Barbie and their people

I would probably not have gone to see Barbie (the movie) if I had not read so much about it over the past few weeks. So, here is another take, including a take on the takes.

In brief, I was entertained by what might have been intended, by movie makers, their financiers, and above all Mattel as a little bit of fluff that would make careers and money. I knew that this was not a movie for most of my sections (the list would be long)—except perhaps for one: after all I am an anthropologist of America and this movie is an event in the history of the United States, a performance that triggered many other performances (particularly by my peers in the American intelligentsia). So, in the spirit of ethnography I will first focus on aspects of the film as object, and then ponder about what future anthropologists might do with this total social fact.

The movie, it turns out, is not just fluff, It can also be “read” (watched and then written about) very seriously (if not ponderously). So, in an initial step, in the theater, and given all I had already read, I listened for all explicit tropes for “feminism” including mentions of “patriarchy,” put downs of Ken and all other men, etc. These are hard to miss and yet I noticed, as a few of the commentators did, that many of the enactments of the tropes are so heavily drawn to make
one wonder whether they were designed as caricatures. I’d say that only the speech by the one “real” woman in the movie is straight faced 21st century official feminism. Everything else could serve as opening the way to a critique of said “feminism.”

Barbie toy house
Barbie’s house (2023)

The movie opens with an hyperbolic animation of a young girl’s play fantasy (and/or a Mattel commercial) as it might be remembered, nostalgically, by adult women—unless it is a an animation of the critique of Mattel’s designs for and unto little girls. Barbie Land appears as a pink Eden (Shangri-La) as the designers imagined, with a lot of supporting evidence, little girls imagine as they play with dolls their parents/grand parents paid for. This is land from which boys (as well as parents) are banned, a land without pain … or sex (we are explicitly told that neither Barbie nor Ken have genitalia), or digestive tracks (Barbie Land would not have to worry about sewers!).

That is the setting. And then something happens: A thought startles Barbie (little girls turning into adult women?): death. This may be (or could have been a point) when light comedy entered drama. I suspect that, in many conversations about the movie, in cars driving home in various suburbs, this came up (ethnography needed!). In the movie, death was lightened by adding cellulite and flat feet as the triggers for Barbie’s exploration of the “real” world that ends with her first trip to a gynecologist (treated as a celebration!). In other words, this may be less a movie about feminism than about growing up female (person with female genitalia): it is about a young girl’s shift from a massively gendered fantasy into the material world—including the material world of mothers with boring jobs, unpleasant bosses, and another of the “big eastern syndicates” which ruin Christmas (as per Lucy in Peanuts)—not to mention sex (which is actually quite absent from the movie). It may be part of Mattel’s capitalistic genius, as a 21st century corporation that it lets itself be represented by buffoons while racking in the dollars. I’d bet there will be a Marxicist take on this movie…

And then setting and adventure (getting arrested in Los Angeles, crashing Mattel) turn into myth. The movie includes a set of scenes with the Creator (not only of Barbie, but also of Mattel–though we are not told that). These culminate with a vision in which She who Is gives Barbie glimpses of what it might be like to live in a world in which one dies—and with the punch line Jews, Christians and Muslims, not to mention Americans, will recognize: it’s your choice (free will). In that world there are many happy children smiling at you (I need to watch the movie again to see this altogether brief sequence). And no mention that, as another story of a woman’s move out from Eden put it, “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16). In other words, Barbie is very much an American movie in the evolving liberal humanist ideology that imagines a future world of pleasure and community where every individual can be all they want to be (Varenne 1977).

But all this is not to be taken as implying I argue that the movie is a product of America (feminism, post-Christianity, capitalistic exploitation, or what have you), or that it is part of a grand systemic plot to “enculture” (“socialize”) young girls, or their mothers (not to mention boys and men).

Rather, and from the point of view of my kind of anthropology, such movies, like all works of imagination (even when greatly enriching stock holders), are statements within ongoing and ever evolving conversations that triggers further statements—particularly statements made by those who cannot be directly controlled at the time when they are discussing the original statements. I
imagine that most people who went to see the movie then talked about it not only with other who saw it, but also with peers, family members, friends, etc. who did not. And this makes me wonder what little girls do/did when playing with Barbie: do they wish they had breasts like hers? notice that these breasts have fascinated all critics of the doll? “criticize” (the way many older girls and women eventually do)? What do they tell each other they are doing? their parents? What do their parents tell them? I hope some anthropologist will take these questions as triggers for investigation. I am sure that one would find many cases (in notes, letters, social media posts) of something I just found out a young girl who would become very famous wrote for her siblings’ enjoyment: For 6 years, from the time she was 12, Jane Austen sketched 21 novels (2017) before composing the famous 6 for which she is famous. These “teenage writings” (like the Bronte sisters’) may have survived because of the eventual fame of their authors, but they could also be taken as evidence for what young people do with the stuff of their every day life in their social conditions, and particularly what they mock (implying that they already knew what these were, and how to mock them). Such texts (performances) should be the sources of any ethnography of the Barbie phenomenon in the United States and beyond.


Austen, Jane 2017     Teenage writings. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press


[this was initially published on September 3, 2023]


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Race Consciousness, Racism (and race?): Contradictions with consequences (culture!)

From the time when I played “les coboilles et les indiens,” 70 years ago, in the streets of small Southern village, I have experienced something, that is, precisely, a “thing” that stood in my way, that I could play with, or fear. This was called “America” by French politicians (etc) as well as five year old boys. “It” (its armies, myths, festivals) was awe-inspiring and also mysterious. After many years establishing myself as an anthropologists of ‘America,’ I would now say that that which still fascinates me is not exactly the kind of object archaeologist might find in some jungle. America, as any other culture I’d say, is more of a set of dilemmas and contradictions that move conversations-with-practical-consequences—and thus, through their consequences do make things that trigger more conversations and things.

Case in point: The recent conversations about what to do (“ask applicants,” “take into consideration,” and other speech acts) when involved in evaluating students for admission into elite colleges.

Like many in these colleges, I have been reading several documents all written by people born, raised, and schooled in the United States (natives?). I read the “Opinion” (certainly not a description of the actual speech act!) by that most bizarre (cross-culturally) of institutions: the Supreme Court of the United States. I read the Opinion, some of the concurring statements, some of the dissenting statements, and many editorials and such summarizing the Opinion and telling what it “really” meant. And so I am left contemplating the ongoing production/construction of a culture (America) that continues to fascinate me as an emergent, and now someone jaded, Franco-European(-American?).

These documents are ostensibly about, “race,” “race consciousness,” or “racism.” But I am never always sure which.  My own opinion (interpretation with no authority or general consequence), is that all “justices” agree that racism is bad and that something, that is some thing (act with consequences) needs be (not) done. They are all, in the very evidence of their writing, very much “conscious” or “race” but they do not agree on what kind of “race consciousness” is a good or bad thing.  Surprisingly to some observers, they do not seem to care much about “race,” as a concept, category or thing of any sort. And so, most people in the United States, particularly actors in the elite universities, are left to their own devices figuring out what do to next in their various responsibilities as faculty, minor administrator, etc., in one of these universities.

The justices and commentators do agree that racism is bad, but the issue, as argued, is not about philosophy, ideology, genetics and other sciences of the human body. It is about institutional consequences that have direct life-long consequences on people. It is about slavery, segregation and Jim Crow laws, separate but equal schooling, limitations on voting, and such matters of state mandates. It is about what the State may allow or require of institutions and people in general. In that sense, it is about facts that constrain people (Durkheim), things with their separate agency (Latour), inevitable objects. That all these facts, things, objects, are man-made (human productions) do not make them less real. I will sometimes say that such constructions may in fact be more immediately real (to be lived and experienced) than matters like gravity or air-pressure, even if, or particularly if, they are so threatened as to continually need reconstructing.

And “race” is now something to be reconstructed in general and in the particularities of admission offices.

In very brief, the ongoing conversations start with a general agreement that America, in its State and mandates, constructed many very bad institutions in the past. It should continue to deconstruct these and construct some new ones. This is, and has been, an ongoing process. To appropriate something Lévi-Strauss once said in his usual pithy way: [America] tends to be dismantled like a palace swept away upon the flood, whose parts, through the effect of currents and stagnant waters, obstacles and straits, come[s] to be combined in a manner other than that intended by the architect” ([1962] 1966: 233). What Lévi-Strauss might have added was that this palace is continually being reconstructed—as everyone in the United States was reminded a few weeks ago.

But this reconstruction is not guided by any architect. The significant speakers/actors (the six justices of the Supreme Court who made a difference) just told any architect what NOT to build. All architects of future admission procedures will have to construct things in ongoing uncertainty without relying on any specific consensus, common sense, or tradition. The justices themselves, spectacularly, do not agree with what is exactly at stake. All use the word “race.” But only some wonder about what exactly, for this or any other purposes, is to be meant by the word. All, in their more consequential pro or con moments, appear to take it for granted. I suspect all of them might agree that the word is about a social construct of some sort, and not a thing of nature or a property of people (as it might have been in the 19th century and still lingering). The conversation is about what is to be constructed that is somehow related to race.  It will involve wondering about materials, institutional places, ecological impact on other constructions, and the imagined future use of the constructed things. On one side, six of justices agree that constructing anything with “race” is a bad thing, as it was in the past. On the other side, three justices agree that, when acting with institutional life-long consequences, those with authority may, or indeed must, make themselves “conscious” of race, using whatever definition they wish. All nine then tar each other, more or less explicitly, with “racism.”

So, what is racism at this moment in United States time: being institutionally “conscious” of race or being deliberately and institutionally NOT conscious of race? Is there anything that anthropology, through ethnography, can offer as part of an answer?

I’d say first that the very ongoing conversations demonstrate that about everyone in the United States is, practically, in their everyday life, “conscious of race.” What is less clear is what, in this everyday life of people with very different responsibilities (university presidents, interns helping sort applications), does this consciousness make happen? I suspect, given “America” that many will transform this into questions of states of mind, identity, or the like. But the Court, most interestingly for an observer, is not actually concerned with states of mind. It is concerned with the State and its statutes and mandates in the minute details of its work as it might be experienced in the everyday life of the people affected. In my own academic world, preliminary local conversations have raised such practical issues as: may an institution still ask applicants for admission to check any kind of box about race (in all its variants)? How can people be given preferential treatment on matters like financial aid? How might this preference be phrased and practically implemented by subsidiary administrators? All these are extremely concrete matters that are continually referred to “legal” since the institution does not want to be sued. All  the actors will remain “conscious of race” but that will remain a private matter. My kind of anthropologist will always look, after a cursory glance at the text of a mandate, at what the people will then do with the mandate. This anthropologist will expect that people will resist, play or, as one commentator said, actively “game the system.” As I like to say, it is by looking at such moments that one eventually discovers what is most consequential for a people—that is, for me, not so much “their” culture as the culture they cannot escape.



Lévi-Strauss, Claude   [1962] 1966/2021     The savage mind/Wild thought. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


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While crossing Manhattan on 14th Street

Half a century ago, when I searched for a catchy title for the book building on my dissertation (1972), I came up up with Americans Together (1978). I am not sure what I then meant by “Americans”—though I am sure that, from the time when I proposed the research (in 1970), I had been looking for a “pattern” or “structure” as I interpreted Benedict, Lévi-Strauss, or Dumont, to have done. But I may also have accepted that the plural “AmericanS” somewhat referred to a plurality of individuals. And thus I fell to American (patterned) common sense.

As far as I can check, I never used the plural noun again, though I continued to use “American” as an adjective and “America” as a proper, always singular, noun—and I persist. And, now, after many years teaching Garfinkel, Latour, Lave, and those inspired by them, it came to me that I should have titled the book “Together in America” which would in fact had fit better the subtitle to the book: “Structured diversity in a Midwestern town.”

This subtitle directly stated the main ethnographic point of the book that, while Paw Paw, Michigan, (“Appleton” in the book) may appear indistinguishable from thousand of such towns, it was internally (as I am sure all other such towns are) extremely varied religiously, ideologically, generationally (and probably also by all the most commonly invoked 21st century categories of race, gender, ethnicity that also appeared in my fieldnotes). But, to me then and now, the more interesting internal variability was in the organization of settings where people came together and manipulated identity symbols (as we would currently say in anthropology). One example that made it into the book is the moment when “ethnic background” briefly emerged during a round of introductions when I first partied with a group of friends of my age (1978: Chapter 4). When narrating (!) my (lived?) experiences in Paw Paw, I like to embroider my travels through the town, on a Sunday, when I started (dressed in a suit and tie) at a Sunday School then service at the Methodist or Presbyterian church (where/when all men wore suits and tie), before driving to the apartment of friends (where I was told to take off my tie), and ending the day at a Catholic mass (where the congregation was dressed in everything from dirty blue jeans to fur coats). Depending on I am not sure what, I was sometime positioned as a high school exchange student, an awkward young male with a funny accent, a doctoral students at the University of Chicago, etc. (including other things I may not have been directly told, though I remember several attempts to test my “orientation”). Eventually I was also struck by the diversity of politico/economic interests as I explored the many governing board regulating this or that aspect of everyday. This was most salient perhaps in the school board when town’s people and farmers clashed over taxation, curriculum, etc. only apparently coming together for ritual performances (football games, graduation ceremonies, etc.).
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High tech creationism?

One of the many after effects of Trump’s election has been an altogether astonishing flowering of high fallutin exercises in cultural analysis.  I particular enjoy those who play with popularized (populist?) deconstructionism.  So, let’s join the (deep?) play.

Most of my own intellectual education has been plagued by the fundamental mis-readings of Saussure and Lévi-Strauss led by Derrida ([1967] 1978) and others.  In various ways if have tried to write against deconstructionism, sometimes specifically (1994),
and mostly by implication.  And yet, I have also felt party to many of these debates, particularly when they involve plays with “facts” and fiction, truth and relativism, history and narratives, and indeed the nature of reality (ontology?).

So, when the New York Times, as it regularly does, plays with “truth … that is always changing” (NYT, “How to fix the Met,” 3/1/2107) I could not resist tweeting and playing with the Times nemesis (and vice versa)—the author of the wonderfully truthy “truthful hyperbole.”
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Dreaming of diverging

The Hero(ine) fights the centralized state (always represented as urban, decadent, evil, obtuse – see The Hunger Games) in the name of local communal ideals. For the American hero is not only an Individual (as it may in other European ideologies), he, and now she, is the architect of communities built on familial love. It is not simply a cliche that, at the end of Divergent, the heroine leaves the city, with the romantic lead, into an uncharted, dangerous wilderness.

'Divergent' movie poster
Divergent, the movie (2014)

For any number of reasons, my wife Susan and I went to see Divergent last Friday.  We were, by far, the oldest people in the theater.  I was, about, the only male (except for a few fathers perhaps).  Everybody else was a 12(+-2)-year-old girl.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, then you are not into Hollywood generated mass popular culture, or middle-brow cultures concerned with “gender” either.  If “divergent” means to you something that it did not mean a few weeks ago then, as an intellectual adult (one of my readers, as I imagine them), I assume you also know that it is, among other things, the second (after The Hunger Games) of Hollywood responses to the accusation that there were no big budget, action adventure movies with girls as heroines.  So, in the kind of brief synopsis that start this kind of commentary, Divergent is about a 16-year-old girl who violently restores a threatened order and then moves on into the wilderness—and 12-year-old girls know about that.

But, of course, the movie is about much else and this is a response to Andrew O’Hehir who wrote about the movies as “capitalist agitprop” (March 22, 2014).  His thesis:

To begin with, if we accept the maxim that all fictional works about the imagined future are really about the present, what do these works have to say? They contain no intelligible level of social critique or social satire, as “1984” or “The Matrix” do, since the worlds they depict bear no relationship to any real or proposed society. Where, in the contemporary West, do we encounter the overtly fascistic forces of lockstep conformity, social segregation and workplace regimentation seen in these stories? I’m not asking whether these things exist, or could exist, I’m asking where we encounter them as ideology, as positive models for living.

Later, O’Hehir writes “Divergent is basically a high school drama.”
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