The Object of Perfection: Real or Plastic?

“If you have seen nothing but the beauty of their markings and limbs, their true beauty is hidden from you.”                                                                          Al-Mutannabbi

Tom Forsythe realized something was missing when reviewing his film slides. His message was not being entirely conveyed with only kitchen appliances. He needed something more. He needed Barbie; the timeless plastic toy children grow up with. While young boys grimace at the sight of Barbie, little girls want to be just like her with long, flowing hair, a beautiful face, and a “perfect” sized waist. This object of perfection is what surprised Forsythe on August 24, 1999, with a five-year long battle against Mattel, Inc., the doll’s creator. Two years after Forsythe had 78 photographs in his completed series titled Food Chain Barbie, Mattel, Inc. sued him for his trademark usage and displaying Barbie’s image and name in a negative manner. Even with this obstacle, Forsythe held strong in his beliefs to the end. Through these photographs, Tom Forsythe was using a modern perspective to show people how he believes women are viewed today and how they make themselves into what they think others want to see. There is no better item to symbolize Forsythe’s view on his view than Barbie, plastic and all.

On March 9, 1959, Mattel, Inc. brought Barbie into the world thanks to Ruth Handler. Handler created Barbie based off Bild Lilli, a german doll. Not expecting much positive feedback by consumers, Mattel was highly astounded. The newly introduced Barbie was in such high demand that Barbie was on backorder for a few years. Mattel brought in $500 million from Barbie products throughout the first ten years of production. With her first debut on television in the 1959 commercial, Barbie made a huge first impression. Obviously Barbie was making her way into many homes and, of course, the trend has continued.

Since many young girls beg their moms for the newest, most updated Barbie during each visit to the store, there must be something about this doll that intrigues this specific audience. This intriguing something is not just one thing; it is everything. Everything about Barbie attracts young girls: from her hair, to her eyes, to her clothes. Young girls want to be just like her. Throughout the years, Mattel, Inc. has shown people everywhere that Barbie can be anything she wants to be. In 1961, Barbie tackled the job of a registered nurse and then in 1984, she assumed the profession of an aerobics instructor. Mattel introduced the Presidential Candidate Barbie in 2008. By having the ability to assume these diverse positions, Mattel, Inc. had the yearning to show Barbie as a hardworking, kind, and generous person. While being all of this, Barbie was also able to maintain her “perfect” appearance. Therefore, little girls had the ambition to have these same characteristics and this appearance, which in a way is understandable, but should not be their ultimate goal in life. Perfection does not exist, so children’s minds should not be manipulated into thinking they are not good enough since they are not exactly like Barbie. Young girls need to go through the process of growing up and finding what is best for them by doing whatever they want to do, not by pretending to be Barbie throughout their whole life. By creating Barbie, Mattel, Inc. also created a role model, which could have both positive and negative affects on children.

Below are Barbie’s various professions:
Registered Nurse, Aerobics Instructor, and Presidential Candidate

Young girls learn many important aspects of life from Barbie. When I was little, my friends and I played with our Barbie dolls together. The dolls interacted with each other by dressing up, having conversations, and making friendships. Being a young child, one of the most effective ways to learn is through toys. Barbie fit this role perfectly. After we played with our dolls, we attempted to make ourselves look as beautiful as Barbie looked in her outfits, then we went to the dress-up box and pulled out the fanciest dresses we could find. After we were dressed in our sparkly dresses with plastic tiaras on our heads and plastic high heels on our feet, we searched for where our mothers kept their make-up. Once we found the golden treasure, of course, we covered our faces with a ridiculous amount of powder and blush and finished with red lipstick on our lips that ran over onto our faces. Also, Barbie is known for wide-set hips, which can be unattainable for some women. However, this symbolizes fertility, which is a basic act of womanhood. This characteristic of Barbie does not pose a negative effect because it is so basic to human form. There are positive influences that Barbie can offer to young girls, such as great memories like the one I shared above. However, there are also negative ways that Barbie can influence children.

One of the negative influences is depicted in a series of photographs titled Food Chain Barbie by Tom Forsythe. In these photographs, the audience sees an unclothed, unkempt Barbie doll in random kitchen appliances and dishes. While this may seem just really odd and unusual, the artist was actually attempting to convey a powerful message.

The image of a doll in a blender does not seem very symbolic other than the mere idea of craziness or destruction. However, the artist does not intend to blend Barbie. Tom Forsythe believed he was blending what Barbie stood for: perfection. He believes that women are objectified in today’s society, meaning they are appreciated more for their image and purpose rather than their beliefs and morals. Therefore, Forsythe blended, pureed, mixed, chopped, and liquefied the outer appearance consisting of her hair, makeup, and everything else that was unreal about her. People say that to really know someone, his or her walls have to be broken down. Forsythe was tearing down Barbie’s walls in the blender. In an email, Mr. Forsythe told me, “Barbie represents everything consumerist about our culture. Barbie had everything and Barbie embodied an impossible beauty myth. Barbie, as a doll, was pervasive in the culture and readily identifiable as the antithesis of a well examined life.” While searching for the perfect object to photograph with his kitchen appliances, he chose Barbie and we can clearly understand his reasoning. She exemplifies the epitome of a beautiful woman to the extent of nonexistence. Other than her assumed characteristics such as kind and thoughtful, nothing about her is genuine and true. While making art to convey this message, Forsythe never expected to land himself in the middle of a court case with the doll’s maker as explained earlier. However, in the end, even though he barely made money taking these photographs, he unveiled an ignored subject of the 21st century.

In the image above, we see one of Tom Forsythe’s photographs from his Food Chain Barbie series.

Forsythe laid out Barbie dolls in different positions to exhibit different cooking styles in which their image was being destroyed. He laid the dolls in a pan and called them “Baked Barbies,” which reminded me of the tanning bed. A shortened term for using a tanning bed is ‘fake and bake.’ Therefore, these Barbie dolls could represent the “fake and bakers.”

“Bargaritaville” is a photo of Tom Forsythe’s that shows a Barbie doll in a margarita glass beside a blender with margarita mix. In this photo, we see a Barbie with her hands lifted, which looks as if she is really happy about this margarita. This could represent the idea of housewives simply drinking margaritas all-day and relaxing in their everlasting happiness. As straightforward as many of his pictures are, the audience will always be surprised with what Forsythe comes up with next.

In 2007, Galia Slayen, a teenage girl who struggled with an eating disorder, was so disturbed by pressures about image and appearance that she decided to make a life-sized Barbie to show that perfection is impossible to obtain. Using wood, paper maché, and chicken wire, the final product stood six feet tall, had a 39-inch bust, 18-inch waist, and 33-inch hips. Barbie’s portrayal became even more unrealistic due to the impossibility of these extreme dimensions while still maintaining health.

Galia Slayen and her real-life Barbie are pictured in the image above. Can you find the differences? There are a countless number of them.

In the 1959 Barbie commercial mentioned earlier, we see various Barbie dolls with a jingle playing in the background. Some of the lyrics in this jingle are “My Barbie doll is really real” and “I’ll make believe that I am you (referring to Barbie).” No Barbie doll is “really real.” She may have appropriate characteristics, but her image is very far from real. Not only is she made from plastic, but she is also an inanimate object. If a young girl is fantasizing that she is Barbie, a huge problem has occurred. Of course it is fine for girls to play dress up, but they should not wish that they are a fictional character. Young girls should be driven to reach for their own goals. Tom Forsythe’s photographs show this idea of nonexistent perfection. The idea, how girls view Barbie as a flawless creature, and Tom Forsythe’s idea, how women are viewed in the 21st century, are very similar because most view women as having to obtain that perfection, which is absolutely impossible because Barbie, herself, is not perfect. Therefore, a remix is created. A woman could never be Barbie and Barbie could never be an actual woman. Forsythe wanted his photographs to show that the outward appearance of a person is unimportant, which most people cannot seem to understand. This is why Barbie was the perfect piece to his puzzle because she perfectly exhibited this idea. The important parts that make up a woman are her morals, personality, and beliefs, which hold a stronger importance than anything else. A woman will truly be happy with herself when she accepts who she is instead of who she thinks others want her to be. When she stops trying to perfectly mold her body into that of Barbie’s, she will see she is beautiful because of her personality and characteristics, which was Forsythe’s goal of the photographs.

In the picture above, we see Barbie’s dimensions versus a real woman’s body.

After five long years in the battle of Tom Forsythe and Mattel, Inc., a verdict was finally reached. The court held Forsythe’s first amendment rights greater than Mattel, Inc.’s accusations. Also, the court ruled that Forsythe emphasized much greater artistic beliefs and values in these photographs than any consumer-based reasoning. On June 24, 2004, the case was closed. After Mattel’s loss, the district court granted Forsythe attorney fees of $1, 584, 089 and his costs of $241, 797. With Forsythe’s win, he still only made about $3, 659 from these photographs, but the message they sent and the open opportunities created for artists in the future are both much better rewards than any amount of money. Forsythe’s message was that women should not be looked at as a thing made of plastic and a plastic figure should not represent a woman.

While it would be convenient to have everything in life laid out exactly as it should, as it is in Barbie’s life, this would be unreasonable in the end. What makes life exciting are the ups and downs, unexpected twists and turns, and mysterious untaken paths. Real, genuine women will take these challenges life offers, but women who choose to follow in the path other women have created and set the standard of a Barbie lifestyle will simply take the route where no challenges are taken to explore the unknown. Tom Forsythe was using his Food Chain Barbie series to ask this question: With women in the 21st century, who would be real, taking the exciting roller coaster ride, and who would just be melted plastic formed into a shape choosing to go in circles on the merry-go-round?

Works Cited

“Barbie History.” Deni’s Vintage Barbie Collection. Web. 20 Feb. 2012.

Johansen, Michele. “The Evolution of Working Women: What Barbie Has Taught Us |” Free Online Calendar and Mobile Application For Busy Families | Cozi.

Web. 20 Feb. 2012.

“Mattel, Inc. v. Walking Mountain Prods. | Internet Trademark Case Summaries | Finnegan.”

Finnegan. Web. 20 Feb. 2012.

Slayen, Galia. “Galia Slayen: The Scary Reality of a Real-Life Barbie Doll.” Breaking News and

 Opinion on The Huffington Post. 8 Apr. 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2012.

Winterman, Denise. “BBC NEWS | UK | Magazine | What Would a Real Life Barbie Look

Like?” BBC News – Home. 6 Mar. 2009. Web. 20 Feb. 2012.

E-Mail Interview with Mr. Tom Forsythe.


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