From Barbie to Botox

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's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.


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