For this April Fool’s Day, let’s recall a truly elaborate prank. In 1993, a madcap group of California conceptual artists calling themselves the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO) seized an opportunity for comic mayhem about gender stereotyping in a revealing bit of cultural parody that they called “culture jamming.” When a version of talking Barbie that recited the chatty phrase “Math class is tough” (in the interest of full disclosure, this is a sentiment I’d share, by the way) appeared on shelves, the BLO, sensing typecasting, swung into gear. They purchased Barbies and G.I. Joes, the yin/yang figures of American gender construction, and switched their voice boxes. BLO then mischievously repackaged the dolls and action figures, possibly as many as 500 of them, and replaced them on store shelves.
When unsuspecting buyers purchased the toys and opened them, Barbie made grunting, combat noises. And a perky G.I. Joe said, “Let’s go shopping!” The altered toys became a centerpiece of The Strong’s exhibit, When Barbie Dated G.I. Joe, that highlighted starkly divergent “gendered” portrayals of manly and womanly roles in the era of the Cold War.
I very much wanted these figures for the exhibit but did not deal with the BLO directly. I negotiated to acquire the altered toys in a hilariously roundabout way through an intermediary, by “Moscow rules,” as I called the elaborate protocol at the time. At first I talked only to a third party, but when passing information along proved cumbersome, he arranged a call where he held the phone (my call) up to another phone in the BLO headquarters. In time, the altered doll and action figure came to the museum.
When Barbie Dated G.I. Joe soon featured the BLO’s mischief in an amusing, interactive installation that invited museum guests to compare and contrast the doll and the action figure. The contrasts jumped out plainly, but with a little playful work the comparisons revealed, among other things, that both Barbie and Joe liked to accessorize (Barbie with a pink Corvette, Joe with a Jeep, Barbie with a handbag, Joe with an ammo pack, Barbie with a mirror, Joe with a high-powered scope….). The more the content of play changed for boys and girls, the more the form—pretending—stayed the same.
Barbie is not real, of course. In fact “she” stands several steps removed from reality—a toymakers notion of a little girl’s idea of a stylish teenager. The BLO explored successfully, and with good humor, gender discrimination, a subject most Americans were getting on board with. The average American girl now owns 10 Barbies, which makes the doll an important icon and fair game for cultural discourse. Since then toymakers who saw a good thing coming have given us Barbies dressed as dentists, paleontologists, architects, ambassadors (for world peace, naturally), Canadian Mounties, paratroopers, Princesses, Presidential candidate, and one we haven’t seen just yet, President.
Pranks do have the power to move the world forward, and that’s no joke.