Plastic Surgery for Barbie: Body Politics in Kids’ Games

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My biggest passions are videogames, cats, and psychology. The particular brand of psychology I’m most interested in is body politics, how we as humans reconcile the mind/body problem, and the ways in which culture dictates how we’re “supposed” to look. It was the subject of my undergraduate senior thesis, but for the sake of brevity I’ll try to highlight only the crucial points.

How we experience our bodies is largely dictated by our culture. Although certain aspects (facial symmetry, waist-to-hip ratio, etc.) can be attributed to evolution, for the most part “beauty” is relative. By that I mean it’s a social construct that has differed across cultures and throughout history.

Women considered beautiful 60 years ago would be “fat” by today’s standard. You’re wondering what this has to do with videogames. I promise, just give me a second.

Marilyn MonroeHistorically beauty has been used as a means of social control. External constraints (foot binding, corsets, etc.) have gradually been replaced with internal ones. Foucault (1977) calls it the gaze:

…A gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorizing to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising the surveillance over, and against himself.

Imagine a woman who, feeling insecure about her appearance, decides to get a boob job. She doesn’t think she’s conforming to a societal standard of beauty. Rather, she feels empowered: “it’s my body I can do what I want.”

Subtlety is what makes the gaze so insidious. Clothed in the language of empowerment and choice, it’s disturbingly effective. Increasingly, men are just as susceptible to the Beauty Myth as women.

Underwear Ads vs. Real Men

Media representations have a homogenizing and normalizing effect on how people view themselves. What does this mean, exactly? Well, from the time we are children, we are inundated with images of a particular standard of beauty, an ideal that the vast majority of us will never reach. Over time, these media representations change our perception of what’s “normal.”

Whether we realize it or not, we internalize the messages the media sends about what’s attractive, sexy, beautiful. When we fail to meet these unrealistic standards, we feel insecure, or else we spend scads of money and energy trying to “improve” how we look.

young girl body image

It’s a brilliant method of social control. Keeping people preoccupied with the mundane is one of the best ways of keeping them docile. What if we stopped giving a fuck about how we looked and instead focused our time, energy, and resources on something more productive?

Unfortunately videogames, like pretty much every other form of media, tend to send fucked up messages about the body. Usually these messages are subtle, so subtle you might not even notice them. Or they’re in games clearly intended for adults (for example, the absurd titty jiggle physics in Japanese fighting games). But every now and then a game like Plastic Surgery for Barbie comes along.

plastic-surgery

Rated ages 9 and up, Plastic Surgery for Barbie is aimed at children, specifically little girls. There’s really no other demographic who’d play it. Which is why it’s so dangerous, and so despicable.

The title of Plastic Surgery for Barbie is self-explanatory. Its objective is to turn an “ugly” and “unfortunate” woman (those are the game’s words, not mine) into the disproportionate freak we know today as Barbie™. Because who wouldn’t prefer being “thin” and “beautiful.”

plastic surgery for babs

This is the message we’re sending to kids. Or it was, anyway, before Apple and Google pulled the free-to-play game from their respective app stores. While I applaud their decision, I agree with Nigel Mercer, former president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons:

That Apple or Google could condone this disgraceful app as a game suitable for children is no less than sickening.

You begin the game with a rotund (dare I say Rubenesque) young woman. The game encourages players to “fix” her using cosmetic surgery, including face-lifts and liposuction. It goes so far as to include images of scalpels and cannulae (the tubes used to suck out fat).

lipo for barbie

I only wish the game was more graphic! Maybe if it was as gory as the real thing, kids would get grossed out rather than think elective cosmetic surgery is an easy and painless solution to their perceived flaws.

Apparently, Plastic Surgery for Barbie was an unsanctioned use of the Barbie™ brand. Not surprisingly, Mattel has done everything they can to distance themselves from this socially irresponsible app:

At Mattel, we take our commitment to children seriously and work hard to ensure there are no unauthorized uses of our brands that may be unsafe or inappropriate for children

Ah yes, for the children. Because Mattel has always promoted a healthy body image for young girls.

Barbie

Although Plastic Surgery for Barbie was pulled from the App Store, its near-identical clone, Plastic Surgery for Barbara (I’m not even kidding), remained for a few days until it was likewise removed. Makes you wonder: were these games removed only because one infringed on Mattel’s trademark and the other stirred up enough controversy?

Apple has yet to comment. And while I’m glad they removed these games, Apple really had no choice but to do so. With this degree of public outrage, it would’ve been a PR disaster if they hadn’t.

The fact remains that someone, perhaps multiple someones, saw these apps and said “Yep, okay, looks good to me, definitely appropriate for children.” It’s appalling, but it also speaks volumes to the current climate of body politics. This isn’t Lara Croft and her massive tits we’re talking about here. This is a game designed for children that actively teaches little girls to hate their bodies and encourages plastic surgery as a way to “fix” them.

Tomb Raider seems positively progressive by comparison! Lara Croft is no feminist icon but, for fuck’s sake, at least she seems comfortable with her appearance. Body positivity is something we should be teaching our children.

Evolution of Lara

At least Lara is looking healthy these days, almost like a real, normally-proportioned human female. But the cynic in me sees Plastic Surgery for Barbie as a frightening portent of things to come in kid’s videogames. Already many games geared toward little girl’s revolve around traditionally “feminine” activities, like cooking and shopping. These only reinforce harmful, frankly outdated messages about gender roles and identity.

I’m relieved that Plastic Surgery for Barbie and its clone were removed from Apple and Google’s stores. It’s a small victory, to be sure, but there will be other “kid-friendly” games that spring up in their stead. If we are to raise a generation of children who have a healthy relationship with their bodies, the battle has just begun.

For us adults, the war rages on. We’ve always been on the front lines, assaulted daily by the media’s message that we’re not thin enough, sexy enough, good enough. Consumer culture is deeply invested in the notion that there’s something wrong with our appearance, something that needs “fixing.” After all, that’s how they market products, pills, diets, and yes, plastic surgery. Our bodies are, quite literally, under siege.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. I challenge you, dear reader, to stand up, say “enough is enough,” and stop buying into the bullshit. You are beautiful, just the way you are.

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About Author

(Writer)

A recent college graduate who is doing her best to retreat from "the real world" as often as possible, using every form of escapism known to man. Interests include: post-apocalyptic sci-fi, stimulating conversation, and entropic decay. When she's not playing video games (when isn't she playing video games?), chances are she's surfing these fine Interwebs or cuddling with her cat, perhaps simultaneously.

  • Jordan

    My, Emily, what great big balls you have.

    “All the more better to pump my seed into your brain, my dear!”

    Bravo, dearie. Very daring to bring Foucault into an article about body image in video games. I’m happy to see an article with some meat, and the teeth to chew it.

    Also, the CAPTCHA accompanying this post was “7 VAG”. I just thought you should know that.

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