In 1993, a group of artists and activists vaulted into the media spotlight after they performed “operations” on dozens of Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls, switching the voice boxes and returning the dolls to stores. Girls playing with their Teen Talk Barbies found the dolls saying phrases like “Vengeance is mine” and “Eat lead, Cobra!”
In the “propaganda” video above, which is truly a beautiful thing, the Barbie Liberation Organization, or BLO, explains their guerilla operation. While a mouth moves to speak for “spokesdoll” Teen Talk Barbie, she talks us through it: “We’re an international group of children’s toys that are revolting against the companies that made us … we’ve turned against our creators because they use us to brainwash kids. They build us in a way that perpetuates gender-based stereotypes. Those stereotypes have a negative effect on children’s development.” While we hear this statement of purpose, we see the insanely badass site of stripped-down Barbie welding the tools of her own liberation.
“I donated my voice to a G.I. Joe, ’cause they wanna be free, too,” Barbie continues. “They don’t want to say all that violent war stuff. Now he says what I used to say.” And we cut to a G.I., who, when prompted, chirps, “Want to go shopping?” My favorite here might be the Cobra doll who gushes, “Ken is such a dream!” and “Will we ever have enough clothes?”
At the time, criticism that Barbie perpetuated negative and disparaging stereotypes for women and girls wasn’t new, thankfully, but the BLO’s stunt helped drive the point home. While reports varied as to how many dolls actually received “corrective surgery,” as the BLO called it, some kids really did open up the altered dolls on Christmas morning, and a week of news coverage and talk show chatter followed. According to Beautiful Trouble, the action resulted from Mattel’s 1992 release of a talking Barbie who declared, “Math is hard,” which outraged parents and feminists.
The BLO activity wasn’t simply an excellent example of “culture jamming,” an anti-consumerist tactic to subvert media. It was a well-oiled publicity ploy organized to go as “viral” as anything could in our nascent Internet world. As Beautiful Trouble’s account explains, “This wasn’t to be a simple spectacle, it was to be a media spectacle, so an elaborate press plan was hatched. Along with each repackaged toy they included a doctored instruction sheet, complete with the numbers of local and national press, and a voicemail number for the BLO. The idea was that kids would open their toys, parents would call the numbers, and the media would cover it.”
And cover it the media did—while most of the reaction to the “swap” was positive and generated important conversations about gender conventions taught to children at an early age, there were, of course, the naysayers. Just as people still react with undue outrage when Target decides to phase out gender-based toy signage, the New York Times reported that in 1993, some considered the stunt to be “terrorist acts against children.” Certainly there will always be those who are unhappy when gender norms are openly challenged, which is all the more reason that they must be. We only have more neutral toy displays and Barbies in varied colors, body sizes and occupations because of public outcry and demand.
One of the reasons that this stunt worked, and remains entertaining to watch more than 20 years later—unfortunately—is that we’ve all been socially conditioned in such a way that it’s still surprising and amusing to hear Barbie declare war and G.I. Joe to want to go shopping. We have many of the same issues when it comes to children’s toys, even if we’ve come a long way. If there were a modern-day Barbie Liberation Organization, I’d gladly be drafted.
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