In the process of conveying a general idea or a cue to an emotional response, we often seek instinctive recourse in a linguistic device called antonomasia. We'll substitute an antonomastic placeholder like "Solomon" for a wise person or "Hitler" for an evil one, "Pearl Harbor" for an ineluctable casus belli, and so forth.
The words "Barbie doll" used to elicit the image of a ditzy blonde bimbo. No longer. Since Nov. 20, the 50th anniversary of this iconic doll and beloved plaything of little girls everywhere, 500 Barbies --including various Barbies wearing chadors and full burkas -- have been on show at the Salone del Cinquecento in Florence, Italy.
The exhibition is sponsored by toy company Mattel, Barbie's owner. Dolls wearing "traditional Islamic dress" -- the burkas and chadors -- were chosen to be auctioned off by Sotheby's as a fundraiser for the Italian branch of Save the Children.
A Barbie collector attending the exhibition from England opined: "Bring it on, Burka Barbie ... I think this is really important for girls. Wherever they are from, they should have the opportunity to play with a Barbie that they feel represents them."
I have seen some pretty tawdry advertising campaigns in my time, but I must say this one takes the cake for insensitivity. What's next in dolls that are "important for girls" to play with? "Illiterate Barbie"? "Forced-Marriage Barbie"?
One has to wonder what was going through the heads of these people. Mattel is a gigantic company with, one would presume, the cream of the advertising world's crop at its beck and call. Save the Children has for many decades been in the business of rescuing children from poverty, despair and injustice. And yet neither the world's biggest advertising brains nor the world's most child-sensitive hearts saw the impropriety of "clothing" the world's most instantly recognizable toy in the world's most instantly recognizable symbol of oppression.
The dolls make a mockery of disempowered women who have been stripped of all human dignity, women with no means of challenging their forced depersonalization. There can be no parallel between these travesties of multiculturalism and other "diversity" Barbies -- brown Barbies, native-dress Barbies, pilot Barbies -- avatars that reflect the natural appearance and truly traditional garb and career choices of free women.
For starters, burkas are not "traditional Islamic dress," because they are not "dress" at all. Burkas are not a sartorial multicultural counterpoint to Dallas Cheerleader Barbie. Thrown over clothes, they are, in the words of an Afghanistan woman to a visiting Canadian journalist, "walking coffins."
The teeth of burka clad women fall out because their faces never get any Vitamin-D-rich sunlight. Is this a suitable object of play?
Neither are burkas "traditional." They were invented quite recently by fanatically misogynistic fundamentalists who make a habit of beating or killing or disfiguring any woman insufficiently self-extinguished by this suffocating tent. These women and girls are wearing chadors and niqabs and in many circumstances hijabs for reasons that have nothing to do with their own wishes or choices. Some even die for a failure to meet the draconian standards of the "modesty" police, as 15 Saudi girls did when forced back into a burning school because their hair was uncovered in flight. Having fun yet?
Many moms won't let their little girls play with any dolls. Many won't let their little boys play with guns. Their stance represents an extreme, but not illogical, extension of Western cultural ideals. In the eyes of the majority who do consider both dolls and guns natural objects of play, however, there should be no moral distinction between Burka Barbie and a putative G.I. Joe figure in a suicide vest for essentially they both represent a medieval Islamist worldview that flies in the face of the West's most cherished values: equality of men and women and respect for human life, including one's own.
Antonomastically speaking, there's a loss in this story. As a symbol of obliterated femalehood, Barbie has shed her cultural innocence.