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Friday, July 21, 2023

Barbie Has No Knees (and Superman has no genitals): Reflecting on the historical significance of the iconic doll through an exhibit at the Vittoriano

With Greta Gerwig's "Barbie" scheduled to open tonight in theaters, well, everywhere, we are re-posting Bill's 2016 post below, which is chock-full of historical cultural analysis as well as photos of some of the many Barbies we saw at the exhibit. Yeah, go to Rome and see Barbies! We loved it. (Review here:

Sign for the Barbie exhibit in the Vittoriano - which features a permanent exhibit of The Risorgimento -
Italy's battle for statehood.  Interesting contrast of Barbie and Garibaldi.

60s Barbie, Barnaby Street look

It was 1959 when the first Barbie appeared.  A bit late, it would seem, to catch the wave of conservatism, conformity and consensus that hung over the American nation through much of the postwar era.  When Barbie went on sale, the civil rights movement was well under way, with lunch-counter sit-ins to begin in 1960.  Just two years later, Tom Hayden launched the student protest movement with the Port Huron Statement and Betty Friedan rang the opening bell for the latest version of feminism with her book, The Feminine Mystique.  By 1965 U.S. bombers were pounding North Vietnam.  Barbie should never have survived "the '60s."  But she did. The "Barbie" exhibit at Rome's Complesso del Vittoriano provides some explanations for Barbie's longevity.  One is that Barbie was a well-made and beautifully dressed creature, her every incarnation
a fine-tuned fashion statement.  Having never had a Barbie (I was 16 when she made her debut, and a boy), and having decided that the exhibit was one I hardly cared to see, I was impressed--astounded even--at the "look" of the hundreds of Barbies on display: style, color, elegance, precision, all in abundance.

Right, Barbie as bullfighter.  Left,
hipster exec
Clearly, too, Barbie was flexible, especially in relationship to the burgeoning feminist movement. Barbie could be teen model, a housewife and homemaker, or a stewardess, but over the years she tracked American women as they took on a wider variety of occupations and pursuits--some 180 occupations in all.  Barbie became a pilot, a no-nonsense professional, an astronaut, an eco-friendly architect, a race car driver, a hard rock musician, even a bullfighter, albeit a stylish one.

Barbie's facial expression changed, too, perhaps most famously in the 1970s, when Barbie came to look a bit like Farrah Fawcett, the star of the popular TV series, Charlie's Angels.
Barbie as Hitchcock's Tippi, attacked
by birds
Other Barbies were modeled after celebrities. among them Twiggy, Audrey Hepburn, Madonna, Tippi Hedren (in Hitchcock's The Birds), Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, and Elvis, Barbie could be the Statue of Liberty, too.

And after 1980, Barbie's look had much to do with multiculturalism and globalization. (See the African Barbie at the end of this post). Even so, the curators of the exhibit go too far in claiming that Barbie was on the cutting edge of political and social change. The first black Barbie appeared in 1980, 12 years after the March on Washington, 16 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations such as restaurants and hotels, and 26 years after the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional.  In the racial arena, at least, Barbie was a follower, not a leader.

Nonetheless, as a cultural historian, I enjoyed the curators' efforts to link the evolving Barbie with historical movements and trends, from feminism to globalization to the emergence of a culture of celebrity. However, I must admit that my first reaction to Barbie had to do with her physique, and not just her thin-ness.  Indeed, my first thought--and first words in the exhibit--was "Barbie has no knees."  It occurred to me, then, that Barbie was knee-less because the knee is the least attractive part of the leg; knees have bumps and lumps and stick out here and there.
interrupting the attractive flow of the woman's leg from thigh to calf to ankle (admittedly, also somewhat knobby--as it turns out, Barbie doesn't have ankles, either).

No genitals.  Could be model for
Superman Barbie

I'm writing this today because this morning's New York Times carried an obituary for Noel Neill, the actress who played Lois Lane on the Adventures of Superman TV series.  In the accompanying photo, Superman (Steve Reeves) demonstrates his strength by holding Miss Lane off the ground with one arm.  Then I noticed that Superman has no genitals.  


The exhibit closes October 10.  It's not cheap: Euro 12 or, if you qualify for a reduction, Euro 10.  Most of the hundreds of Barbies in the exhibition come from 2 major Italian collections.

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