Playing with Barbie: doll-like femininity in the contemporary west

Doctoral thesis English OPEN
Whitney, Jennifer
  • Subject: H1 | HQ | P1

In the winter of 2009, Barbie celebrated her 50th birthday. The occasion was marked with all the pageantry befitting a debutante, starlet, or modern-day princess. Lavish\ud parties were hosted in her honour, and fashion models impersonated the doll on the catwalk. Luxury brands created limited edition Barbie products—from cosmetics to\ud cars—to commemorate the milestone. And, at the height of the revelry, the plastic doll even underwent ‘plastic surgery’ in order to squeeze into a couture pair of\ud birthday stilettos. Taking this distinctive cultural moment as its starting point, this thesis examines how the Barbie doll’s complex and indefatigable cultural presence is\ud understood in Western popular culture. A range of media and industries engage with representations of the doll: advertising, consumer, and celebrity cultures; the\ud fashion, beauty, and cosmetic surgery industries; music; reality television; social networking; and pornography. This thesis interrogates how these media and\ud industries, and the discursive practices therein, reproduce images and narratives of Barbie as a uniform and idealised representation of white, affluent femininity in the\ud West. However, as her birthday celebrations suggest, Barbie is also written as a ‘real’ girl. This thesis also interrogates this narrative of ‘realness’ as it helps to explain why the doll has remained relevant for over 50 years, while complicating readings of her position as a uniform cultural object. Moreover, while Barbie is being portrayed as a ‘real’ girl, popular culture narratives also present ‘becoming Barbie’ as an achievable goal for young women and girls. Motivating this research throughout is the question of how such a referential relationship reinforces and destabilises constructions of the feminine subject in our postmodern and posthuman times.
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