The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Black Canary Barbie: Bondage And Discipline And Sexualised Superheroines, Oh My!

Posted by Clem Bastow on July 18, 2008

News of Mattel’s new Black Canary Barbie doll filtered through most online outlets yesterday; for ease of reference, here’s Cosmopolitan‘s take on it all, which is more or less identical to the rest of the “stories” – the piece is titled ‘Dominatrix Barbie’:

Move over, Astronaut Barbie – there’s a new doll in town.

Mattel has released a doll based on a character from the Black Canary comic book, clad in leather, fishnet stockings and thigh-high boots. The doll, to be released in September, has outraged Christian groups, who have dubbed the toy “S&M Barbie.”

The group Christian Voice said, “Barbie has always been on the tarty side and this is taking it too far. A children’s doll in sexually suggestive clothing is irresponsible – it’s filth.”

It’s not the first time the toy chain has come under fire for releasing sexually suggestive dolls. In 2002, the company launched Catwoman Barbie – dressed head-to-toe in leather and brandishing a whip!

(By the way, Cosmo, those boots reach her calves, not her “thighs” – Barbie’s vital stats are all sorts of wack, but not that wack.) Okay, anyway, got all that down? Good, let’s all hold hands and jump into the Barbie/superheroines/sexualisation debate headfirst.

Christian Voice’s response is more or less predictable and, as is often the case with non-scandals like this, more than a little off the mark. It may seem like semantics to those who don’t collect “toys” (I do, somewhat casually, and am very much a “de-boxer”, that is, I like to take them out and look at them rather than hoarding based on theoretical future value), but the first point of contention here is that Black Canary Barbie is not for little girls. ‘Black Label’ Barbie collectables are clearly pushed as “for the adult collector” (with the slightly hilarious addition “age 14 and over”). Mattel long ago realised the market for dolls aimed squarely at collectors and the majority of toy shops do not stock Black Label/Pink Label/Holiday (etc) dolls; if they do, they tend to be in a locked cabinet, but most collectors purchase their collectable Barbies online.

(Funnily enough, as a side note, the Barbie Collector series dolls frequently provide a much wider range of career options – i.e. NASCAR racer, baseball star, er, George Washington – than Barbie proper does these days.)

Secondly, for those who aren’t comic/superhero fans, a brief and cursory search will reveal that Black Canary is not a “dominatrix” but rather a long-standing member of the DC Universe. Fishnet stockings have been a trademark of her costume since she first appeared in the late-’40s. She is a martial arts and motorcycle expert, and able to summon the “Canary cry”, an ultrasonic scream that incapacitates her enemies.

There are so many issues at hand here it’s hard to work out which one to tackle first: society’s inherent mistrust of and discrimination against people with fetishes (i.e. the implication that Black Canary Barbie’s “S&M” getup is “filth[y]”; Cosmo‘s gee-whiz noting that Catwoman Barbie carried a whip – duh, it’s her chosen weapon – thus she is “sexually suggestive”)? The fact that Barbie is, after all these years, still impossibly stacked and stretched? The minefield of desire versus objectification? The problems with the depictions (frequently sexist) of comic book superheroines?

The latter topic has naturally inspired endless debate. Just as many feminist books and essays have been written in support of female superheroes as have been written decrying the comic world’s sexism. As a fan of comics who never really delved as deeply as many readers have, I feel I can only comment from the sidelines, asking questions like, well, isn’t Batman also impossibly ripped? Don’t we perve on Superman as much as we do Wonder Woman? (Not if you believe this hysterical and amazing “pseudo-science” research paper on the BMIs of Marvel superheroes, female and male.)

From where I stand, Marvel Comics seems to just outdo DC when it comes to bewildering sexism, but only just – as Ned Beauman’s Guardian column notes, in mid-2007 it was two Marvel clangers to one DC. Which hardly makes the home of Batman and the Justice League (etc) a noted feminist hangout.

But I do also feel that to continue to focus on the less savoury side of comic book depictions of women (and sexuality) in some ways does the artform (and, yes, it is one) a disservice – why not instead shine a light on the gay superheroes, the disabled superheroes, and the female superheroes who are kicking ass rather than being tied up and rescued? All are still in the minority, but ignoring them in favour of another mega-boobed Supergirl cover, well, it seems like a lost opportunity. (And that is not to say that gender issues in comics shouldn’t be addressed, of course they should, preferably ASAP.)

I would love to see Christopher Nolan & Co. tackle one of Batman’s female adversaries in the next installment (fingers crossed) of their Batman reboot, and to do so in a way that doesn’t necessarily involve high heels and silly wigs. Shawn Adler’s MTV Movies Blog entry makes some excellent “for” arguments on the topic of ‘humanising’, say, Poison Ivy in the same way Noland has The Joker, Two-Face, and so on.

One of the major problems with female superheroes’ lack of respect (as Athletic Women blog noted), as I see it, is that so often the movies associated with them – Elektra, Catwoman – are so goddamned awful that it’s nigh on impossible to take them seriously. If Nolan – or anyone; maybe Mary Harron? – could give the Batman Begins/The Dark Knight treatment to Supergirl, or the Birds Of Prey, etc, it would be a marked step in the right direction as far as PR and respect for female superheroines is concerned, I think. It’s too easy to dismiss, particularly in the wider, non-comic-reading community, female superheroes because their movies, well, suck. The X-Men series went some way to readdressing the balance, but there was still too much of a sense of the “damsel” to Storm and Phoenix’s incarnations in that franchise (which likely had a lot to do with Brett Ratner taking over the project after Bryan Singer’s exemplary first two installments).

There are a number of great comic-fan feminist blogs out there, two notable ones being Girls Read Comics – And They’re Pissed and When Fangirls Attack, that provide far more in-depth coverage of these issues than I could ever dream of, but I throw the discussion open to the Chorus: do you read comics? Are you disappointed in the major publishers’ treatment of their female superheroes? Who is your favourite “superheroine”? And what about Barbie?

So much to discuss!

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5 Responses to “Black Canary Barbie: Bondage And Discipline And Sexualised Superheroines, Oh My!”

  1. Hooch said

    There are plenty of indie comics that deal with topics such as gender issues, sexuality, race, disabilities / aids / cancer etc.
    Often it’s the main theme as well.

    It’s just a shame that the people who read these comics are usually at an age where they are already clued up on the topics (often the reason why they read them in the first place). The indie comics usually don’t involve ‘super heroes’* so don’t appeal to the younger readers, the people who might benefit most from reading about these subjects.

    *Thats not to say the characters can’t be heroes in their own way / for their own cause, just not ‘super’ ones.

  2. Kris said

    I think a lot of this has to do with the separating of art into categories of ‘high’ and ‘low’. Way up high is literature, painting, then somewhere in the middle is film – down near the bottom you have tv and comics. Plus each medium has its subdivisions (literary/popular).

    Now if someone were to take an example like laundrygate as a reason to decry the entire medium of comic art, I think something else must be going on there. More to do with wanting to appear fashionable. It ought to be acknowledged that Marvel and DC are producers of popular comics, and for every sexist Marvel cover there are most certainly examples in, say, popular literature of the same kind of sexism – such as the Succubuses and Ice Queens of the fantasy genre. Do we use those examples to say the rest of literature sucks? Comic art is a deep field, and I think Ned Beauman’s rendering of it as ‘a sozzled, lecherous uncle’ is pretty unnecessary.

    None of which is to say that popular works in any field can’t be great. I freakin’ loved the new batman movie. Funny how that’s copping a bit of flack for being too ‘serious’. Read: not enough T n’ A.

  3. Hooch said

    Ugh. Isn’t T ‘n’ A one of the unanimous reasons why the last Batman series ended up being so rubbish, and why ‘Begins’ was so welcomed?

    I think I remember someone defining the FAIL of it in one sentence: “Nipples on the Batsuit”.

    Do people really forget so quickly?

  4. […] has recently examined the Target catalog and found it wanting, while both bluemilk and the Dawn Chorus take a look at the newest Barbie Collectible doll, the comic strip character Canary. […]

  5. I can just say thank you for this wonderful post!

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