Saturday, May 9, 2009

Miniature Ladies: Barbie’s Commodity Chain

[I wrote this paper tonight for a Human Geography class assignment to research commodity chains of international products. I selected Barbie, not because I own Barbie toys, but because I found the cultural issues surrounding the doll to be amusing and mildly intriguing. However, when I tell people of my topic I generally receive confused and hostile stares which I presume indicates that people assume I am some sort of pervert. Read the essay and you will surely find the controversies which surround Barbie is enormously entertaining.]

Miniature Ladies: Barbie’s Commodity Chain


by Ryan Haecker

Dolls are believed to have been a plaything of humans since before recorded history. Often being constructed of local materials, Dolls have been found in Egyptian graves dating as far back as 2000BC.
However the modern era of mass produced plastic dolls began with the replacement of celluloid with plastic as the preferred material for constructing dolls in the aftermath of the Second World War . Created in 1959 by American business woman Ruth Handler, Barbie has in the past half century become the worlds most purchased doll. Barbie’s extraordinary popularity has been the cause for satire, lawsuits, and even political controversy. Barbie has received criticisms from both feminists and social conservatives. Partly as a result, Barbie has been subject to innumerable controversies stemming from her ubiquitous popularity and the perceived cultural influence of Barbie dolls on young girls.

Recent sociological literature has attempted to demonstrate the connection between childhood dolls and the adolescent socialization of gender roles . In one recent example, West Virginia Congressman Jeff Eldridge introduced a bill to "ban the sale of Barbie dolls and other dolls that influence girls to be beautiful" within the state of West Virginia.” As recently as April of 2009, a “Totally Tattoos Barbie” was released which included what was perceived to be a sexually provocative lower back tattoo, or “tramp stamp”. Critics alleged that the doll unnecessarily sexualized young girls and promoted the crass culture which tattoos are often associated with. In 1999, a similar controversy was ignited when Barbie’s pregnant friend Midge of the “Happy Family” play set was hastily recalled after the doll received “uniformly negative” reactions from parents who often mistakenly interpreted the individually packaged doll as a single mother. Feminists have, for decades, criticized the “1 in 1000” body proportions of Barbie which they argue portrays unrealistic body standards and only serves to encourage male domination .

The production and purchasing of the doll has often aroused great hostility in foreign markets. In a provocative example, the conservative Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice published on their website that “Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful!” The doll “Fulla” is widely sold throughout the Islamic community as an Islamic alternative to Barbie, which, in contrast to the perceived western licentiousness of Barbie, is marketed as modest and pious, complete with a detachable hijab (head scarf) and a tiny pink prayer rug.

Mattel, the Toy manufacturer which distributes Barbie, is a publicly traded Fortune 500 company with 31,000 employees and nearly six billion dollars in yearly revenues . A fact, which serves to reinforce the tremendous importance of Barbie, is that 80% of their revenue is derived from the sale of Barbie dolls . In the year 2000 alone, Barbie products brought Mattel yearly earnings of 1.5 Billion dollars! Mattel reports that over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold in 150 countries since the introduction of the doll, with three dolls being sold every second. Part of Barbie’s international success has been attributed to her post-war television marketing strategy. The first Barbie dolls were manufactured in Japan with their clothing being hand-sewn by Japanese women. From 1959 through 1972, Mattel focused on a bottom line of manufacturing and Barbie was therefore made in low cost facilities in Japan. Today however, 65% of Mattel’s toys are manufactured in China. In the 1980’s “Mattel aggressively expanded the number of plants it owned in Asia. Noncore products, like trinkets made under movie-licensing deals, could be outsourced. But Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels, among others, would be kept in tightly controlled factories.” Mattel does not publically reveal the locations of Barbie’s international production; however it is known that many of Barbie’s component parts are produced in Southeast Asian countries such as China, Indonesia, and Malaysia. One of Mattel’s largest factories is the 330,000 sq. ft. factory in Guanyao, a city in south China’s Guangdong province, considered the world’s biggest toy manufacturing center. Here about 3,000 young, mostly female, workers busily assemble Mattel products for an average salary of 175$ a month.

Barbie’s enormous international popularity has been facilitated partially by an unusually large collectors market. It is estimated that there are more than one hundred thousand “avid fans”, 90% of whom are women over the age of 40, who will yearly spend over 1,000$ on collectable dolls . Mattel estimates that there are upwards of eight million Barbie collectors internationally . It has been reported that “the 1959 Barbie doll in mint condition will sell for thousands of dollars. Some have sold for as much as $8000 to $10,000 but you can buy them for much less and $2000 to $3000 is quite common.” It is said that “about 300,000 of the 1959 Barbie were made and there are undoubtedly many out there still undiscovered.” Mattel has recently attempted to create a local consumer base in China with a recent Barbie shop opening in Shanghai.

With her release in 1959, Barbie’s head and body were manufactured from a potentially toxic polyvinyl chloride or PVC . Barbie has received some recent material enhancements to make her appear more attractive and human in appearance: “New elastomers have given her a more lifelike body. Engineering thermoplastics have improved her complexion. And developmental water-based paints could soon result in a face that goes easier on the environment”. Barbie’s complex internal structure (flexible waist Barbie consists of more than 20 parts) and stress resistant polymers allow her to endure intensive abuse. Her characteristic hair is manufactured from a variety of synthetic fiber . The precise chemical composition of Barbie is unknown, making any assessment of the procurement of her materials problematic.

Although Mattel owns some Barbie themed retail stores, she is primarily sold internationally through auxiliary chains such as KB Toys and Toys R Us. However collectors and shoppers can also purchase Barbie online from a variety of vendors such as Amazon.com. The shipping and distribution of Barbie, of course, an enormously complex feat of the international trade system utilizing transportation venues such as airmail, local shipping, and large freight vessels. The 50 year history of Barbie is remarkable testament to the perennial popularity of the doll among young girls and adult collectors. Although recent market challenges have arisen from rival toy lines (such as the controversial Bratz toy line), Barbie nonetheless has demonstrated a remarkable international and intergenerational appeal that is not likely to diminish soon.

Works Cited

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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Santa Claus: Patron God of American Consumerism

Santa Claus: the Patron God of American Consumer Culture
By Ryan Haecker

In the closing quarter of the 18th century, the United States would be, with great potential but an uncertain future, expressly founded as a secular republic. And although Protestant Christianity had then, and still retains, the greatest number of adherents, our nation has always lacked a single unifying faith. In the past, great civilizations have found the need for expressions of public rejoicing in parades and religious festivals. In antiquity, the Athenians showed their adulation towards their patron goddess Athena during the Pan-Athenian festival. This important practice serves to unite a community, not only in honoring their Gods, but perhaps more importantly, in publicly reaffirming a communal ideology and identity.

Although America may at first appear to be lacking in such a festival, we are in fact united yearly in a singular common celebration. On a cold winter day, before the coming of the New Year, Americans unite to offer an enormous monetary sacrifice to impersonal financial powers of which give structure and meaning to our cosmos. On Christmas day, Americans celebrate their material abundance and consumer culture through the oblation of mass consumption. And the personification of this orgy of spending is Santa Claus: the patron god of American consumer culture.

Before the modern era, European towns would often be overlooked by the looming presence of castles and monasteries. These medieval structures dotted the hilltops and served to remind the townsfolk of the dual powers of church and state. Today the bastions of American power are to be found, not in the temple or the army barracks, but in the towering buildings of the financial district. Here great cathedrals of capitalism soar to the heavens. Here it is that the ruling bourgeoisie venerate the esoteric workings of an impersonal global economy through the daily liturgy of financial transactions.

It was once believed that that the practice of ascetic self-sacrifice could appease the Gods and ennoble the faithful. Today, consumer spending and fiscal responsibility are the indicators of a healthy economy and a prosperous society. Local parishes and ancestral shrines once provided agrarian peoples with a means of communion with their Gods. There was thought to be an organic correspondence between the environment on earth and the heavens above. Today we disfigure the countryside with expansive shopping malls and glorify the bull market through the veneration of our purchases.

With the ever increasing complexity and importance of global financial institutions, we have, in the past four centuries, come to replace our communal adulation of the divine with a new faith in the esoteric workings of global capitalism. Already, we have erected temples to this new deity whose offerings take the form of the dollar and whose omens are revealed by the Wall Street ticker. Christmas carols may still retain some semblance of the Christian religion, but for many they are now a mere façade to hide the hideous fact that what we now value is not our religiosity but our material commodities.

In the increasingly secular setting of the 21st century, we are beginning to witness an apotheosis of Santa Claus from merely one among many Christian saints to an icon of consumer spending and mass consumption. American society, bereft of a common faith, has found, in Santa, the perfect representation of their communal preoccupation with material commodities. At one time Saint Nicholas was venerated on account of his piety and generosity. Today we find that Santa Claus is represented as an obese toymaker indoctrinating children into the cult of materialism. In him we find a perfect personification of America’s grossest vices of gluttony and avaricious consumption. It is time to abandon the consumer culture of Santa and save the real meaning of Christmas.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Trials and Tears of the Great War

the Trials and Tears of the Great War
by Ryan Haecker

“From all sides, wounded men were making tracks towards it from the shelled woods. The trench was appalling, chocked with seriously wounded and dying men...This was the home of the great god Pain, and for the first time I looked through a devilish chink into the depths of his realm. And fresh shells came down all the time.” - Ernst Jünger, “Storm of Steel” (1920)

The Great War, which lasted from the mobilization of muscovite arms in the year 1914 until the abdication of the Kaiser Wilhelm II in the year 1918 was the last and greatest of the European great power conflicts which had, since the treaty of Westphalia 270 years prior, periodically ravaged the European continent. The Great War burst forth on a heretofore unimaginable scale in which upwards of 70 million Europeans were mobilized and 40 million lost their lives. Despite the irretrievable multitudes who perished in this war, the greatest casualty of all was European civilization. The integrated tradition of dynasty, nobility, and caste which conservative vigilance had diligently preserved from revolutionary republicanism would be brought crashing down with the conclusion of the War.
Never again would the youth of Europe be so aptly spent to safeguard the majestic dignity of ancient dynasties. The heraldic banners of the Romanovs, the Hapsburgs, the Osmans, and the Hohenzollerns would never again fly proudly upon the battlefield. Neither would the privileged pride a hereditary nobility inspire the populace to martial feats to equal their illustrious forbears. The old order of princes and nobility which martial valor had violently hewn from the plebeian forests of antiquity would meet their fiery end in the holocaust of industrial warfare. Republics were born which would replace the anointed sovereigns of Europe with democratically elected officials. Statecraft would henceforth be shaped not by the honorable aspirations of a hereditary gentry and a pious clergy but by the guiding hand of the bourgeois capitalists and the vulgar workers. In an age when rifelry and cannonry had replaced chivalry on the battlefield, merit and lineage would be forgotten as the vote was extended to all persons.

How are we, the inheritors of this irredeemable tragedy, to find meaning in the immeasurable suffering of the Great War? If this calamitous suicide of Europe was inevitable, was it also bereft of meaning? Or might there be some immortal value for which the heirs of Leibniz and Descartes soiled their hands in Christian blood. If the Great War is to have any meaning, any cause for which so ghastly a sacrifice might be held as fair compensation, it must lie in the preservation of the hallowed traditions of Western Civilization which restrained action and prudent council had over one thousand year been wrought. These traditions, enshrined in both religious dogma and the socio-political structures of Old Regime Europe, preserved undiminished the sturdy vigor and cultivated character of a more virile agrarian past.

The integrated traditions of Old Europe had grown into the full of their majestic splendor in a past which was uncorrupted by the pollution of industrialism or the demands capitalism. These traditions had been wrought in a prior age, before workers were uprooted from their family farms and the aristocracy had been reduced to an effete and complacent bourgeois. The long struggle of agrarian peoples to find harmony and salvation in a pitiless world would be abruptly interrupted by the technological innovations of steam, steel, and rail. The ruinous plundering of the natural world would foreshadow the forthcoming devastation of the old societal order. For the sake of military preparedness, Hapsburg and Romanov princes, ignorant of their doom, would eagerly cultivate the very instruments of their demise. For a landed aristocracy could not hope to survive the proliferation of the printing press, the factory, and the rifle.

What hope remained for the old order was to be found in the authoritarian military tradition of Sacred Germany. In her lands alone had the vulgar demands of industrialism and capitalism been faithfully reconciled with the dignified requirements of an aristocratic gentry. The heirs of the Holy Roman Empire had found in industrial production a fitting outlet for their creativity, industriousness, and discipline. The military elan of the Teutonic Knights was still retained undiminished in the martial tradition of the Kaiser's armies. The lean successors of Bismark were the envy and terror of a continent which had grown fat on the surpluses of empire and industry.

Arrayed against this power were the Revolutionary Republics of America and France as well the maritime leviathan of British Empire. Both America and France had rejected as false the integrated traditions of European civilization in their respected revolutions, and what tradition was retained in England had been corroded by the acidic conditions of the first industrial revolution. Against the full weight of these combined powers, even Germany's militant spirit could not prevail. And in the year 1918, the Kaiser's navies mutinied, his armies surrendered and his people revolted. In fear the Kaiser fled to Denmark while an iconoclastic republic was proclaimed at home, forever abolishing the hallowed heritage of kingship and nobility. The fighting spirit of the German people had been in this war spent for the foreseeable future, and none would suspect the looming danger which would soon befall the next generation.

The story of the Great War is doubly a tragedy, both for the irreplaceable lives spent and hallowed traditions marred. Tens of millions had died in the war and tens of millions more would perish in the successive wars, revolutions, and mass starvations which would follow. Military necessity required that the gentlemanly manners and innocent optimism of Victorian society be traded for calculated endurance when faced with the grim realities of attrition warfare. Philosophical nihilism, economic collapse and social unrest would erupt from the festering wounds of this great conflict, shaping the remainder of the bleak 20th century. By 1920, the suicide of Europe and the end of an age were complete.