Mattel to Barbie:
Play Nice or Don't Play at All

Martha Conway, 10/22/97

From Mark Napier's
The Distorted Barbie
I am one of those few females born after 1959 who never owned a Barbie. Believe me I wanted one, but my parents had a principle: no breasts on dolls for our little girls. I didn't understand it then and I don't now, but for other reasons entirely I'm glad they never got me one. So, instead of Ken and Barbie, I made Laurie and Jo (Madame Alexander dolls) have sex in the kitchen.

But Barbie or no, every doll I or anyone else owned received rough treatment: haircuts, magic marker make-up, and burned heads when placed too near the heater and left there to melt. They submitted to junior anatomy and failed mechanical engineering projects (loose arms, rubber-banded together by my mother, was a common feature), and baths in less-than-clean water. They were tortured as I, a younger sister, was tortured, and fared much worse.

Distorted Barbie, a "visual exploration" on the web by Mark Napier, is testament not only to our cultural fascination with Barbie, but to the distortions we put our dolls, and ourselves, through. It is essay, art, commentary, inquiry, investigation. And now Mattel, in yet another copyright face-off on the Web, wants Napier to play nicely or not play at all. They want the distorted Barbie pages gone.

Interestingly, Mattel contacted Napier's ISP, Interport, before contacting Napier himself -- indeed, Napier only found out about Mattel's ... request ... via an e-mail from Interport. Interport wrote:

Again, we make no statement that a copyright infringement exists. However one may agree or disagree with this existing environment, Interport is compelled to act accordingly in a manner which limits our liability. We hope that you would appreciate our position and, as such, voluntarily remove the Web page from the Internet until the issue is resolved between Mattel, Inc. and yourself. Interport must have the Web page removed as of Wednesday 22 October 1997.

Apparently one Barbie is sold every two seconds. This is more often than a woman is beat-up, is raped, or tries on shoes. Barbie generates a lot of income. Mattel does well by Barbie. Barbie pulls her weight with the big boys. But what the big boys don't like, what they would like stopped, is that Barbie has a life of her own. Barbie, like the Beatles, like Jesus, like members of the royal family, has a media life that is under no one's control. Barbie means something to us, even those of us who have never owned a Barbie. Who holds the copyright on that?

It is an interesting issue. Napier makes no money on his Web site. He does not claim to be the designer of Barbie. But he has created a series of images in which he experiments with different Barbie faces (Kate Moss Barbie, or X Files Barbie -- a lot of it seems just plain good fun) and that got Mattel's lawyers to bark. In their letter to Interport, they merely point to Napier's site and write: There can be no dispute that this site unlawfully infringes Mattel's copyright.

That's it. No explanation of why it infringes, or what copyright it infringes upon. Because they say so, that's why.

But when does a product, like a person, move from the producer-owned icon to a cultural icon? And why cannot Napier, if he is not making money, say what he thinks about Barbie? Can he -- is he allowed to -- say what he thinks about Barbie without using an actual Barbie image? And if so, why is the image of Barbie so much more potent, so much more lethal, than just the name? If you distort the image and are reprehensible for that, what is to stop you from being reprehensible for distorting the name?

Kate Moss Barbie
Napier has taken down his pages. He has put up "Distorted Barblie" pages instead. He has distorted the Barbie name. Will he receive another letter from Mattel? Will the Simpsons receive a letter about "Malibu Stacy?"

Dogs pissing on lawns. You would think their bladder would eventually empty, but I-ownism just goes on and on. I can't believe that Napier makes any sort of dent in the Barbie revenue. Neither does Mattel. The real issue is image -- no, not even that, but creating legal precedents. Posturing. Bullying. Pissing on lawns.

What would Barbie do? Much has been said about the appearance of Barbie, her face and figure, and what this says about what we want women to be. I'll tell you this much, though, as a woman: Barbie works out. And she works hard on her hair. You think hair like that is easy? Her face, too. All this grooming takes time and effort. Barbie is no slacker. She gets the big picture. She is into self promotion. Barbie would protest, in her way. Get her story into the media, appear on Web sites. Tell her point of view by way of photo ops. Barbie would be linking.

More Martha Conway can be found at Fiction Rag and Gossip