Friday, February 14, 2014

A little light culture: special Barbie™ edition

This week a whole lot of people got their thrills mocking a blog that is called Mommyish. Sports Illustrated is putting Barbie™ on the cover and this required a Mommyish response:
The tagline of the campaign is called “Unapologetic” — so too bad if your kid feels shitty she’s not tall and blond and perfect like Barbie, because they are all UNAPOLOGETIC. The swimsuit issue is fine. If you don’t want to see it, don’t look at it, don’t buy it, whatever. But adding Barbie to the lineup of impossibly gorgeous, airbrushed beauties doesn’t do a lot for the self-esteem of young girls. It just doesn’t.
Anyway, everyone (including her loyal readers) recognized that Eve Vawter had said something silly. She, and I admire her for this, didn't back off though; she doubled down.
I love Barbie. Growing up I owned many Barbies. I purchase and encourage my own daughter, who is nine-years-old, to play with Barbie. I probably spend a bit more time than average explaining to my child why Barbie is not an attainable standard of beauty for my own kid to aspire to. 
You can imagine the arguments she is responding to here even though she doesn't cite them. She must have gotten one mighty load of pushback from women who said that their daughters love Barbie, that they loved Barbie when they were girls and that they even love Barbie now that they are adults.

And that's the key point: girls and even women love Barbie! Not every single one but lots and lots of girls love Barbie. And even the girls who don't admire Barbie, along with the women who don't want girls to admire Barbie, may not be wholehearted in their rejection. We reject lots of things in life not because we don't like them but because we think we shouldn't. I, for example, don't use porn but I know with one-hundred percent certainty that porn would work on me and that I could, if I let myself, enjoy it. Why don't I? I'll get back to that.

Let's go back to Vawter's valiant attempt to make her original reflexive action against Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated into a coherent reaction
Barbie is problematic for many reasons. She is tall and beautiful and amazingly thin. She is perfect. For a plastic doll she is perfect. For an iconic image of female beauty she is perfect. She is also plastic. And she was created for young girls to play with. Which is why placing her in the Sports Illustrated 50th Anniversary Swimsuit edition is also problematic. 
Barbie is iconic. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition is also iconic. It features some of the most gorgeous women in the world in sexually provocative poses, and has become standard around the world for an example of “sexiness.” It’s exemplifies what many people in the world consider “sexy.”
They're both iconic! Well, yes. Shouldn't that be an argument in favour of having Barbie on the cover?

Here's a question: Why are little girls attracted to a doll that has a tiny waist and huge breasts? Men aren't attracted to Barbie; except for a few really odd guys you hope don't move into your neighbourhood, Barbie isn't a sexual image to an adult male. She has no nipples and no vagina. That's not sexy. And the joint between her legs and hips is really inhuman looking. Even the sort of trenchcoat-wearing loser who gets off on inflatable dolls because he is inacapable of bonding with an actual human being would reject Barbie.

So why do little girls like Barbie?

Because they can dress her up and imagine what it would be like to be an adult. Little girls not only want to be Barbie, they are convinced they can be like Barbie.

And do you know what? They're right. Most little girls can and will grow up to be sexually attractive adults. Barbie is all about looking forward to womanhood and that is a healthy thing. It is every child's moral duty to become an adult and the sole value of childhood is in the growing up. And a huge part of being a woman is being sexually attractive. When they get their first Barbie little girls still think of sexiness in terms of outward signs like clothing, or cars, or cute boyfriends or even careers. Later, they will realize that the outward display is actually about the inward secrets that Barbie does not, in fact, have.

[ADDED: Think of the attitude of little boys to sports heroes. The overwhelming majority of little boys will ever get to be anywhere near as good as their heroes just as less than one tenth of one percent of girls will end up looking anything like Barbie. But that isn't a problem for little boys. Vawter is clearly projecting her own fears onto others here and she tells us exactly what those fears are when she talks about, "the lineup of impossibly gorgeous, airbrushed beauties". (Note that she implicitly admits that beauty matters.) How do forward-looking little girls who treat Barbie and Disney princesses as aspirational guides become hurt and damaged adults who can only see their own sense of inadequacy when they look at beauty icons? Perhaps your initial response is to blame the media or men or both working together? If so, let me remind you that is what a hurt little child would do.]

I say most because not all little girls will succeed. Some will suffer from disfiguring diseases, some will die, some make disastrous life choices that will close the door on sexiness forever. It's the possibility of failure that makes it so important to little girls to play at being adults so they can begin to learn how to do this.

And there we find the real problem with iconic sexiness. It takes sexiness and projects it into the heavens so that only angels like Heidi Klum and Christie Brinkley can have it. Feminists have for decades now complained that images of women in the media and in porn create a standard that is impossible for real women to live up to. Really? Then why is it that so many ordinary-looking women have devoted husbands and boyfriends? [And we should remember that only a tiny percentage of the work models do is aimed at men; the basis of any model's ability to earn her livelihood is her ability to appeal to other women.]

There is a standard that is being set here and it is impossible to live up to but it isn't men who are doing it or being affected by it.

I promised I'd get back to porn. One of the buzz lines going about now is that every no begins with a yes. Like a lot of buzz lines it caught on because it is fundamentally right. Any time you want to say "no", you need to ask yourself what it is that you are saying yes to by saying no. If all I am doing by refusing porn is saying yes to guilt for wanting it then I'd be better off using the porn. My experience is that porn neither twists the male mind nor does it create impossible standards that real women can't live up to. What it does is use an incredible amount of time and energy that could be better used in other ways, such as actually pursuing real sex with a real woman. (Or even, and you can hate me for putting this way if you want to, pursuing a real woman to get real sex.)

Let's go back to Vawter now. She wants to reject iconic sex figures in her life and her daughter's life. Okay, but what is that alternative? What's the yes? She says little girls will feel bad about themselves because they can't be Barbie but that, as thousands of people noticed, is ludicrous. Hiding in Vawter's argument is a something else. I think she is right to feel anger but her anger is misplaced because she isn't saying yes to anything worthwhile—while saying no to "impossible gorgeous, airbrushed beauties", she is only saying yes to her own feelings of inadequacy. Sports Illustrated isn't the problem and men aren't the problem. The problem is a lot closer to home.

Back when the Lemon Girl and I first started to get attracted to one another there was a movie out called Sex, Lies and Videotape. It was one of those movies that people talked about and a lot of women used to quote the following line from it with approval:
I remember reading somewhere that men learn to love the person that they're attracted to, and that women become more and more attracted to the person that they love. 
Notice that, like a lot of comparisons between  men and women, it isn't balanced: men have to learn to love the person they're attracted to and women are so superior that they just become attracted to the person they love. It's nonsense. Men almost always fall in love with women they are attracted to and often do so even if those women are selfish jerks. And lots of men become friends with women and then become more and more sexually attracted to them. On the other end, one hell of a lot of divorces are caused by women being unable to maintain a sexual interest in the man they love.

But here's the thing, you can't love anyone else and no one else can love you unless you love yourself. The old admonition that you should love others as yourself depends absolutely on this. To be a sexy, a woman has to learn to become more and more attracted to herself. It's her responsibility and it's no one else's responsibility, certainly not that of Sports Illustrated, to make it happen for her.

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