As Barbie once said, "Life in plastic, it’s fantastic!" Coincidentally enough, Barbie’s words
directly relate to ideas of fetish. Why? You may ask. Because, fun fact: Barbie is actually based on a German sex doll. Well, not directly. In the mid-50’s, a woman named Ruth Handler and her daughter Barbara went on a vacation to Switzerland where they discovered Bild Lilli, an Aryan-featured cartoon character equal parts femme-fatale and bombshell designed to fill up the blank space in a newspaper. Lilli eventually became so popular that sex shops and local businesses started selling plastic doll likenesses of her, a few of which Handler was so enthralled with she brought them back to America and pitched a new doll idea named after her daughter to a friend of hers who just so happened to be a co-founder of Mattel. Thus, Barbie was born.
Barbie's birth stems from a fetish of German otherness that, ironically enough, manifested itself in the plethora of sex dolls inspired by Lilli in sex shops across Germany. Handler’s cherry-picking of the particular aesthetics that ended up becoming the canonical Barbie doll present a unique argument – was the mass-marketability inevitable with the critical-mass popularity of Lilli, or is Barbie’s lurid and foundational relationship with sex a coincidence indicative of a specific fetish? In other words – is fetishization inevitable with the division between subcultural and cultural movements? Or is it based on fetish itself?
"What makes subcultures inherently subcultural is their relation to mainstream culture – they are not widely purveyed or understood, and they still act upon culture in that they live in its shadow."
As much as I am not this person, a semantic argument must be made before approaching this question. Fetishes are defines as particularities derived from reaching sexual gratification from one specific act, body part, or object. Fetishization is a metaphor derived from this definition. To “fetishize” something is to partake in a dual process – it is to choose certain attributes of something and value the whole solely based on the hand-selected parts, and to treat this interpretation as superior to other things that might fall in the same general category as the thing being “fetishized.” Not only is the process of fetishization condescending and reductive in such, but the metaphor comes quite comedically within both the condescension and reduction. Beyond the definition, what is implicit in the word “fetishization” is that you reduce something so much so that it is akin to a fetish – the only thing that can bring you sexual gratification is the thing being fetishized.
Lilli’s appropriation into Barbie can be seen as inevitable, given the nature of the relationship between subcultures and mainstream cultures receiving popularity. The argument to be made here is that if not Ruth Handler, someone else would have tried to cash out on Lilli’s popularity. What makes subcultures inherently subcultural is their relation to mainstream culture – they are not widely purveyed or understood, and they still act upon culture in that they live in its shadow. With popularity comes the visibility that is so much of what defines a subculture as what it is, and in such, the fact that Lilli went from a filler newspaper cartoon to a sex icon speaks to her mass-appeal. Part of this mass-appeal, I believe, comes from her sexuality which is an enticing advertisement rather than a deterrent. The people didn’t want the history that Lilli used to be a cartoon, they wanted the sex toys, the dolls and the safe subversion offered through her large audience. This interpretation semantically reads more toward fetishization, in the sense that the most universal traits of Lilli were reduced and considered her foundation. There also is the literal approach, which is the sexual iconography represented by both Lilli and Barbie as direct fetish. Doll and cartoon fetishes are certain sexual proclivities that are known in the fetish realm akin to foot fetishes. Societally, fetishes are considered dirty which is what pushes the subcultural kink community – it is a something existing outside the hegemony of sex present in mainstream culture.
This particular flavor of irony is fascinating, in the sense that otherness is a form of fetish
– and, in the case of Barbie, directly related to a seedier approach toward sex from the American vantage. I am not Ruth Handler and therefore cannot tell you exactly what she was thinking when she first found Bild Lilli, but through the action of appropriating Lilli into Barbie lies an implicit notion that Handler had the right to do so without proper research of the mysterious German doll she happened upon. This German doll wasn’t something worth researching, because it was a potential (and eventual) cash cow that says more about the nature of capitalistic gain than anything else but: I digress. The attributes of Lilli that could bring Handler success mattered more than the whole of Lilli herself – her history, and ironically, her own status as a sex icon. Essentially, Lilli’s transition into Barbie is the fetishization of a fetish. See why we need semantics now?
Main Image: She Is Not Just A Pretty Face by Masha Nova