Sunday, February 25, 2007

Of Delta Zeta, Barbie and "South Pacific"

I've been reading with dismay, but not a lot of surprise, about the eviction of 23 Delta Zeta sorority members at DePauw University because a university survey said the general perception of the organization on campus was that its members were "socially awkward." (The New York "Times" article is linked from here.)

Apparently, the slashing of membership had to do with image and an external ideal of attractiveness. All the girls who were purportedly overweight (by our current anorexic, unehalthy standards?), and didn't conform to some stereotypical ideal of beauty, bluntly defined as an ability to appeal to frat boys. In reading all the PR from the national organization, I can't find anything to counter this perception, and the idea that the girls themselves did not sufficiently recruit for the organization is hollow. These women didn't sign up for a beauty pageant in which their one goal must be to appeal to a well-defined and proscribed ideal. (As much as the beauty pageants have tried to get away from being so hidebound in that matter, it still doesn't play.) They looked to form a sisterhood around the often stressful and sometimes isolating challenges of university life. The only plausible explanation is that the national organization of Delta Zeta feels that its membership goals and long-term financial stability are jeopardized by being perceived in a specific way--a way that devalues individuality and commoditizes women. And all of this is the result of one survey. As a researcher, that's just irresponsible. As a human being, it is upsetting in the extreme.

How has this happened in our supposedly advanced, educated and enlightened culture? Probably because it so clearly reflects some of our cultural values right now. And don't you dare go blaming Barbie, as always happens when people look for a scapegoat for outrageous actions based on appearance. Barbie had nothing to do with this.

How can I be so sure? Over the years, we've watched literally hundreds of girls play with Barbie and other fashion dolls. And while to the adult eye, Barbie looks pretty, cold and perhaps a little Stepford wife-ish, that's not the reality of little girls. It is her very nature that allows her to be the canvas on which girls paint their imaginations. It is plasticity in the very nature of the word because each Barbie becomes individual to the child who plays with her. In years of observing play and listening to children talk about their Barbies, we do not see them enacting, and thus reinforcing, social stereotypes about body image or appearance. Certainly not at ages 4-6, core Barbie years, when these issues are alien to them. Yes, we see them taking about "being pretty," but that largely has to do with the clothes. We have seen Barbies with their hair cut off, stripped and drawn on with a marker that take center stage in princess play. "Pretty" is an element of Barbie, but it is by no means the sum total of her appeal or longevity. Any Barbie player knows that if it's only about being pretty, there's absolutely no sustainable fun in the play. It's no wonder little girls naturally, and blessedly, resist keeping the doll in a package to look at and not touch. (Parents who insist on that are in actuality setting the stage for a belief that beauty is distant and untouchable and communicating that being--and staying--beautiful is the trump value over imaginative play.)

Barbie is first, foremost and always a springboard for the imagination, and we've watched as girls naturally progress from fantasy play, to real world play. Today's Barbie lines reflect that in a way they never have before with sub-brands like Fairytopia celebrating the magical world of a young child's imagination, and the wonderful Barbie movies that have, for the first time in the doll's history, provided narrative to the dolls and their world. For older kids, though, Barbie is about fantasizing about the future, and while Barbie is, of course, a bride, she has also been everything from a paleontologist, to a dentist, to a teacher and heaven only knows how many careers. (Mattel actually does. If they tell us, we'll spill.) (Oh, and speaking of brides, what little girls imagine largely is not being the bride herself, but being a flower girl, which is a much more achievable fantasy when you're 5.)

No, what has brought about the disturbing and offensive situation at DePauw is far more insidious and ingrained in our culture than any toy. (Toys and our perceptions of toys can only reflect our personal points of view anyway. The idea of a toy controlling behavior belongs in the realm of Sci-Fi and Chucky.) This situation reflects our clear culture values that value women's appearances and appeal to men over and above their intellectual talents and gifts.

Don't believe me? It's in the reality shows that reinforce the idea that "you're it or you're shit." It is in shows like "My Super Sweet 16," in which we watch girls getting attention for being spoiled brats. It is in the media circuses surrounding Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith who are famous for being beautiful. We lose our time in paying attention to these tragic freak shows when we should be paying attention to more pressing and important matters--like declining reading scores, the re-emergence of Al Qaeda and the health care crisis. (I know: Not as much fun. But how much fun can we take? We are anesthetizing ourselves 24/7/365 with entertainment in this country.)

So before you displace blame onto a piece of vinyl, call yourself powerless and absolve yourself of responsibility in this, think of the messages you are giving the children in your life. Time and time again it has been shown that the influence of the immediate family is what shapes our kids' perceptions. If you're complacent in the face of negative stereotypes being reinforced in the world, don't be surprised if your kids adapt them.

It is not and never has been Barbie or any toy that shapes perceptions or behavior. I was a little kid in the era of Civil Rights, and grew up in the emergence of the Women's movement. We were always taught to be accepting of others, to look beneath the surface. I can remember my mother playing "South Pacific" for us and explaining that the song "Carefully Taught" was really an angry protest against conventional practice.

Some of the lyrics go: "You have to be taught before it's too late./Before you are six, or seven or eight./To hate all the people your relatives hate./You've got to be carefully taught." I can still remember my mother sitting with us and talking about how every person is individual and every person has value. My father insisted that we treat everyone we encoutnered with repsect, no matter who they were. It has been a tremendous gift. I've met incredible people everywhere I've gone, developed friendships I would never have expected and just feel lucky to have met the people I've met.

Actions like those of Delta Zeta show how little we've evolved as a culture. The belief that value rests in physical attractiveness is promoted by everything from Hollywood to diet books to watercooler conversation. Sure, there are ideals, and we can enjoy them and revel in them and use them for entertainment. But when a university-sponsored organization buys into them, what are we telling people? Can we really devalue an individual on the basis of his or her genetic code? Evidently yes, and it is pernicious and depressing. Shouldn't we more feel Lieutenant Cable's bitterness in "South Pacific" at being disuaded from loving the Pacific Islander he has fallen for because his culture has been carefully "taught to be afraid./Of people whose eyes are oddly made./Or people whose skin is a different shade." In that one song, we one of the greatest stumbling blocks to advancement our culture faces. And, tragically, it's still shaping our world today, and it diminishes us.

When I read about the young women 86ed from the sorority they loved and how many of them suffered, not surprisingly, from depression for being summarily dumped for not matching an arbitrary ideal, my heart sinks. But when I look at the picture of them, I see bright eyes and faces and very attractive young people. So I just don't get it.

I expect they'll be all right once this passes. We can hope that Delta Zeta thinks twice about its decision despite the fact that the damage is done. They do, however, do us a service to point out that their shallow judgment can't really keep good women down, and how distasteful and potentially harmful it is to try to force people to expend their energies fitting an arbitrary standard and not imagining--and then becoming--everything they might be. That's the real message of Barbie, and the value of play at any age. Not to overly anthropromorphize a piece of plastic, but as Barbie would say, "You girls can do anything."