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.