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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Wondering about “the [music] of [human beings for the last 60,000 years]”

Recently, I argued, controversially, that one type of “othering” is what distinguishes anthropology from the other sciences concerned with humanity (from neurology to sociology). Anthropology, as disciplined practice, is here to tell “us” that human beings are always potentially “other” to any generalization about them.  And a subset of “us” (anthropologists) has to keep finding ways to do this more carefully. To approach this argument from a different point of view (bias), let’s consider the classical tension brought out by Boas (and many others before and since) between, on the one hand, the “psychic unity of mankind” (all humans have the same brain bequeathed by evolution), and, on the other hand, the irreducible local and historical make of actual human conditions. This is not the case of the “universal” VS. the “particular” but rather the universality of the particularity of the human (and possibly all life). For humanity, for example, one can safely say that all human groups develop languages (most of) the people caught by them understand, and, most significant, all these languages can be learned by all humans—though it can be difficult for most.

Language is what I generally mention when teaching the fundamental concerns of anthropology, before moving on to other matters, say sex/gender or food production/agriculture (the raw into the cooked). Boas, in his general introduction (1938), mentioned various oddities in etiquette. He also mentioned repeatedly that all breaches to the expected in some group raise emotional responses among the people caught by the assembly. In my own graduate introduction into anthropology, in the late 1960s, I was taught all this through the questions raised by the multiplicity of marriage and descent regulations and practices—something that has all but disappeared from such introduction, as far as I can tell.

I’ll try today to start with something else that is a human universal: music. I will intersperse this with comments about “kinship,” hopefully to trigger some interest among current students to get back to something that remains as “real” as ever (though it may now be labeled “gender” and “class reproduction”).

I explore music because students, earlier this Fall, used music to critique Saussure and his obvious emphasis on the verbal rather than on other media of communication. I have heard many times that music can express emotions much better than any discursive effort that relies mostly on the verbal (though some would point at poetry as an argument against this). The students, perhaps unwittingly, may have been channeling Merleau-Ponty on experience and the “primacy of perception.”

But, to play anthropologists challenging “our” common sense,…

Music is certainly one candidate for attempts to differentiate homo sapiens sapiens from other apes (but perhaps not from the Neanderthals who appear to have used flutes). All apes vocalize. Whether any sing may depend on how one defines singing. The question is the same as whether various calls made by all apes classify as language. Interestingly, recent writing about this broadening of what is to count as language or music echoes the reluctance to make humans special. Paradoxically perhaps, the best evidence against “speciesism” is the work of sociobiologists, for example that of Sarah Hrdy, an anthropologist who writes about “Mother nature” (1999).  In that book, she carefully reviews all we know about the higher apes of Africa, and particularly the females with children, without making a distinction between the species whether the original research is “ethological” or “ethnographic.” About all anthropologists I know find this approach very hard to accept and it is not taught as possible proper anthropology.

So, eventually, the initial stance regarding humans making music is that not only do they sing (talk) but that they do so in many different ways that keep changing even as they trigger strong emotions. To the extent that this is an hypothesis about a universal, one then has to look for the evidence (including evidence that some humans do not sing much differently from other apes–but this is very dangerous as it might bring us back to the pre-Boasian anthropology of human evolution).

So, I am with Boas and will postulate the “psychic unity of mankind” on the matter of music. As Boas insisted, one of the evidence has to be archaeological: there are signs that humans made music from at least 60,000 years ago based on the musical instruments that have survived. One may imagine that singing is much older but it does not leave any trace until, many millennia later, it became possible to translate singing into visual marks and notations. The other body of evidence for the universality of music is ethnographic: All human groups that have been reported to Euro-Americans do make music; they make music even in the worst of circumstances; and the music, is recognizable by all as music—even when it sounds unpleasant to many.


Given the small number of basic musical instruments (wind, string, percussion) beside the voice the mythical Martian, particularly if leaning towards sociobiology and Darwinian evolutionism, arriving on earth, might not expect the multiplicity of musical genres, as well as the extent to which the musical genres of people A may grate on the ears of people B (or why some of B might adopt some genres from A even when B’s parents object). Boas, a real “other” among the Inuit, Kwakiutl and others, took the alternate route. He marveled at the multiplicity and asks us to do the same, and then to generalize. Many of his students and contemporaries in Europe also marveled at the multiplicity of kinship vocabularies and other practices. Many who followed him led the discipline into all sorts of blind alleys. But anthropologists, I am convinced, should continue to move towards the other in order to critique or justify any universal statement about humanity.

To make all this more concrete perhaps, I am linking below various examples of what human beings keep producing, musically. This sample tells more about my haphazard exploration of various YouTube rabbit holes than about anything else. I am not a musicologist but I am fascinated both by the multiplicity of the musics human can made, as well as sometimes surprised at what I “like” and what I do not… You will notice that I link here four pieces recorded in China. My idea here is that listening will lead you to ask such questions as: Are the pieces from China “Chinese”? What are your emotional reactions to any of the pieces? What are you reacting to? What do you imagine others (including the original performers) might have felt?

Lata Mangeshkar in 1955      Lata Mangeshkar


Boas, Franz   [1911] 1938     The mind of primitive man. New York: The Free Press

Hrdy, Sarah 1999 Mother nature. New York: Balentine Books.


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What am I to do with “”memes”“

Should anthropologists pay attention to “memetics” and see if any of it may be useful? Have those in that field reached the point Benedict got to when she insisted that a borrowed bit would be both transformed and transformative as it got borrowed—thereby her concern with “configurations” and “culture”? Or is memetics caught in the atomism that plagues those who reduce culture to “traits”? Can there be a sociological memetics, or is the field collapsing into another cognitive psychology (as it appears to have done)? Or can we, anthropologists, safely ignore all this?

The double scare quote marks should index my puzzlement. I am not wondering about “memes” but about what my puzzlement should be about. Genetics? Popular culture? Some polity (with boundaries policed by various agencies)? These questions are also indexes to my ignorance, and actually to my discovering, again, that I am ignorant of something “every one else” appears to know. “Every one” includes all those who use the word “meme” without quote marks, as something that does not require explanation or teaching. I will assume that some of those are quite sure they know what “memes” are about (for example those who coded a “meme generator”), and, of course, those who do not know but, for one reason or another do not mention their ignorance, perhaps hoping that no one will notice and make fun. As for me, I started noticing the word in the New York Times. For a while I could not quite figure what they were talking about though it seemed to be about social media, the young and cool, … and the readers of the paper to whom the editors did not explain what a “meme” might be. I was irritated, and also amused by my irritation since the whole experience confirmed for me how the media educates: by shaming readers into accepting whatever new conventions the editors deem necessary for everyone to accept as proper.

More optimistically, it may be that the NYT and other such powers educate by gently coaxing those who do not know and get them to find out for themselves. I guess this is what I am now doing after I found myself using the word as I put the final touches on the book still known as When is education (forth). I wrote; “Words have a history. They bring to mind other words in what was called the “paradigmatic” dimension of synonyms, antonyms, associated cliches, memes, poems, myths, etc.” And then I wondered whether “meme” belonged to this set that I was constituting. I was expanding the strict definition of “paradigm” in Saussurean linguistics that focuses on, to simplify, the synonyms of a word. I wanted to index any text that built further connotations for a word, somewhat like the word “belief,” related as it is to “faith,” and “creed” might be charged with the Christian Creed—something that no other religion has in quite the succinct way around which Christians have fought and continue to fight.

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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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‘LOL’: on the construction of a cultural fact

Mar 11, 2009 09:20:41 AM, &&&&&& wrote:

What does “lol” or “l.o.l.” mean?


On the


Those are the 3 most common ways to say you think something is drop dead funny

The questioning message was prompted by an exchange between Professor and Wife as they disputed what ‘LOL’ stood for. For wife, this was obvious: “‘LOL’ stands for ‘Lots of Love’.” Professor was quite sure that it stood for “Laugh out Loud.” So Daughter-in-Law was asked for instruction.

Her answer is unambiguous, but a professor cannot let matters stand. Who says that ‘LOL’ stands for ‘Laugh Out Loud’? Does Daughter-in-Law settle the matter? Or is it ‘everybody’ these days? Was wife ‘ignorant’? Or simply not very powerful on this matter? And what is ‘LOL’ made up of, in any event? What are the contexts in which it appeared and in which the dominant mode of interpretation appeared?

I got to wonder about this as I was teaching Jakobson on “Linguistics and poetics” (1960), and the following is a take on his model. ‘LOL’ is code for ‘Laugh out loud’ which itself is, to simplify, a signifier for at least two possible mental images (“laughing” and “loud”). It is also heavily marked for electronic messaging by particularly kinds of people. In that sense writing ‘LOL’; participates in constituting the context for the message either as electronic message or as about electronic messaging. It also constitutes the addresser as someone who “thinks that something is drop dead funny.” And it is built as a kind of play (poetry) with possibilities within English orthography. It is also particularly useful given the technical constraints of electronic personal communication (a matter of the support for the means of contact between people). And finally, it is a metalingual commentary on what was said before.

What Jakobson’s model does not quite do is allow us easily to explore the matters of control over most of these matters. Saying “‘LOL’ stands for ‘Laughing Out Loud’” is a matter of metalinguistics that leaves open the grounds for the legitimacy of the statement or its power over future conversations. This is where we need to call on the pragmatist tradition. We need to find a way to add a third dimension to Jakobson’s model, perhaps in the following fashion:

The “factors” might be:


The “functions” might be:

————————————————– Controller

The “functions” might be:

————————————————– (Policy)

I am not quite sure about all this, and particularly not about the words in parenthesis. Furthermore I am trying to fit all this within the graphic representation Jakobson proposed, and this may not be the most fruitful way to proceed.

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