Barbie, believe it or not, is 50 and still a dish. A doll is only a doll, but Barbie illustrates how over the past five decades women have become a touchstone for judging what freedom really means. How women are treated in different countries tells you a lot about the politics and culture of where they live.
The doll that every little girl wants enables tots to test the possibilities in role playing, giving them a glimpse of what they might be when they grow up, whether to be frivolous or serious (or both). But in many countries that's not an option. Saudi Arabia has banned Barbie, and you don't have to look very far over the toy chest to see that women confront limits on their freedom greater than merely choosing clothes for a doll. A woman still can't drive or go out publicly without an abaya to cover most of her forbidden flesh. Even a liberated plastic doll threatens the men in charge. Poor Barbie must go.
In America, she represents the swiftly changing roles of women. Barbie's fun to tease, but she's as American as miniskirts and pantsuits in her flexible identities and her "growth" from sexpot to astronaut. Some of her critics say she's still a bad influence because she's too skinny and encourages anorexia, that she has run through too many "feminine" or "feminist" stereotypes, that she lends too much significance to the fantasy stages of child's play. But Barbie in the Muslim world lives no fantasy. The prosecutor general of Iran warns that Barbie is merely the moll of Batman, Spider-Man and Harry Potter in the "invasion" from the West.
In her memoir, "Reading Lolita in Tehran," Azar Nafisi tells how after the Islamist Revolution in Iran women were no longer allowed to freely express themselves in clothes or speech; even their understanding of great literature was inhibited. "They have never been told they are good or can think independently," says a university professor in Tehran, explaining the poor performance of women on tests measuring their comprehension of subject matter. The author, who meets with a small group of bright young college girls in a clandestine class in her private apartment, encourages them to throw off their dark robes and headscarves for a transformation to the Barbie look of colorful t-shirts, jeans and bright red nail polish.
But as they begin to talk freely about the meaning of Nabokov, Henry James, Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the teacher must stand constant guard. Repression has narrowed women's ability to make both moral and aesthetic judgments.
Women in the democracies of the West are the most privileged in the world, and sometimes it's easy to be unaware of how those less fortunate suffer in ways both large and small. When women in the Third World say, "Women's work is never done," they're not talking about keeping a neat house. By the reckoning of statistics gathered by International Women's Day 2009, women in undeveloped countries must typically carry home 10 gallons of water every day, often in buckets balanced precariously on their heads, for four miles or more.
International Women's Day began as a communist holiday to liberate women to do the work of a man. A popular 1932 Soviet poster, depicting women escaping the drudgery of the home, declared, "Down with the oppression and the narrow-mindedness of household work!" (Then it was on to cement-mixing and road-building.)
When the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, the holiday was transformed in many countries into a kind of Valentine's Day, where gents were expected to bring gifts and flowers to the ladies. Barbie, moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, inspired a doll-revolution movement. When a Teen Talk Barbie was programmed electronically to say, "Math class is tough," she was regarded as a bad stereotype. Guerrillas of the Barbie Liberation Organization (B.L.O.) stole microchips from G.I. Joe, a popular toy for boys, and gave Barbie a chip transplant. The liberated Barbies across toyland soon cried, "Vengeance is mine."
That would have frosted the beards of every mullah in Riyadh. The Saudi Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, something of an Islamic Nice Squad always on the lookout for moral offenses, decreed that Barbie is a symbol of decadence and perversion. She was also said to be Jewish, naturally, and now Barbie is big on black markets across the Middle East.
President Obama saluted International Women's Day this week, saying that "women are vital to the solutions" for global warming, poverty and conflict. That's a tall order, assuring that women's work will truly never be done. We've come a long way, baby, with a long way to go.