We Are All Barbie (Apparently)
“…Barbie has always been long-legged and tiny-waisted, perfectly proportioned in every way with dazzling blue eyes, terrific hair and, oh right, quite the pair of sweater-fillers as well. But, that is not who she is… …Sure, it’s easy to be happy and smile all the time when you’re blessed with perfect looks.
…The reason for Barbie’s unbelievable staying power, when every contemporary and wanna-be has fallen by the way-side is, she’s a nice girl. Let the Bratz girls dress like tramps and whores. Barbie never had any of that. Sure, there was a quick buck to be made going that route but it wasn’t for her. Barbie got her college degree, but she never acted as if it was something owed to her, or that Ken ever tried to deny her.
She has always been a role model for young girls, and has remained popular with millions of them throughout their entire lives, because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should. – CJ Henderson
I usually try to stay out of heated debates. I don’t like causing discord, especially online, where the whirlwind of letters can continue to spin and be misconstrued long after the browser is closed. But the topic of women-in-literature, especially female characters in fiction, and now authors, editors and publishers of fiction (who happen to be female) is a topic that simply will not leave my thoughts lately.
The above quote, which is removed from its source, probably wouldn’t have offended me so much if it’d just been another troll, perhaps an anonymous key-slammer on a forum like Reddit or others. However, this quote comes from a printed zine: SFWA’s Bulletin (#201, Spring 2013). It is published as a valid opinion from a supposedly respected duo of authors. It comes after a slue of other issues in the zine, including a cover of a woman in a bikini made of chainmail, brandishing a sword on snow-capped mountains, and other comments related to ‘lady’ authors and publishers and their body types. There is already a huge debate on the internet about such impractical armor, including a parody webshow: Chainmail Bikini Squad and a tumblr for Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor, so I’ll talk about the other issues that concerned me.
There have already been a number of other articles written in regards to those comments, and I recommend you check them out in full:
- Being Barbie: E Catherine extols the idea of Barbie as a role model.
- Old Men Yelling At Clouds: SFWA Lunacy: A hilarious, rightfully outraged and well-articulated rebuke to the publications.
- The Latest SFWA Controversy: An Absolute Write forum topic dedicated to the subject.
- Dear SFWA: E Catherine’s resignation letter to the organization.
- Let’s Talk about Censorship and Bullying: Kameron Hurley’s post on the fallacy of the response posted in issues #201 and #202 of The Bulletin.
- Another SFWA Sexist Gaffe: More rebukes on the use of Barbie as a point of comparison to female writers (and just any woman in general), by Betsy Dornbusch.
- I’m a Combat-Ready Barbie: Sandra Mitchell also voices her solidarity with others who are raising their voices.
- Feminist Musings from a Cosplay Photographer: A male perspective on this, also well-articulated.
If you find in articles that are in support of the columns, I would be happy to read them, in an attempt at fairness in considering the issue.
I suppose the main reason that this issue has really kept my interest is that for the last few weeks, I’ve been recalling a class I took back in college over one weekend which looked at ‘The Code’ in Hollywood, which was in effect from 1930-1968. If you are unfamiliar with this, please check out the Wikipedia article. In short, there was a small window between the production of silent movies and the implementation of the Code where women had the freedom to play any role. It was the era of Greta Garbo and Mae West, a half decade of women allowed to show an honest, truthful side to female sexuality and thought, and then the Code came in. The Code, developed by a group of conservative Christians (who had long railed against Hollywood for its themes), stipulated certain restrictions, particularly on roles that dealt with racial relations and a woman’s position in film. Here are the key elements that the Code observed, abridged (to reflect the point of the post):
…[T]he following shall not appear in films:
- Any licentious or suggestive nudity-in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
- Any inference of sex perversion;
- Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
- Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
- Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
- Ridicule of the clergy;
- Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;
And be it further resolved, That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:
- The use of firearms;
- Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
- Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
- Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
- Methods of smuggling;
- Third-degree methods;
- Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
- Sympathy for criminals;
- Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
- Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
- Branding of people or animals;
- The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
- Rape or attempted rape;
- First-night scenes;
- Man and woman in bed together;
- Deliberate seduction of girls;
- The institution of marriage;
- Surgical operations;
- The use of drugs;
- Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
- Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy“.
- I retained a lot from the second list, as I wanted to show the Code was, in general, a tool that was meant to keep the screen ‘clean’ of all uncomfortable images, not just an all out attempt to censor a particular gender. However, what ended up happening was it stifled the female role in film, so much so that everyone forgot the roles that Mae West and Greta Garbo and every other actress of that period portrayed, their memory soon to be replayed by the images of imagined Barbies in curled hair, aprons and a ruby smile as she brings dinner to the table, with no other dialogue other than “I don’t understand” or, as I call them, satellite characters, serving no other purpose than to be a sound board for the protagonist. Of course, this has changed in film now, mostly, but women haven’t actually recovered the same freedom that was a given for them prior to the Code. Even these days, it is hard to find a female protagonist that exercises a will that is free from gender stereotype.
Is it not possible then that, in the science fiction and fantasy community, there is something that is truly missing? Of course, I’m not just going to toot the horn and call ‘SEXIST PIGS!’ when there is an equally strong issue of sexism on the male side as well (if you are young, you are naive, if you are wise, you are old and feeble. You can not be a hero without being physically strong [see Escape from Planet Earth] and the villain, if she is a villainess, will be able to seduce you, no ifs, ands or buts).
I think the main thing I take away from this is that it is not so much the art, or the initial comments that upset me, as it is the defense of them. The complete disregard for the argument that maybe, just maybe, there is an issue at hand. An issue that could be dealt with, and improve the community and the product it puts out. I don’t like stigmas. I don’t like labels either. But unfortunately, those are hard to avoid. I am someone who believes that a person, regardless of gender, is capable of what anyone else, regardless of gender, is capable of, within fiction or without. I am not a plastic, ‘perfectly proportioned’ sweater-filler with a quiet dignity. I am a person, just like you, and just like everyone else.
image by Beutiful Magazine