BERLIN - Irina Khanova, 33, is an independent graphic designer in Hamburg. Klara Martens, 22, is studying technical environmental protection in Berlin. Both of them played with Barbies when they were growing up. And both are members of the feminist activist group Femen, founded in 2008 in Ukraine – in fact Khanova is a co-founder of the German chapter, and Martens is Berlin representative.
Femen demonstrators use their bodies – which they believe women are often reduced to – as a means of protesting that reductive view of women. At first, Khanova says, Femen activists didn’t bare their breasts when they demonstrated, but found they got more attention when they did. Bare breasts and slogans written on their torsos have since become a trademark of the group.
But right now Khanova and Martens – wearing jeans and leather jackets – are standing in the entrance area of the about-to-open temporary exhibition entitled Barbie™, The Dreamhouse Experience. There are 140 Barbie dolls in showcases, all blonde, wearing lots of pink. When Khanova wonders aloud if there are only blonde Barbies, the guide says that later in the show we will be seeing some dark-haired – and even dark-skinned – Barbie dolls.
The walk-in version of Barbie’s world took designers and software developers working with the doll’s manufacturer Mattel and Berlin-based EMS Entertainment Germany over a year to develop. Dreamhouse opened on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz on May 16. Even before officially opening it created buzz – just not the kind intended. In fact so far it’s been heavily criticized by media reviewers – the Süddeutsche Zeitung, for example, called it Hell in Pink – and an Occupy Barbie Dreamhouse page with some 2,200 likes is up on Facebook. According to the page, 300 showed up to protest the Barbie Dreamhouse on opening day.
The two Femen activists proceed from the entrance area into a hall with large white columns and a pink cabin marked Elevator that is really a photo op space. They move on to the kitchen. Outside the flat-screen “window,” Barbie’s boyfriend Ken can be seen washing a pink Beetle in the drive.
The theme of the kitchen display is baking cupcakes. Does Barbie eat anything healthy? Khanova asks. By now, somewhat irritated at a series of slightly irreverent albeit harmless questions the two women have been asking from the start of the tour, the guide points to a bowl of apples. Dr. Stephanie Wegener, Mattel Germany’s head of communication, and show designer Philip Zoch, now join us.
Barbie is one of the world’s best-known dolls. Launched in the United States in 1959 – at the Toy Fair in New York – she was inspired by a German doll called Bild Lilli that in turn was based on a Reinhard Beuthin figure that appeared in cartoons in the Bild newspaper. Mattel started out in 1945 in California as a picture frame company. Left-over wood was used to make doll furniture that turned out to be so successful that an entire cast of dolls, outfits – and, later, dreamhouses – ensued.
Feminist tips on how to make Barbie better
Today Mattel employs 30,000 people in 40 countries and owns the brands Fisher Price, Hot Wheels, Uno, Scrabble, Matchbox and Polly Pocket.
The original Barbie concept – to create a new role model for little girls, a body-conscious, stylish woman away from the housewife/Mommy type – met with criticism from its inception mainly because the doll’s appearance and proportions are unreal.
Mattel reacted by developing dolls like the "Happy to be me" dolls with realistic proportions, and they also put out theme Barbies, like the Barbie dentist doll in 1973. But consumers preferred keeping the long-legged, tiny-waist, large-breasted Barbie interested primarily in things like shoe shopping.
Martens says that the Barbie doll "trains little girls from the outset that what is most important is to be pretty." Even if Barbie’s world is just a dream world, "it perpetuates a role model, and standards of beauty that lead to conditions like anorexia," says Khanova.
Despite their views, the two women spend nearly two hours in the exhibition – all 2,500 square meters (27,000 square feet) of it, including a Popstar Stage and Catwalk. Bracelets with RFID technology and LED touch screens make it possible for visitors to have unique experiences, including digitally trying on their favorite outfits from Barbie’s wardrobe.
Khanova and Martens, harking back to their own Barbie days, say they don’t believe one completely ever frees oneself from the appeal – and even that they enjoyed the show! They also appreciated the fact that Mattel spokeswoman Wegener took their criticisms seriously. "Good point," says Wegener when they suggest expanding Barbie’s career choices, and when they mention that instead of looking out a window and seeing Barbie sunning in various beach outfits it might be better to see a little greenery, as in vegetation, plants. In fact she promises to act on that second one immediately.
Khanova says that Femen really should demonstrate in front of the Barbie Dreamhouse. Then again, they might end up making their point to the wrong people: they don’t want to shock children, says Martens. Forming a working group would be a better idea, they agree, and if Stephanie Wegener asks them to be a part of it they’d be glad to.
No, Barbie shouldn’t be banished, they say. Mattel should just develop her and the accessories that go with various professions – not keep things at the level of make-up and shopping. How would they change Barbie? Make her into a normal woman, with all of a woman’s facets, they say. A real life woman.