FROM BARBIE TO BOTOX

By Norman Solomon

"In a twist of fate, obituaries appeared for the inventor of the
Barbie doll just as a $50 million advertising campaign got underway
for an anti-wrinkle drug with a name that memorably combines the
words 'botulism' and 'toxin.'"

"In a society seemingly at war with nature -- while
consequences range from ozone depletion to water pollution to
pesticide-laced crops -- it stands to reason that such hostilities
would extend to our own bodies." 

 "Large amounts of dollars pour in from
advertisers hell-bent on stoking women's unhappiness with their
bodies and promising relief if only the female is willing to part
with some cash. Meanwhile, media outlets rarely challenge the
unspoken assumptions and manipulations behind advertising."

 "Endless media messages convey the stubborn presumption that
women can never be good enough, but should live and buy -- and
ultimately die -- trying."

     In a twist of fate, obituaries appeared for the inventor of the
Barbie doll just as a $50 million advertising campaign got underway
for an anti-wrinkle drug with a name that memorably combines the
words "botulism" and "toxin." Expensive injections of Botox are
already popular among women eager to remove lines from their faces.
The ad blitz of mid-2002 is certain to boost the practice.

     American women between the ages of 30 and 64 are the prime
targets, and 90 percent of them will be hit with Botox pitches a
minimum of 10 times. Launched with a paid layout in People magazine
the first week of May ("It's not magic, it's Botox Cosmetic"), the
print ads use before-and-after pictures. Network TV commercials are
also part of the campaign.

     To many minds, we live in a post-feminist era when denouncing
sexist strictures is anachronistic. People who complain loudly about
media images of women are apt to be derided for "political
correctness." But another sort of PC -- what might be called
"patriarchal correctness" -- continues to flourish today as a media
mainstay, and not only in the realms of advertising and mass
entertainment.

     Newsweek's April 29 edition, looking ahead to "Companies of the
Future" and "The Office of Tomorrow," featured one woman on the
cover. Wielding some kind of futuristic gadget, this prototypical
office worker was ultra-thin and wore several-inch spike heels as she
sat in a transparent chair with a subtle yet distinct resemblance to
a martini glass.

     Despite all the progress for women's rights and against rigid
gender roles during the last few decades, it's chilling to take a
fresh look at routine depictions of women in mass media.
Beauty-is-skin-deep renditions of what it means to be female help to
explain the allure of Botox shots that cost about $500 and lose
effect within four months.

     When we think about loved ones, we probably aren't very
concerned about their wrinkles. But acculturation runs deep, and
began early. In a society seemingly at war with nature -- while
consequences range from ozone depletion to water pollution to
pesticide-laced crops -- it stands to reason that such hostilities
would extend to our own bodies.

     After 85-year-old Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, died in
late April, some news stories noted that Barbie's plasticized -- and
idealized -- proportions were virtually impossible for girls to live
up to. The New York Times reported that "if the 11 1/2-inch doll were
5-foot-6, her measurements would be 39-21-33." London's Daily
Telegraph put the figure at 39-18-33.

     According to the Times, "one academic expert calculated that a
woman's chances of having Barbie's figure were less than one in
100,000."

     Styles change. And for the past third of a century, new waves of
feminism have effectively critiqued a lot of such destructive
role-modeling. We may prefer to think that Barbie-like absurdities
have been left behind by oh-so-sophisticated 21st century media
sensibilities. But to thumb through the Cosmopolitan now on racks is
to visit a matrix of "content" and advertising that incessantly
inflames -- and cashes in on -- obsessions with seeking to measure up
to media-driven images.

     Back in 1985, legendary Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown made a
candid statement about the relationship between her magazine's
articles and its ad revenue: "Having come from the advertising world
myself, I think 'Who needs somebody you're paying millions of dollars
a year to come back and bite you on the ankle?'" At the time,
Cosmopolitan was under fire for printing cigarette ads while staying
away from articles about the terrible health impacts of smoking.

     Today, Brown's comment still applies more generally to
mainstream media -- particularly television and magazines -- in
relation to countless ads. Large amounts of dollars pour in from
advertisers hell-bent on stoking women's unhappiness with their
bodies and promising relief if only the female is willing to part
with some cash. Meanwhile, media outlets rarely challenge the
unspoken assumptions and manipulations behind advertising.

     Satiric anti-ads in the latest issue of Adbusters magazine
include a full page filled with close-ups of two sets of lips along
with the words "Perfectionism is a malignant force in our society."
That tag line begs for probing the question of what we mean by
perfection. Ads that saturate pervasive media keep claiming to offer
perfectly marvelous products; they're functional as surrogates and
substitutes for the wondrous complexities of nature.

     Media veneers frequently sparkle with apparent high regard for
women. Yet indications abound that much of the advertising industry's
idealization of fabricated female images is based on contempt for
real women -- who, like nature as a whole, must lack the sort of
mass-produced uniformity that can be readily packaged and sold.

     Endless media messages convey the stubborn presumption that
women can never be good enough, but should live and buy -- and
ultimately die -- trying. First Barbie, then Botox.

 

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy (I'd recommend a visit to the site), a nationwide consortium of public-policy researchers. He has written op-ed pieces for Boston Globe, Washington Post, Newsday, New York Times, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Baltimore Sun, and is a far more successful writer than Alex Sandell will ever be.  His column, normally titled, "Media Beat," is nationally syndicated in a wide variety of newspapers.  If you'd like to see his weekly "Media Beat" column published on the opinion page of your local daily newspaper(s), please contact the opinion-page editor at the paper(s) and suggest that the paper give his column a try. Please mention to editors that his weekly column is available to newspapers from Creators Syndicate. Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." 

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