The Jokes on You
By David Glenn Cox
There is an old joke that goes as follows, “Do you know why Barbie has a dream house and a dream car, but Ken doesn’t? Because they used to be his dream house and dream car.”
Barbie is fifty years old; she is an American icon, a glittering symbol of American capitalism. The teen fashion model who travels the world in lush prosperity, never thinking of how her prosperity is acquired. She is a teaching tool for mass consumption. She says, "To be really happy, you must have more!" You must have lots of clothes and cars and jet planes. It is a wonderful tool to train pliable, childlike minds because it says to children that even if you don’t have these things it is all right for others to have them, no matter what the cost.
Capitalism is good, consumption is good; don’t look, don’t think, just buy. Barbie is as good as her image. This icon of the American toy industry has never been manufactured in America. Her producers globetrot, looking for the cheapest third-world workers to paint on her blue eyes or to glue on her blond hair. She sells the image of the prosperous All-American girl, manufactured by underpaid, third-world teenagers.
Today she is manufactured in China and Indonesia, where real teenage girls sit for ten hours a day on wooden benches painting her blue eyes. Six days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, they live twenty to a dormitory and earn around twenty dollars a week, less room and board, of course. Do they think about the irony of what they are manufacturing? The drudgery, the oppressive supervisors who can terminate the women for any reason? Most are young girls from the country, hundreds of miles from home. They are taught quickly, don’t question, don’t speak, don’t ask.
Revenues from Barbie sales have been falling in the United States, the company claims it is due to more competition. Maybe it’s the economy, or maybe parents who see their own American dream slipping away lose the motivation to encourage it in their children. Maybe Barbie has outlived her usefulness in America? Become an outdated, cornball relic like Betty Boop or Mae West and is no longer relevant. Who can say, but Barbie being Barbie she won’t stay where she’s not the center of attention. This American icon is leaving the country and moving to China where the money is. Perhaps Mattel will issue a “Screw You America Barbie,” middle finger extended as she boards her Barbie jet plane headed for the land of new money.
Mattel has opened a new Barbie store in Shanghai, six glittering floors of Barbie consumption, to introduce to a new audience the gospel of buy, spend and consume! Barbie’s new wardrobe features outfits styled by the “Sex in the City" costume designer. Nothing says whorish, boorish, vapid and empty like “Sex in the City.” Superstars of amnesiactic decadence and conspicuous consumption. Why, who wouldn’t want their eleven-year-olds exposed to that lifestyle?
Barbie sales fell 46% this year during the holiday season, so Barbie is leaving; going where she will be more appreciated. “I like her clothes and shoes,” said 11-year-old Li Qiunan, who already owns 14 dolls and seeks more. I wonder if she would be interested in a factory tour?
Mattel seeks to aggressively market in China; 14 dolls are good but 15 is better, or even 20! Barbie is a three billion-dollar a year industry and employs hundreds, if not thousands, of real teenaged girls to project the image of one illusionary teenage girl. The store in Shanghai is the first of many such stores planned worldwide.
Maybe in line with Barbie’s move she could take on a new boyfriend, “Lawyer Bill” or “Attorney Matt.” He could travel the world with Barbie, defending her from lawsuits because of the lead paint often found on her products. “Lawyer Bill” could maintain, as Mattel did in 2007, that the lead paint was the responsibility of contractors. The company promised to step up inspections and quietly admitted responsibility for faulty designs. What else would you expect “Lawyer Bill” or “Attorney Matt” to say under the circumstances?
Barbie’s boyfriend, like Barbie, has to be fabulously wealthy. She would never date “CPA Dan” or “Auto Mechanic Dave.” Why do you think she dropped GI Joe? He wasn’t even an officer. Maybe she could date a Senator, maybe “Senator Craig?” No, that wouldn’t work. She could date an athlete. Maybe, “Athlete Alex” and she could put on her nurse Barbie outfit and inject him with er, ah, vitamins! Yeah, vitamins!
Barbie’s defenders will argue that Barbie is a child’s toy offering fun and fantasy, which is true. But it is the fantasy that she offers and the goals that she represents so well in actuality that chafes. Wealth at the expense of the poor, opulence and garish prosperity, all rightfully earned by Barbie’s hard work as a teen fashion model. Selling the American dream that is rapidly becoming an American fantasy for most workers. Their wages falling, their unemployment rising, Barbie does just what any good corporate citizen would do, she leaves town and goes where the money is.
She exports the American Dream that is no longer American; she exports the corporate wet dream disguised as the American Dream. Capitalism is good, consumption is good, don’t look, don’t think, just buy. Meanwhile, back at the Barbie store, children can buy clothes and model them on a real runway. Six-year-old Zhu Yunyao’s grandfather spent 1,000 yuan ($146) -- almost half the average monthly urban wage in China -- on a designer doll, outfits and Yunyao’s turn on the runway.
“Do you know why Barbie left Ken?”
Duh, he doesn’t have a penis!
“Do you know why Ken didn’t mind Barbie leaving?”
Isn’t it obvious?