We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Barbie Abusers & Eva Sedgwick's "Jane Austen & the Masturbating Girl" Redux · 6 July 05

Dear Miss Vane,

This was Mr Drake’s descriptive joking word for them, "Barbie Abusers," when I told him about a disquieting phenomena in physical space I’ve learned about in cyberspace.

It appears it is common for young girls to use their Barbie dolls to masturbate, and enact sexual fantasies of a dual kind involving two or more figures where the children get together and often use a Ken doll. Among these enactments bondage fantasies turning Barbie in an icon of utter submission and masochism (as Krafft-Ebbing intended the word).

When I was first told of this in cyberspace I could scarcely believe it was ubiquitous behavior. After all, the ads are utterly silent without a hint (as far as I can see) on this educational advantage (let us call it). I was also first told in private emails (offlist) by two different women in confidences about 2 years apart. The first I remember better because the woman writing me was intelligenta & wrote coherently. Hers was also a confession where it seems she thought perhaps her behavior was unusual. She professed guilt and embarrassment, but it seemed to me she was also showing off, boasting, and her tones included a lurid feel. I was startled though not shocked, and said I had never heard of this usage.

The second was more disquieting because although I can’t remember it very well, the writer said she did this with another girl. They acted out sexual fantasies together. She said it was common.

In both cases the women wrote to me in reply to my assertions on two different lists that I had never had and had never bought a Barbie doll for either of my daughters. I had bought them Pleasant Company dolls (American Girl) and Barbie had emerged from Mattel after I stopped playing with dolls. I stopped at around age 11 and had the first miniature doll, a Ginny. She had come with fabulously long blonde hair and many exquisite outfits, complete with a trunk for travelling. But no sexual components to her body; she was a child in body. I mentioned that my mother had insisted on buying Laura a very foolish mermaid gadget in the shape of a Barbie doll with a string out of its body somewhere. If you pulled it, the doll said something inane. (This caused trouble and vexation one Christmas, because of course Laura quickly broke the doll’s mechanism and it wouldn’t speak after that. Thus she began to cry. We had a repeat performance of this another Xmas when my mother insisted on buying her a very expensive large young girl-type doll which spoke and which broke almost immediately. A many hours wretched scene in one of these hideous Toys R Us stores where my mother resorted to her usual bullying tactics to get the store to take back a broken doll determined me never to enter one of these stores again. I never did).

I also alluded sarcastically to the look of "joyful compliance" upon each and every Barbie doll’s face.

Once again more recently I made the same assertions on a third list: I never bought one of these dolls for either daughter, had never had one myself, but my mother had bought a mechanical version of one Barbie which immediately broke, the event managing to spoil at least a couple of hours of that Xmas for Laura and all. Barbie’s face was just delirious with seducive inducing submission. This time several people came onlist to make these "embarrassed confessions." They became defensive when I professed startle and said I had originally been shocked and had originally believed this practice was not ubiquitous.

Miss Vane, they were not embarrassed at all. They only professed it. (See my posting on lying and fakery and hypocrisy in everyday life, or "Grandparent Mortality in College Classes".) Apparent adults were giggling. One man came on to name the person who had made this invention and it was self-evidence we were to respect this person because when I queried this and suggested a commodity product is probably the result of many people changing and agreeing to it, said in reply, this is well known and this person made a lot of money, went on to become a vice-president. How admirable.

Are you like me in finding this sleazy and creepy? Not the masturbation or sexual fantasies as these are part of human nature (Freud told us children were very sexualized only it was hidden), but the silence in the larger public realm and now this growing disposition to boast.

What does it tell feminists too? I suggested all the bondage stories showed feminism hadn’t gotten anywhere and also some of the sources of the problem. I didn’t know if putting Barbie into bondage and punishing her was an innate gesture or something copied from the culture, but one learns through imitation. We become what we are from what we do. Again, the response was defensive. No this was in fact feminism itself. Feminism, Miss Vane, nowadays is anything you say women does as long as you say it’s great.

I write this posting for the same reason Eva Sedgwick wrote her notorious "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl". As I wrote on a posting I sent to Austen-l and have put on this website, her methodology is flawed. She takes a medical 1880s text where she finds open discussion of two girls masturbating and shows how much of the imagery describing Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in crises and some of their gestures and nuances in their words shows the underlying latent content to what we are shown in this novel is masochism suffering and masturbation going on "offstage." The archetypal and analogical method with intuitive close reading as the instrument can be applied to countless stories and thus assertions made about what the author intended or was feeling while writing. We didn’t learn anything particular about Sense and Sensibility.

However, we did learn about how S&S participated in the terrain of erotic novels like itself. In my postings here on Cinq fois deux , Wives & Daughters, and 2 films adaptation of Austen novels (P&P, MP) I suggested these women’s novels and films are ways of exploring women’s real sexuality apart from male impositions. (Scroll down for earlier postings or look under the category, movies.)

Sedgwick’s piece was an essay defending masturbation; it’s written on behalf of this "secret" or hidden vice whose repression she traces over two centuries. She shows some of the cruelties inflicted on children who were caught by adults or whom adults wanted to torment out of their own anxieties and desire to hurt others (anger and fear). I part company from Sedgwick in wanting to emphasize how pernicious is the practice as long as it’s kept secret. It allows for self-destructive learning as well as probable infliction of cruelties and guilt and shame if the "secret" becomes known to those the individual child (or adult) lives with. This kind of titillation reinforces some of the worst aspects of how sexuality is experienced in our society. Sedgwick appears amused in her article (she may not be of course); I am not.

One person on this third list also wrote "This whole Barbie-abuse syndrome is weird." Apparently there is an English doll who looks like Barbie except her breasts are not "so pointy." Sindies " spend much of their time, that I recall, naked and tied up in various threatening situations." She repeated the word "weird:" more than once, and remarked "the Barbie/Sindy thing is obviously widespread." Maybe the problem is the doll doesn’t evoke "maternal feelings" in a girl or "very friendly ones." It seems the Barbie provokes dislike and resentment. She’s the type who "wears designer clothes." This list member suggested, "And unless you were interested enough in clothes to spend all your pocket-money on outfits (which I never was—no change there, then) , they pretty quickly ended up naked as various bits were lost."

Mr Drake did say the source of the abuse is the cheapness of the doll. Who cares what happens to her? She costs so little. There is nothing to cherish on the part of the parent. (It appears many mothers know how the doll is used if only from their own girlhoods.) Trying hard to remember I think one of my daughters did have a Barbie. She got it from a friend as a birthday present. I do remember how the doll’s head kept coming off. We had no clothes for it but the one outfit she came in. It tore quickly. And she could not begin to compete with the American dolls Molly and Felicity.

Now as I look back I am so glad I never bought any Barbie, never put forward one cent to support this icon. I know that the Pleasant Company "American Girl doll" reinforces capitalism, prestige, as it is so expensive and the way it’s marketed is cloying: it reinforces patterns of luxury as an end goal of life, erases real history, and in the stories of the American girls shows them all self-sacrifice, and ever so feminine (lives spent dressing, shopping, cooking, and cleaning even).

Still how glad I am I bought the American girl dolls—with clothes and books for and about them. As Miss Drake I vastly prefer courtly love as a paradigm of human behavior. It does respect women, treat them with courtesy—at least in public.

It will be said I am a prig. Miss Sylvia Drake is a prig. This word is an insult. Being a prig is less acceptable in our society than cruelty to others. I think being a prig is a good thing when it means not accepting pernicious behavior presented as human fun.

I admit I am Very Sheltered. I said this on this list and also more than once on Austen-l. I’ve been so busy writing my dissertation on courtly love in medieval times. I don’t get into contact with other people much. Among my best friends are Fanny Price and Anne Elliot. Two people on the list where others came on to "confess" their girlhood amusements did appear shocked. One said she just played with Barbie the way she did with her other dolls: feeble imitations of what she imagined adult lives might be like. So I’m not so alone that way.

As I love to learn (I am still at a woman’s college as you can see, Miss Vane), I would be interested particularly if to your knowledge anyone has noticed on the Barbie ads surreptitious hints that Barbies may be used to enact bondage or other masochistic scenarios. Have you noticed anything of this sort, Miss Vane?

If not and even if, I suggest somewhere nearby wherever these dolls are sold how they are used and abused ought to be said aloud plainly somewhere near the ad. But then that would force people to confront the realities of human nature and their own lives and behavior. They wouldn’t want to do that.

It’s worth mentioning the face has a set of features one sees regularly on magazines and is presented as lovely on both European- and African-American women’s faces. Also I learned about this only in cyberspace. Face-to-face in all the encounters I’ve had with people no one ever told me of this at all.

Miss Drake

Posted by: Ellen

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