Are these announcements connected? What do they mean for the culture?
Certainly, Barbie, the doll, and Playboy, the magazine, make for odd bedfellows, but are in some ways opposite sides of the same coin. Both were launched in the 1950s (from L.A. and Chicago, respectively) as a way to introduce a unique, attention-grabbing product, something new and sophisticated, into the conservative/conformist/family-centered/puritanical U.S. culture of the time, and profit handsomely from it.
Barbie started out as "Bild Lilli," a cartoon of a post-war street-walker in a German newspaper, who had been turned into a “gag gift” for men, when Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler found the voluptuous one sitting on a swing in a Swiss gift shop. She knew that her daughter, Barbara (Barbie, really -- and Handler also had a son, Ken, no joke) liked to play with dolls in adult situations. So she brought Lilli back to California for an engineering revamp, and turned her into America’s first 10-inch plastic doll with genital-free grown-up lady-parts.
Similarly, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner wanted to offer men a new kind of urbane men’s magazine (before the word “lifestyle” was invented) that both printed great literature and talked about art and jazz while de-stigmatizing sex, all part of the “Playboy Philosophy.” It softened the shock of the nude photos by offering the All-American “girl next door” (not a Bild Lilly type!) for the gauzily posed centerfold.
Now, a half century or more later, each is a fading property and object of intense nostalgia for the aging populations that embraced these products as kids — or, in the case of Playboy, as thrill-seeking male adolescents.
Of course, the biggest similarity is that, as with all legacy brands, each is desperately trying to stay relevant in an unforgivingly digital world.
First, let’s talk Barbie. Perhaps you’ve heard that amid its quarterly losses, in November parent company Mattel is launching Hello Barbie, an interactive, Wi-Fi-connected doll that will retail for $75. The big difference from previous gabbers is that this doll employs ToyTalk’s system to analyze a child’s speech and respond with appropriate, conversational answers.
Given that sweeping, Siri-like techno-advance, Hello Barbie would seem to be a world away from Teen Talk Barbie, who was introduced in 1992, and quickly crashed and burned as Backlash Barbie. One of the lines she was programmed to spout included the now-infamous “Math class is tough!” Parents and educational groups were aggrieved and had Mattel excise the line.
Though the ToyTalk technology is a world away, interactively speaking, the reaction to this latest Barbie from parents and educational groups has been remarkably similar. Recently the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood said the voice recordings amounted to “eavesdropping” and could be “used to exploit the intimate feelings of children.”
Aside from worry that Mattel could use the info for further marketing to the child, or that unauthorized users could commit foul play, for many parents the technology, even at its best, is not an attractive inducement for purchase.
Rather, they see it as an imagination-killer. One friend, the father of a five-year-old who happily plays with bunches of Barbies that she got as gifts, says, “I’m not interested in having my daughter create the personality that Mattel thinks she should have, and has programmed into the doll. I want her to grow and play based on her own imagination.”
Unlike Siri, the disembodied voice in Apple phones that kids love to mine for her misinterpreted, inappropriate, or sometimes encyclopedic answers, Barbie comes with that 1950s-style show-girl body, which amounts to lots of baggage. To talk to her, the child must press a button on her bejeweled belt.
I could see the possibility of older kid conversations going the word-equivalent way of what my friends and I sometimes did to Barbie: cut her hair off.
So unless the doll becomes a collector’s item, among the grown-ups and fetishists who already spend a fortune on her, I’d say auf wiedersehen to Hello Barbie.
Meanwhile, for Playboy to get rid of its hallmark nude photos is a wildly counterintuitive move, for sure. But it’s also a life-saving shift for a very dated product in an already porn-drenched world.
It really comes down to the demands of social media. No nudes means that content links can appear on Facebook and Twitter. The New York Times reports that after the website removed the nudity in August 2014, the result was a jump in circulation, from 4 million unique users to roughly 16 million, and a lowering of the age of the average user from someone in his 40s to a more millennial 30. (Do these numbers sound too good to be true?)
Taking the nudes out of the print edition, whose circulation is way down to 800,000 from 4 million in its heyday in 1972, will also allow access to new newsstand distribution streams, and new kinds of advertisers.
And let’s face it, any distancing from founder Hugh Hefner (who at 87 still personally picks all the Playmates and centerfolds) is probably a good idea.
In the 1960s, he was a living genius at embodying the Playboy brand, his silk pajamas, pipe, and L.A. mansion featuring a “grotto” for celebs and bunnies to play in. But that persona is now the ripe stuff of parody -- as in Dos Equis’ “The most interesting man in the world,” and Old Spice’s “The man your man could smell like.”
The successful reality show, “Girls Next Door,” featuring a trio of Hef’s latest long-blonde-haired, sister-bunny-wives who could have doubled for porn stars or Real Housewives, is now off the air, and one of the former “girls” has written a tell-all that maintains that Hef offered her a Quaalude when he first met her at a bar, and said, “we used to call these thigh-openers.”
That kind of predatory behavior lines up with Bill Cosby’s drug-manipulated sexual game. And it makes sense, since during the 1960s and 70s, Cosby was one of the most frequent guests at the mansion and at Playboy clubs. One of the former Bunnies is among the women who has come forward to accuse Cosby of rape.
Both Playboy and Barbie are part of an inevitable media-morphosis. But giving the doll a corporate voice is not exactly liberating. Whereas the move to denude Playboy magazine is a very positive one — it also de-creeps the place.
All in all, it offers some fresh thought for the modern, “it’s complicated” Internet of Gendered Things.