Like Isaac, I saw Toy Story 3 this weekend, and loved it, particularly the fairly bleak final third. But what struck me the most was the heartwarming Barbie commercial that preceded it, at least at our theater. The ad itself is unavailable online, so I've posted above one of the ones aimed at kids that follows the same logic. For a closer measure of the ads' inspirational-nonprofit tone, though, check out the whole "I Can Be..." campaign at the Barbie website.
Let me begin by saying that few things make me crazier than the "what about the children" brand of pop culture analysis. This is particularly common among undergraduates who are trying to figure out their relationship with feminist critique: the gist of it is that today's "sexed-up tween culture" is hypersexualizing girls blah blah blah. So they make arguments for why girls' exposure to Bratz or Gossip Girl or that favorite whipping-post, Barbie, should be limited if not banned outright. The problem here is the implicit assumption that all consumers, especially children, are passive robots with a simple stimulus-response reaction. If my doll wears low-cut jeans, I'll want them; if Serena drinks underage and betrays her friends' trust, me too! There's no space within this critical structure for girls to read against the grain, to give their Barbies mohawks and make them have sex with each other.
So, good. All fairly standard third-wave stuff, right? We can use pop culture for devious, revolutionary means! But here's the thing--the bait-and-switch of the inspirational Barbie campaign caused some kind of short in the third-wave center in my brain. Watching the ad, I was totally sucked in--as I took in its gauzy, soft-focus shots of girls saying what they want to be when they grow up, I choked up, figuring it was part of some campaign for funding girls' schools in underdeveloped countries or some similar well-meaning feminist project (one with vaguely imperialist undertones, but I was affected nonetheless). The stinger comes after about two minutes of this, with the pink Mattell script of Barbie's name closing the ad--and that was the point when the theater burst out laughing. Barbie just couldn't bear the weight of her position as a feminist ideal (I'll refrain from making the obvious joke about how she can't bear much weight at all with boobs that big and permanent high-heeled feet--oops, too late!). As much as I love Buffy, burlesque, and all sorts of high femme shenanigans, I just can't buy Barbie as a role model.
(WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS FOR TOY STORY 3 FOLLOW)
The movie itself features a similar feminist repurposing of Barbie as a kind of feminist heroine. She's immediately smitten with Ken, but leaves him when she realizes he's part of the corrupt machinery of Sunnyside Daycare, and outsmarts and even physically dominates him in order to help the other toys escape. At the risk of making the "what about the children?" mistake I describe above, I'm a little worried about the results of Barbie becoming a "better" role model--will girls still be motivated to repurpose her against the grain? The choices offered by the web site are maybe the best example of this problem. On the one hand, it seems great that there are so many choices (babysitter, golfer, rock star, pizza chef, dentist, vet, etc etc), but doesn't that bring us back to the illusion of choice? You can be which ever one of these skinny blonde girls you want? I mean--if there's already a Barbie rock star, why would I make my Barbie into the rock star I invented?
Ken's arc in the movie illustrates the problem of forced choice around gender and representation, I think--he's a dandy, and this effeminacy is never played as anything but a joke. The film's final joke, in fact, revolves around Ken's Nelly handwriting--all purple ink, curlicues, and little hearts to dot his i's. Barbie might be able to be a vet or even a golfer, but it's pretty clear here that she (and definitely HE) can't be queer.