Barbie is enjoying a resurgence. So why are some people putting the dolls in blenders?
SAN ANGELO, Texas (ConchoValleyHomepage) — With the “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” blockbuster combo officially in theaters on July 21, some people would think that life couldn’t be better for the world’s favorite pretty-in-pink fashionista. They would be wrong.
National Barbie-in-a-Blender Day, celebrated on July 27, was made to offer a scathing critique of Mattel Inc.’s poster child by encouraging observers to do just as its name suggests – put a Barbie doll in a blender and, optionally, set the device for as high as it will allow. Plastic puree, anyone?
This strange celebration is held all across the world now, particularly by artists, photographers and other occupants of creatively-oriented professions. The holiday itself is 19 years old, being founded in 2004 by a social movement looking to promote a less consumer-focused culture. But how did it get to this point?
The origins for this, ahem, “unique” national holiday stem from much more than an extreme hatred of the iconic toy. It all began in 1997 when plucky photographer and artist Tom Forsythe launched his “Food Chain Barbie” series. The series consisted of 78 photos, some of which involved stuffing several Barbie dolls into blenders.
Some of the many interpretations of Forsythe’s controversial gallery cite that the series was made to be a critical commentary about consumer culture, societally-enforced conventional beauty myths and the objectification and sexualization of women. In an article he contributed to the National Coalition Against Censorship’s website, Forsythe said that he made the series “as a seriously funny stab at mindless consumerism, the impossible beauty myth and the advertising that brings it all into our lives.”
Whatever intent the photo gallery may have had or the impact it inevitably did have, one thing was for certain: Mattel, the manufacturer of the Barbie toy line, did not approve of it in the slightest.
“It all started when a Sheriff knocked on my door and announced ‘You’ve been served,'” Forsythe said in his NCAC article. “In the face of this Federal lawsuit, I knew I had to fight back. My work is obviously ‘fair use’—political and social criticism presented with humor and parody. I wasn’t going to let a corporation known for selling an impossible beauty myth to so many generations of children get away with censoring my work.”
Mattel sued Forsythe in the August of 1999 on the grounds of copyright, trademark and trade dress infringement. This would not bode well for the toymaking corporation, though, as the legal battle would end with an appellate court deciding in favor of Forsythe in 2003. According to documentation held by the U.S. Copyright Office, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit based its holding on three specific findings:
- The “defendant’s use of the dolls for the purpose of parody was transformative and that ‘the extremely transformative nature and parodic quality’ of the defendant’s work made its commercial qualities ‘become less important.'”
- “The extent of defendant’s copying of the dolls was justified in light of the parodic purpose and the photographic medium used.”
- The “defendant’s parodic use was highly unlikely to ‘substitute for products in Mattel’s markets or the markets of Mattel’s licensees.'”
The court’s ruling would end up costing Mattel a hefty amount of money in compensation for Forsythe’s legal fees and expenses after several appeals from both parties – for very different reasons, mind you – culminated in a three-judge panel upholding the court’s decision and giving the matter over to U.S. District Court Judge Ronald S.W. Lew in Los Angeles, who, in a nine-page ruling, demanded that Mattel pay Forsythe approximately $1.8 billion.
‘I couldn’t have asked for a better result,” said Forsythe according to The New York Times. ”This should set a new standard for the ability to critique brands that are pervasive in our culture.”
And that it did. The lawsuit would go on to be acclaimed as a defining triumph for artistic freedom of speech and pro-consumer brand critiquing, one that would later manifest itself in the form of an obscure national holiday established by the Students For a Free Culture organization, known then as Freeculture.org.
So, the next time you think of Barbie dolls – be it for the toy, the movie or Aqua’s 1997 hit song – think of the long struggle for artistic expression fought by Forsythe. Think of how the brands you buy may define you and how you might be defining them. And, perhaps most (or least) importantly, think of sparing the time to make a literal dolled-up smoothie.
“We may be free to express ourselves,” Forsythe said in his NACA article, “but if that expression involves offending a rapacious corporation, they’re equally free to sue; and unless we have the wherewithal to fight off high powered attorneys, that’s where our free speech ends.”