LOGAN — Barbie's come a long way, baby! And some Utah State University students may now have taken her even further.
In her 50 years on America's toy shelves, Mattel's iconic blond bombshell has paraded as a princess, a surfer, a veterinarian and a teacher — flaunting her beauty across a nation that has become increasingly obsessed with body image and physical "perfection."
USU students and others reinvented Barbie and her longtime boyfriend Ken this week in more than 50 dramatic new roles — some of them in parody and others fashioned to make political statements and raise cultural awareness.
Participants created Madame President Barbie, Recycling Barbie, Ninja Barbie, God as a Woman Barbie, Bus Stop Barbie, Sorority Barbie, Sally the CNA, Ken's Kitchen, Meterosexual Ken, Transgender Baby, Chuckie Barbie — and the list goes on. Others were a bit more poignant, such as Suicide Bomber Barbie, Domestic Abuse Barbie, The Truth About Teen Pregnancy for Me.
It was all part of a doll design/essay contest sponsored by USU's Women and Gender Studies program to redefine gender expectations, defy traditional stereotypes and evaluate Barbie's contribution to modern society.
"I'm from Carbon County and I made Coal Miner Barbie to reflect that heritage," said program officer Katie Jo Matekovic. "You'll never see a real coal miner Barbie designed by Mattel, but I've actually been underground with my dad, and to think about doing that every day is kind of scary. Coal miners are my heroes."
Several participants acknowledged that Barbie is a powerful cultural symbol that America loves to hate.
"Barbie is kind of vilified because she is beautiful, and why is that so?" asked Gary Arave, a Broadway makeup artist and USU theater alumnus who provided Barbie makeovers during the event. "I mean, Barbie's done a lot of great things, and she's led the charge in a lot of ways.
"She was an astronaut four years before we got on the moon," Arave said. "She was a NASCAR driver eight years before Danica Patrick was doing the Indy car races, and she ran for president 16 years ahead of Hillary Clinton. So why do hold her beauty against her? I think it's an interesting double-edged sword that we see with Barbie, and we sort of need to reclaim her."
To represent that "who you are matters more than how you look," broadcast journalism student Ashley Tolman helped create the HGH Ken and Under the Knife Barbie.
"We took a GI Joe body and kind of morphed it into a Barbie, and we stuck the two together to show how Ken tries so hard to be manly by using steroids, but there are a lot of negative effects," she said. "It's the same thing with Under the Knife Barbie. She wants to be the perfect image with a perfect body, and we wanted to show the negative things that can happen when you try to fit the stereotypes of the world."
"But is that all bad?" Arave wanted to know. His makeup brushes and hand-woven wigs in hand, Arave transformed Women and Gender Studies director Brenda Cooper from a self-proclaimed "Birkenstock person" into "Oooo, wow, glamour" as he asked students to reconsider Barbie's bad rap.
"As human beings, we like things that are beautiful, and I think it's just as wrong to vilify Barbie for her beauty as it is to discount people's abilities and achievements because they don't look the way you think they ought to look," Cooper said.
"This is a way, kind of, to mock Barbie, to say no one's ever going to look like this, but also have some fun with it," she said. "I don't wear make up, and I don't wear heels. I'm a naturalist, an environmentalist, a vegetarian, and no, you won't see me like this again."
Students at Logan's North Campus, an alternative high school for young mothers, also reinvented Barbies and submitted essays that reflected their experiences with teenage pregnancy. Working with them through a community art outreach program, USU graduate student Jacoba Mendelkow wanted her class to use Barbie as a means to share their personal feelings.
"I wanted to give them an opportunity to express themselves through art and talk about stereotypes and expectations, and how it's a long haul for us, myself included because I had a child when I was in high school, too," Mendelkow said.
Challenging gender stereotypes is an ongoing process that reinvents not only Barbie herself, but also America's cultural landscape.
"As they grow older, girls sort of reject their Barbies, they brutalize her," said Arave. "She's always getting her hair cut and being stuffed in toilet tanks and having firecrackers tied to her, and I think it's sort of an evolution. All girls enjoy playing the fairy princess, but I think as they become more in contact with real world aspirations, the fairy princess sort of falls off the list, and they start looking at policeman or dentist or professor.
"As their world view sort of expands, I think that Barbie, even though she's had over a hundred careers herself, can be a little limiting."
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