‘I embrace Barbie because I’m not threatened by her,’ says my friend Pippa, an early 40-ish antiques dealer from London who lives in Berlin.
We are standing inside the ‘Barbie Dreamhouse Experience’, a 2,500-square metre Barbie museum; a pink monstrosity erected last month in a parking lot near Alexanderplatz. Inside, one can bake imaginary cupcakes, saunter down a fashion runway and gawk at the contents of Barbie’s hall of shoes. It’s a little out of place in the midst of the communist-era Plattenbau (pre-fabricated, council-style) apartment blocks that surround it. In 1989, East German activists gathered not far from this spot to welcome the downfall of socialist dictatorship. This year, topless feminists descended upon an ersatz doll’s house and shouted: ‘Burn it down!’
Before the Barbie Dreamhouse even opened its doors, it had already become a source of controversy. Michael Koschitzki, a member of the Left party (a descendant of the old East German communist Socialist Unity party), attacked the Dreamhouse for ‘present[ing] an image of cooking, primping and singing, as if it were in some way life-fulfilling. The Barbie Dreamhouse is the expression of a conventional role model that isn’t OK,’ he told Der Spiegel.
The real assault came from Femen, the neo-feminist collective founded five years ago in Ukraine. The day of the Dreamhouse gala opening, a group of German Femen members descended upon Alexanderplatz to ruin the fun. ‘Being Barbie is not a career!’ shouted one young woman, wearing nothing but a miniskirt. As police tried to apprehend her, she waved a burning crucifix on which a Barbie doll had been nailed — all in view of the horrified young fans.
It’s not just Barbie Dreamhouse that’s the problem. Germany has now approached the point where anything remotely sexy runs the risk of being sabotaged by topless feminist nutters. Several weeks after the Barbie imbroglio, Femen members hijacked the grand finale of Germany’s Next Top Model, the hit television show hosted by supermodel Heidi Klum. Two Femen activists strutted along the catwalk on live television with ‘Heidi Horror Picture Show’ scrawled in black ink across their naked chests — until guards frogmarched them from the stage. At the Berlinale film festival in February Femen activists protested alleged ‘sextremism,’ chanting: ‘Women are not products.’
‘It takes forever to reach a position from which you can actually get anything done,’ says Klara Martens, a 22-year-old German member of Femen. ‘The sex industry continues to spread through our society like a cancer.’ She has a point. But isn’t it a little contradictory to protest about the objectification of the female body while baring your breasts? Nor does it help Femen’s cause that all of their members are young, attractive women with nice breasts. Last year, Femen activists rushed the field during the European football championship bearing the slogan: ‘I am a woman, not an object’ on their chests. They didn’t exactly prove their point to the excited crowd.
By targeting Barbie and Heidi Klum, Germany’s Femen branch is straying from their group’s roots. Femen’s founders began the whole business of topless protesting to highlight the horror of human trafficking, a deadly business which preys upon poor young women from Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. In addition to campaigning against forced prostitution, Femen committed itself to combating dictatorships and the religious oppression of women. Earlier this year, a Tunisian activist inspired by Femen put topless photos of herself online with the words ‘my body is my own and not your honour’ written on her skin. She was arrested and now faces two years in prison and death threats.
It is quite another thing, however, to attack the world’s most beloved doll. Sure, maybe Barbie encourages young girls to obsess about weight and fashion. But what would a world without Barbie — or, for the boy equivalent, toy soldiers — look like? Where does this crusade against anything that is not entirely wholesome end? Do the Femen girls really want a drab Teutonic wasteland full of neutered men and serious women endlessly discussing Judith Butler?
As I wandered through the Dreamhouse I asked my friend Pippa just what it is about Barbie that enrages feminists. She is, after all, an independent woman, who — according to her website, at least — excels in all sorts of jobs, from ‘computer expert’ to ‘architect.’ Barbie does not just bake cupcakes.
Pippa says that the neo-feminists’ rage is inspired by a sense of their own insecurity, a ‘desire to eliminate competition, which is drastic when it comes to a plastic doll’. Perhaps Pippa has a point.