Barbie 2000: Penn State Altoona launches a semester-long exploration of Barbie's role in American culture - Fall 2000 Ivy Leaf Magazine

Ivy Leaf - Fall 2000

Barbie 2000

Penn State Altoona launches a semester-long exploration of Barbie's role in American culture

The Barbie doll: She's been a part of American culture since her debut at the Annual Toy Fair in New York in 1959 and has been a favorite among young girls throughout the decades. But Barbie's long-standing popularity also raises issues about body image, popular culture, and other issues related to women's health.

Throughout the fall semester, Penn State Altoona has been exploring Barbie's influence on topics related to women's and girls' physical and mental health, including eating disorders, depression, and body image. This semester-long event known as BARBIE 2000 is also examining the influence of popular culture on art, literature, and society. Through exhibits, interactive theater productions, health screenings, book displays, panel discussions, and other events, students, faculty, and staff at Penn State Altoona are exploring the issues that relate to Barbie from many angles.

"Barbie has been the subject of considerable debate in the past decade or so," says Dinty W. Moore, a professor of English and co-coordinator of Penn State Altoona's new integrative arts degree. "Her body proportions are unreasonable, her hair ridiculous, and her emphasis on style over substance disturbing to some. Modern parents worry quite a bit about how this unnaturally buxom, anorexic airhead doll might influence a young girl's image of what it means to become a woman. What kind of message is Barbie sending our daughters? If they grow up wanting to look like Barbie, won't they be disappointed?"

Penn State Altoona has been asking those questions and many others this semester.

"The idea of Barbie 2000 was to have a semester-long discussion of the various issues raised by Barbie and by her long-standing popularity," Moore says. "We welcome critical comments and supportive comments. We have been having some fun, but also looking at some serious issues."

The various BARBIE 2000 events held on campus are also an opportunity to show how many of the typical subject areas taught at Penn State Altoona are interrelated.

"One strength that distinguishes Penn State Altoona within the Penn State system is our interdisciplinary focus. We look at knowledge from many different angles, not just from within one narrow focus," Moore says. "The Barbie doll raises issues about child development, marketing, advertising, body image and health, and about popular culture, so the various BARBIE 2000 events we plan are an opportunity to show how many of the typical subject areas taught at Penn State Altoona are interrelated. The idea is to engage students from the many different major areas on campus — Integrative Arts, English, Human Development and Family Studies, Business — in exploring the same phenomenon."

Barbie 2000 officially kicked off at the beginning of the fall semester with short poetry readings by Penn State Altoona faculty, and students, faculty, and staff in attendance were also invited to come forward to state in one minute what Barbie means or meant to them. A display of art gallery exhibits of Barbie products produced by Mattel were also on display in the Community Arts Center galleries, shown in conjunction with student-designed products guaranteed never to be seen on toy shelves.

After all, anyone who is familiar with Barbie and her friends has probably heard of Penn State Barbie, Malibu Barbie, Growing Up Skipper, Millennium Barbie, and countless others that are on the market. But a whole new spectrum of Barbie dolls were unveiled at Penn State Altoona, including Jailhouse Barbie, Funeral Home Barbie, Lounge Lizard Barbie and Tattoo Parlor Barbie. Ken, Barbie's ever-present boyfriend, was also part of the exhibit — as Peeping Tom Ken.

Art instructor Mike Lucas first had the idea of using Barbies in the classroom when he built a picnic table for his daughter's Barbie dolls, and the idea just snowballed.

"After I built the picnic table, I began thinking about accessories for Barbie that she wouldn't normally use, and ones that were in contrast with the nice, pleasant accessories that are sold on the market," says Lucas, assistant professor of visual arts. "From both the marketing and satire standpoint, I thought about why a product sells, and about Barbie's status as an icon. I decided to incorporate the two issues of marketing and satire into the class. It's a demonstration of what happens when two worlds collide — the fantasy world of Barbie with some of the seedier sides of life." Although Lucas does not recommend that any of these Barbie accessories be produced and marketed toward young children, he says it has been a unique educational experience for his students.

Barbie was seen throughout the college on "Bring Your Barbie to Work" Day in October, and books about Barbie — as well as on topics such as body image, self-esteem, and eating disorders — were on display in the library throughout the semester. Art and English classes spurred students to be creative and incorporate Barbie and the image she portrays into poetry and art projects, and students were invited to enter their works into art, poetry, and essay contests. And a free health fair offered both students and the community a variety of wellness activities designed to promote a healthier mind, body, and spirit, including stress management, the role of nutrition in wellness, and spirituality.

Barbie 2000 also brought two prominent speakers to college to address women's issues. Jean Kilbourne, internationally recognized for her pioneering work on alcohol and tobacco advertising and the image of women in advertising, visited the college in November to discuss topics from her book Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising. Kilbourne's films, slide lectures and television appearances have been seen by millions of people throughout the world, and she has been named as one of the three most popular speakers on college campuses. Denise Duhamel, an author of ten books of chapbooks of poetry, including poems examining various aspects of Barbie and her role in American popular culture, also visited the college in November and read selections of poetry from her book, Kinky, which focuses on poems told through Barbie's point-of-view.