signs of life in the usa -

signs of life in the usa -

S.A. )tics ng into SECOND EDITION ltion ied ry. fSis lof ents SIGNS OF LIFE IN THE U.S.A. lic llyze )re). Readings on Popular Culture for Wr...

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Readings on Popular Culture for Writers


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SONIA MAASIK University of California, Los Angeles

JACK SOLOMON California State University, Northridge



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Bedford Books



We wish to dedicate this book to the memory of our dear friend, Kenzo.

For Bedford Books

President and Publisher: Charles H. Christensen General Manager and Assodate Publisher: Joan E. Feinberg Managing Editor: Elizabeth M. Schaaf Developmental Editor: Steven A. Scipione Editorial Assistant: Rebecca Jennan Production Editor: Sherri Frank Copyeditor: Carolyn Ingalls Text Design: Anna George Cover Design: Hannus Design Associates Cover Art: Tom Wesselmann, Still Life No. 28, 1964. © 1997 Tom Wesselmannl Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 96-'i36776 Copyright © 1997 by Bedford Books A Division of St. Martin's Press, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval sys­ tem, or transmitted by any fonn or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy­ ing, recording, or otherwise, except as may be expressly permitted by the applicable copyright statutes or in writing by the Publisher. Manufactured in the United States of America. 10987 6 fedcba

For information, write: Bedford Books, 75 Arlington Street, Boston, MA 02116 (617-426-7440) ISBN: 0-312-13631-5

Acknowledgments McCrea Adams, "Advertising Characters: The Pantheon of Advertising." Reprinted by pennission of the author.

(Acknowledgments and copyrights are continued at the back if the book on pages 784-789, which constitute an extension of the copyright page. It is a violation of the law to reproduce these selec­ tions by any means whatsoever withom the written permission of the copyright holder.)

Thirty years ago, Mars} era in the history of W! gued in his classic stud) new set of media - tc sciousness was emergin! passed since the publical his predictions, especial Today, ours is indeed a visual image rather than edge and experience has This transformation ture presents a certain textually based enterpr driven world? How are ing? Can the habits of Cl tasks of academic writin, We have prepared; only that such bridges co our best hope for trainil ing and writing. Thus, 1 one of helping students our method departs fron dents in the interpretatic


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Prager lOur 8arbies, Ourselves



Our Barbies, Ourselves 11111I111111111111111\1llllllillllllllllllllllllllllllllll

Little girls throughout America should know that Barbie is not drawn to scale. In this tongue-in-cheek essay on the role Barbie has played in her life, Emily Prager (b. 1952) reveals the damaging t1fect of a doll that establishes such an impossible standard if physical peifection for little girls - and for little boys who grow up expecting their girlfriends to look like Barbie. Men not contemplating what Barbie has done to her, Emily Prager is a columnist with the New York Times and an essayist and fiction writer who has published for The National Lam­ poon, the Village Voice, and Penthouse, among other magazines. Her books include a work if historicalfiction for children, W orId War II Resistance Stories; a book if humor, The Official I Hate Videogames Handbook; and works offiction such as Eve's Tattoo (1991) and Clea and Zeus Divorce (1987). I read an astounding obituary in the New York Times not too long ago. It concerned the death of one Jack Ryan. A former husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor, it said, Mr. Ryan had been an inventor and designer during his lifetime. A man of eclectic creativity, he designed Sparrow and Hawk missiles when he worked for the Raytheon Company, and, the notice said, when he consulted for Mattel he designed Barbie. If Barbie was designed by a man, suddenly a lot of things made sense to me, things I'd wondered about for years. I used to look at Barbie and wonder, What's wrong with this picture? What kind of woman designed this doll? Let's be honest: Barbie looks like someone who got her start at the Playboy Mansion. She could be a regular guest on The Howard Stem Show. It is a fact of Barbie's design that her breasts are so out of propor­ tion to the rest of her body that if she were a human woman, she'd fall flat on her face. If it's true that a woman didn't design Barbie, you don't know how much saner that makes me feel. Of course, that doesn't ameliorate the damage. There are millions of women who are subliminally sure that a thirty-nine-inch bust and a twenty-three-inch waist are the epitome of lovability. Could this account for the popularity of breast implant surgery? I don't mean to step on anyone's toes here. I loved my Barbie. Se­ cretly, I still believe that neon pink and turquoise blue are the only colors in which to decorate a duplex condo. And like many others of my gen­ eration, I've never married, simply because I cannot find a man who looks as good in clam diggers as Ken.


Prager / Our E


The question that comes to mind is, of course, Did Mr. Ryan design Barbie as a weapon? Because it is odd that Barbie appeared about the same time in my consciousness as the feminist movement - a time when women sought equality and small breasts were king. Or is Barbie the dream date of weapons designers? Or perhaps it's simpler than that: Per­ haps Barbie is Zsa Zsa if she were eleven inches tall. No matter what, my discovery ofJack Ryan confirms what I have always felt: There is some­ dare I say it, phallic. For thing indescribably masculine about Barbie all her giant breasts and high-heeled feet, she lacks a certain softness. If you asked a little girl what kind of doll she wanted for Christmas, I just don't think she'd reply, "Please, Santa, I want a hard-body." On the other hand, you could say that Barbie, in feminist terms, is definitely her own person. With her condos and fashion plazas and pools and beauty salons, she is definitely a liberated woman, a gal on the move. And she has always been sexual, even totemic. Before Barbie, American dolls were flat-footed and breastless, and ineffably dignified. They were created in the image of little girls or babies. Madame Alexander was the queen of doll makers in the fifties, and her dollies looked like Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet. They represented the kind of girls who looked perfect in jodhpurs, whose hair was never out of place, who grew up to be Jackie Kennedy - before she married Onassis. Her dolls' boyfriends were figments of the imagination, figments with large portfolios and three-piece suits and presidential aspirations, figments who could keep dolly in the style to which little girls of the fifties were programmed to become accustomed, a style that spasm-ed with the sixties and the ap­ pearance of Barbie. And perhaps what accounts for Barbie's vast popular­ ity is that she was also a sixties woman: into free love and fun colors, an­ ticlass, and possessed of real, molded boyfriend, Ken, with whom she could chant a mantra. But there were problems with Ken. I always felt weird about him. He had no genitals, and, even at age ten, I found that ominous. I mean, here was Barbie with these humongous breasts, and that was OK with the toy company. And then, there was Ken with that truncated, uniden­ tifiable lump at his groin. I sensed injustice at work. Why, I wondered, was Barbie designed with such obvious sexual equipment and Ken not? Why was his treated as if it were more mysterious than hers? Did the fact that it was treated as such indicate that somehow his equipment, his es­ sential maleness, was considered more powerful than hers, more worthy of the dignity of concealment? And if the issue in the mind of the toy company was obscenity and its possible damage to children, I still object. How do they think I felt, knowing that no matter how many water beds they slept in, or hot tubs they romped in, or swimming pools they lounged by under the stars, Barbie and Ken could never make love? No matter how much sexuality Barbie possessed, she would never turn Ken on. He would be forever withholding, forever detached. There was a


loneliness abc twenty-five yl women and CI can never esca God, it c< signed by Jack

Reading ti 1. Why does. Barbie was 2. What is Pn 3. HowdoM

Reading th

1. Bring a toy cance; you tended for 1 and present related patte 2. Think ofa 1 tion of it, u between YOI 3. Did you hal entry in wh young and t 4. Consider he Write a lette tity Barbie's 5. Barbie can I roles but als( sories" one I plore the ex by Laurence

Prager JOur Barbies, Ourselves


an design lbout the me when arbie the that: Perwhat, my ~ IS some­ lallic. For oftness. If nas, 1 just

terms, is and pools the move. American ~hey were er was the Elizabeth holooked ;rew up to boyfriends folios and ould keep 'ammed to Id the ap­ ,t popularcolors, anwhom she t

tbout him. I mean, ; OK with d, uniden­ wondered, i Ken not? )id the fact ent, hi~ es­ ~re worthy of the toy still object. water beds pools they ;.:e love? No 'er tum Ken




loneliness about Barbie's situation that was always disturbing. And twenty-five years later; movies and videos are still filled with topless women and covered men. As if we're all trapped in Barbie's world and can never escape. God, it certainly has cheered me up to think that Barbie was de­ signed by Jack Ryan....

Reading the Text 1. Why does Prager say "a lot of things made sense" to her after she learned Barbie was designed by a man? 2. What is Prager's attitude toward Ken? 3. How do Madame Alexander dolls differ from Barbies?

Reading the Signs 1. Bring a toy to class and, in same-sex groups, discuss its semiotic signifi­ cance; you may want to focus particularly on how the toys may be in­ tended for one gender or another. Then have each group select one toy and present your interpretation of it to the whole class. What gender­ related patterns do you find in the presentations? 2. Think of a toy you played with as a child and write a semiotic interpreta­ tion of it, using Prager's essay as a model. Be sure to consider differences between your childhood response to the toy and your current response. 3. Did you have a Barbie doll when you were a child? If so, write a journal entry in which you explore what the doll meant to you when you were young and how Prager's essay has caused you to rethink your attitudes. 4. Consider how Jack Ryan, the creator of Barbie, would defend his design. Write a letter, as if you were Ryan, addressed to Prager in which you jus­ tifY Barbie's appearance and refute Prager's analysis. 5. Barbie can be seen as embodying not only America's traditional gender roles but also its consumerist ethos. Visit a toy store to learn what "acces­ sories" one can buy for Barbie and then write an essay in which you ex­ plore the extent to which she illustrates the "hunger for more" described by Laurence Shames (see "The More Factor," p. 31).