautiful long hair. But I definitely never “turned her into a god” as Femen has accused Matel of doing.
I’m not trying to defend a major corporation, let’s be clear. But, ironically, it appears to me that it’s actually Femen who is turning Barbie into a god. Protesters in Berlin put Barbie on a crucifix, arguing that they were “burning an idol.” Barbie, in other words, is something like a false god who needs to be destroyed. Unfortunately for the consistency of their message, they burned her on a crucifix. I don’t think I need to belabor the point that, for most people in Europe and the U.S. the first thing that comes to mind when they see a cruficix is that it’s the central symbol of Christian faith. Of course, of course, crucifixion has its own complex history. So perhaps I’m being reductive. But, come on, I think it’s pretty safe to say I’m not the only one making these connections. We all know the story about the guy who was killed on the crucifix not because he was an idol or a false god, but because (as the story goes) he was the real God. Hence, he was a martyr rather than an idol. When Femen burned Barbie on a cross, it was this complex of divine matters that they called to mind. Femen seems to be making more of a martyred god out of Barbie than Matel ever could.
Even more ironic, of course, is the fact that the woman holding the crucifix—whose photo has been been dispersed all over the web—is a really good looking blonde woman. Good looking in a skinnypretty Barbie kind of way. Naomi Wolf, in The Beauty Myth (1991), argued that maintaining “beauty” (i.e.; the market standard of what makes for beauty) was something that women had begun to treat like a religious matter: they worshipped the possibility of becoming beautiful, they were devoted to it, they had countless beauty rituals, a healthy majority of their income was spent on beauty products (like tithing, right?) Wolf, of course, believed that this was part and parcel of the feminist backlash. Women were walking in the halls of power. The beauty myth was a way of disempowering powerful women—by feeding them the myth that beautiful women are the ones who need to be rewarded, and that women will never be beautiful enough. We can argue about whether it’s proper to use the term “religion” to describe this complex of pieties and practices. For my part, I think it’s an easy way to call attention to the problematic way that becoming beautiful, or maintaining beauty, can require extreme and damaging forms of devotion and piety. Much as Femen is opposed to sexploitation, there’s something about the skinnypretty nature of their “topless jihad” that seems to leave in place the devotional pieties that Wolf was critiquing. When it comes to Femen’s protests, it’s the skinnypretty woman, who’s not afraid to reveal some lovely flesh, who gets the platform, who gets to hold the mic, who walks confidently through the halls of power, stirring things up.
If Femen hasn’t made an enemy of the religion of beauty (if Femen, in other words, keeps worshipping at the cult of beauty), they’ve definitely made an enemy of Islam. There’s already been some critical feminist and anti-colonialist push-back about this, so I won’t belabor the point here. But I’ll add that I was interested to see Femen’s strategic use of the cross. I wonder if it means that Femen will become more robustly critical of religious traditions, broadly speaking. Religion (in the form of the complexes of traditions we call Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc…) has long been problematic for feminists, to the extent that religious institutions embody a long history of complicity with patriarchal forms of power and authority. Religions have often made women’s powers invisible, or its exploited them. But activism like Femen’s fails to take into account the labor of feminists within these complex traditions—women who’ve taken on the power and authority that’s needed to shift the shape of the structures of institutions they (perhaps in spite of themselves) continue to love, or practices that remain deeply meaningful to them in ways they don’t always understand from the outset. Activism like Femen’s arguably fails to acknowledge the ambivalence and complexity of religious institutions and cultures. When the ambivalence and complexity of these institutions and cultures are left out of the story, the labor of women within these traditions becomes invisible. Or, arguably, it remains invisible. And, frankly, I think it would a shame to make this labor even more invisible by covering it up with even more topless shots of hot women.