Catch Barbie: women can write about anything, as long as it’s pink

1st Aug 2013

What is more comforting than a little girl in the 1950s, all pretty and pink and perfectly content, playing house, from the age of three to forever?

Those were simpler times, before the liberation of expectations that were once helpfully contained mainly by gender, and not by personal disposition, talent, or choice.

Regardless of their own talents or ambitions, those were girls steered towards a state of perpetual adolescence by the values of a society terrified of change.

So imagine how surprised the columnists and sci-fi writers Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg, remnants of those simple times, must have been with the reactions to their articles, in issues 199 and 200 of Science Fiction Writers of America’s (SFWA) magazine, Bulletin.

In dialogues ostensibly about female writers and editors within the science fiction industry, Resnick and Malzberg waxed lyrically on the “knock out” looks of “lady writers” and “lady editors” in the 50s and on how hot Beatrice Mahaffey looked in a swimsuit.

Shocked that their misogynistic ramble was not taken as a compliment by women professionals, Resnick and Malzberg proceeded to get defensive over their right to use the word “beautiful.” They accuse the criticism to be an attempt at censorship, dismissing critics as “young writers and fans” who “are making a lot of noise.”

In an amusing, though unintentional juxtaposition, the cover of issue no. 200 of Bulletin was graced with a hottie warrior lady in a most impractical chainmail bikini.

This was followed by an article in issue no. 201, by CJ Henderson, which suggested women should try to emulate Barbie to achieve long term success, as Barbie is a “nice girl” (unlike the Bratz girls who “dress like tramps and whores”) and she “maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should.”

The message is clear: fantasy female warriors are super, IRL female warriors, women who combat injustice and prejudice, are not. Writers like Resnick and Malzberg create elaborate fantasies around the Female Warrior (off to do battle in her undies) but in real life, they want Barbie.

They too hanker for those simple days of yesteryear, when diminishing the achievements of female professionals by talking about them as if they were giggling contestants in a wet t-shirt competition would have been considered a tribute.

Traditionally, a man’s value was related to his achievements, while a woman’s value was related to attributes based around social norms. A man could, therefore, be brave, intelligent, or a success, while a woman might be gentle, pretty, or neat.

These values were normalised by a society that excluded women from professional and political endeavours, and limited the terms of their success to finding a husband or keeping a tidy home.

Things are not so simple anymore. The opportunities available to women have evolved more quickly than attitudes about women. In the physical world, through the impetus and activism of many, restrictions on what a woman can do have been lifted.

We can vote! We can choose to be strippers or neurosurgeons. We can backpack around the world or write books.

The law of the land has been updated (I speak of the Western world, to which I limit my assessment) and discrimination is ubiquitously frowned upon. But while you can pass a law telling people what to do, changing people’s attitudes is more difficult.

This is Catch Barbie; the doors may be opened but the minds are closed. Barbie may wear a pilot’s uniform, but she will still be just Barbie: epitome of bimbohood.A male professional is a professional; a female professional is first and foremost female, her value assigned by her gender, her achievements secondary to that, and the expectations (and frequent abuse) a consequence.

There are many examples that illustrate this point; Resnick and Malzberg dialogues for one, where “lady editors” and “lady writers” are praised for their feminine charms, their merits as editors and writers being secondary.

See Helen Lewis’ blog for a record of professional female writers and the abuse they face, simply for doing their jobs, or Laurie Penny’s brilliant analysis on how “a woman’s opinion is the mini-skirt of the internet.

Or consider the pillory Australia’s former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has been forced to endure, at the hands of both garden-variety trolls and her fellow politicians.

Since 2010, Gillard has been subjected to a torrent of abuse entirely irrelevant to her policies, ranging from comments about her fat arse, ridicule over her wardrobe, and speculations about her intimate relations with her partner.

She has been called barren, “an unproductive old cow,” and been the object of numerous violent and/or sexual internet memes. Would her choice of clothing been such a feature had she been a man? Would she have been called impotent? Unlikely.

Gillard’s speech attacking the leader of the opposition’s misogyny has lead to the dictionary definition of the word being updated to include “an entrenched prejudice against women.” It is this entrenched prejudice that is at the core of Catch Barbie.

There has been much talk about the unequal representation, in terms of reviews and reviewers, of women by the London Review of Books (based on the VIDA Count 2012, which showed similar discrepancies across publications) LRB pride themselves on dealing with serious literature and writers.

If a woman writes about life, she is writing chick-lit (and furnished with a suitably frivolous cover). There is no dude-lit: only literature.

Is the assumption that women cannot deal with the same topics, in an eloquent and insightful manner? Perhaps LRB’s suggestion that finding female writers is hard should be read as: “respecting female writers is hard”.

The further we get, the more resistance will be encountered. There is a long way to go still, and the battle for people’s minds will be waged individually by every one of us. We, as women, need to respect each other and ourselves.

We need to challenge misogyny, we need to set the standards, and not accept anything less than what is deserved. It begins with every one of us and the things we tolerate, the jokes we laugh at, the conversations we engage in.

The world has evolved. There will be those who adapt and there will be those who, like Resnick and Malzberg and the masked desperadoes of virtuality, will become extinct.

Mihaela Nicolescu

(Image via Charles Rodstrom)