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The Barbie Liberation Organisation was motivated by a singular pursuit: freeing Barbie, GI Joe and their owners from manufactured gender stereotyping.
One day in 1993 somewhere in America, a little girl opened her birthday present to find a gorgeous brand-new Teen Talk Barbie. It’s the very Barbie she wanted and she carefully removed the doll from its packaging wondering what Barbie would say. Imagine her surprise when she pressed the button and heard a deep voice booming out “Eat lead, Cobra” followed by “Vengeance is mine”.
In another city, on that same day an excited little boy opened up his new GI Joe action figure, pressed the voice button and heard the mighty warrior say “I love to shop, don’t you?” and “Do you have a crush on anyone?”
Mayhem! The Barbie Liberation Organisation had struck!
In 1993, a group of activists had bought a few hundred dolls and performed “corrective surgery” on them – swapping the voice boxes on Barbies and GI Joes – before placing them on toyshop shelves across 40-odd American states in an action they called “reverse shoplifting”. Outraged that Barbie said things like “Math is hard”, a blatant message suggesting that girls are not as smart as boys, they decided to strike at the very heart of toy-hood.
But it went well beyond the feminist cause.
In a creative propaganda video, the Barbie spokesdoll for the BLO explained that they also chose to switch the voice boxes on GI Joes because they (GI Joes) also want to be free and “don’t want to say all that violent war stuff”. Barbie was very emphatic about the unacceptable use by toymakers of gender stereotypes to brainwash kids, stating that this has “a negative effect on children’s development”.
To be fair, one of the sentences Barbie said was “I’m going to be a veterinarian”, but it wasn’t enough for the BLO because with over 250 possible Teen Talk Barbie messages only four were randomly chosen for each doll, so the chances of hearing empowering messages like expressing a desire to study veterinary science were pretty remote.
While it might have been a bit startling to hear Barbie order her troops to attack or Cobra say “Ken is such a dream” (tacitly acknowledging that gays should not be forgotten in the debate), the BLO had made its point. Of course, it wasn’t saying anything especially new – the fight for gender equality had been going for a very long time and, sadly, continues to this day – but it was an inspired way of bringing wider public attention to the matter. In the boxes of each doctored doll was a new instruction sheet complete with telephone numbers for both the BLO and major press outlets. The hope was that parents would call the media to complain about the switch and the BLO’s message would achieve maximum coverage. Remember this was in the days before social media would have ensured the message went viral, so it was a well-thought-through campaign.
Critics called the BLO “toy terrorists”, asking “if protesters can tamper with the voices of children’s icons, what can be next?” The horror! But as their video shows, many children found it amusing and no real harm was done.
Barbie was very emphatic about the unacceptable use by toymakers of gender stereotypes to brainwash kids.
Hopefully, many parents tackled the issue of gender stereotyping and assured their daughters that they were more than capable of excelling at mathematics and their sons that they didn’t have to grow up, get a gun and go to war. Instead, they could go to the mall or have a pizza party. What fun! Mind you, even more than a quarter of a century after the voice boxes were switched, it’s still a little surprising to hear Barbie say something like “We’re gonna knock you cold” or GI Joe ask his men, “Which outfit is your favourite?” What does that say about gender equality in the twenty-first century?
If you have a GI Joe in storage at home, make sure to check whether he thinks “the beach is the place for summer”; have a listen to the Barbie that’s been sitting at the back of the cupboard for decades. If she says “Take the jeep and get some ammo, fast”, then you’re laughing.
Just think what those surgically corrected dolls would be worth today.