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Reviewed by:
  • Naked Barbies, Warrior Joes, and Other Forms of Visible Gender
  • Lori Duin Kelly (bio)
Naked Barbies, Warrior Joes, and Other Forms of Visible Gender by Jeannie Banks Thomas. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003, 216 pp., $39.95 hardcover, $21.95 paper.

What do yard art, cemetery statues, G.I. Joes, and Barbie dolls have in common? According to Jeannie Banks Thomas, author of Naked Barbies, Warrior Joes, and Other Forms of Visible Gender, these items are among the most popular forms of material culture. More important, their ubiquity in the visual landscape of everyday life plays a key role in reflecting and reinforcing prevailing gender ideologies. Thomas explores the iconic meaning of items like concrete geese and G.I. Joe dolls that she characterizes as "gendered sculptural forms" (2). Her research incorporates the narratives that invariably accompany interactions with these objects. Together the objects and the narratives provide insight into the way we construct, depict, and interpret gender roles in daily life.

Consistently, when describing these forms, Thomas notes a marked difference not only in the ways that males and females are presented but also in the ways such presentations are often out of synch with contemporary discourse on gender and equality. For example, in spite of technological innovations like lasers, which make individualized carvings more possible, readily available, and less expensive, depictions of men and women in cemeteries in the 20th century still hearken back to the golden age of cemetery statuary, the 19th century. Then, as now, women appear in varying degrees of undress, unlike their male counterparts, the sartorial semiotic of whose clothing—a business suit, a military uniform—invariably embeds them within the context of a life of action and aggression. In spite of the undeniable presence of women in the workforce, contemporary [End Page 235] cemeteries still assign women to a singular role, that of the mourner, a role which is rarely depicted in male statuary. Moreover, while grave markers of men often incorporate symbols of their workplace or their interest in sports that serve to individuate them, the individuation of women is not only more rare, but when it does occur is either stylized—a floral flourish, an urn—or marked with illustrations, like a grandmother hugging her grandchildren, which function to consign them exclusively to the domestic sphere.

Similar gender binaries characterize yard art, a catchall phrase for decorations ranging from geese and garden gnomes to lawn jockeys and plywood cutouts depicting women's backsides. Yard art of boys, for example, depicts them as active and full of mischief. Girls, on the other hand, who often are shown wearing frilly dresses, emerge as passive and demure. If juxtaposed next to a cutout or statue of a urinating male—a familiar image in yard art iconography—the female reinforces traditional gender paradigms by appearing to grasp her face in mock horror or modestly covering her eyes. Other kinds of yard art, such as an entourage of lawn geese, communicate gender roles by incorporating semiotics of dress into the display or by positioning them within the context of traditional social, familial, or care giving roles.

Surprisingly, of the items of material culture that Thomas analyzes for gender messages it's the last, Barbies, that seems to challenge and expand traditional gender boundaries. Although Barbie dolls operate within the same traditions as cemetery statues and yard art, their eroticised bodies, at least in their incarnations as veterinarians or paleontologists, expand beyond the domestic the range of spheres within which women can operate. However, the reification of agelessness, coupled with the singular appearance that characterizes the Barbie, clearly compromises her presenting any serious challenge to the prevailing gender status quo. Instead, it is in Barbie's use in play, both by children and adults, that the real interrogation of gender takes place. Adults' narratives about Barbie, as found on Internet listservs under subject lines like "Over Forty Barbies," suggest that the doll is a mechanism for thinking about women's lives, and for exploring questions of gender difference, social roles, and sexuality.

Overall, Thomas's research is interesting. But in her enthusiasm for her topics, the author too often indulges a penchant for...


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pp. 235-237
Launched on MUSE
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