Commentary

Barbie & 'Playboy': Both Busting Moves On The Internet Of Gendered Things

So Playboy sheds the nudes just as Barbie gets a voice.

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.  

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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.

13 comments about "Barbie & 'Playboy': Both Busting Moves On The Internet Of Gendered Things".
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  1. david marks from self, October 22, 2015 at 7:01 p.m.

    I'm never surprised by your insights, Barbara. For me, you leave little to be said, except, of course, that your imagination ties two media icons together with brilliance and levity, and it’s perfect.

  2. chuck husak from august, lang & husak, October 22, 2015 at 7:31 p.m.

    So, I wonder, who will the new Playboy compete with?  Esquire?  Maxim?  GQ?  

    The move to de-nude, you'd have to think, will come with a total design makeover.  But -- conceding that it was a move the brand had to make -- I'm truly curious for what the book will look like six months from now, and who that look might resemble...  

    Listen, I know Nat Geo was just acquired (controlling interest) by Fox -- but please don't tell me National Geographic will also reverse its policy of nude (okay, topless) photos.  This pub is the last link I have with my youthful awakenings...

  3. Jane Farrell from Freelance, October 22, 2015 at 7:51 p.m.

    Playboy made a good move in eliminating nude pictures. The centerfolds could never compete with what's on the interwebs, so it's better to focus on strengthening the brand in other ways. And as you say, it will attract a different kind for advertisers. As for Barbie - it's way too late to enter the WiFi world. Thanks for tying  this up into a smart package.

  4. M McCaughey from ASU, October 22, 2015 at 8:12 p.m.

    Fun post. I'd add that it's not just that Playboy can't compete with all the porn on the Internet. It's also that there is no longer the social stigma for a man to be single and into gadgets and the other material items Playboy always featured.  Remember, Playboy emerged at a time men typically got married and had children soon after they completed high school or college.  I'd say Playboy used to have to include naked women in its pages to help men feel virile and "not gay" for delaying or avoiding marriage and children in favor of spending their money on the gadgets and other things that were part of that Playboy lifestyle/demographic.  I'm curious how Cosmo will change.  In my mind, that is the closer parallel to Playboy.  

  5. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, October 22, 2015 at 8:16 p.m.

    also, forgot to say that maybe some of Playboy's new features will include "The 10 Sexiest New Craft Beers," (all alluringly photographed) or a fully dressed J.K Rowling as the centerfold. )

  6. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, October 22, 2015 at 8:25 p.m.

    M McCaughey-- so true about the bachelor culture. Hef might even have invented the bar stool! 
    He was home in his penthouse in his smoking jacket, with jazz on the "hi-fi" talking Picasso with the current lady. 

  7. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 22, 2015 at 8:26 p.m.

    You summed it up without more nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking. Under the broader category of things change. That doesn't mean Playboy won't have alluring modeling in suggestive poses. Barbie was always a way too expensive phony bore as much as I thougt when I was of the "Barbie age". Allowing a Barbie spy into your home, are you going to pay or what ? When Barbie is left on and on the bed when mommy and daddy are wrestling goes viral and it's not mommy.....And the kids will just be controlled younger and younger so prepping them will be easier for fbeast, google and other conglomerates. Read Death by Social Media by Shelly Palmer to give your readers more perspective. 

  8. Jim English from The Met Museum, October 22, 2015 at 10:04 p.m.

    As you said in an earlier column,  Barbara. "When it comes to new names and labels and incarnations nobody beats Barbie."  The plastic girl brings to mind Madonna, always redoing herself to remain relevant.  As for those no-nude Playboy Unique User numbers, August 2014 to present - - a 400% increase -- they do seem too good to be true.

  9. Ruth Thomas from Second helping, October 23, 2015 at 4:12 a.m.

    Wish there was a "like" button...love your insights...but then again, as Lisa Simpsons talking doll would say, " I don't know, I'm just a girl"

  10. Len Stein from Visibility Public Relations, October 23, 2015 at 2:02 p.m.

    In the early '80s Christie H launched a set of lifestyle mags to attract new advertisers. But she named them Playboys guide to Fashion, PB's guide to Autos, to Electronics. All went bust immediately. Good luck with Sexy this and that lists.

  11. Don Perman from self, October 23, 2015 at 2:25 p.m.

    A great read and excellent linkup of the two trends.  Honestly, I can't remember the last time I saw anyone even holding a copy of Playboy. Indeed, I'm not even sure the bodega/newsstands still have it.  Given the mortal combat everywhere for readers' eyeballs, I can't imagine the deep draw of another mag about trends and stuff to buy to be cool. Even Cosby won't pretend to read it now.

  12. Kevin Horne from Lairig Marketing, October 26, 2015 at 12:43 p.m.

    @Len Stein - they all went "bust" ?  !!!! ???

  13. Alan Wasserstrom from None, October 27, 2015 at 10 a.m.

    A very fine read,indeed. Perhaps there is space for a no nudes Playboy as an alternative to the direction Flynt has taken Hustler as well as Penthouse. Time will tell.

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