Well-Behaved Women

  • May 16, 2022
  • 4 min read
Well-Behaved Women

How unusual this monarch of ours is. Long has she reigned (she took to the throne in 1952), with astounding popularity, and with so few wrong steps. It seems she is respected for what she didn’t do, almost more than what she did. The English Rose sits among some ugly, disgraceful thorns, and perhaps it is sheer decorum that has won her the esteem, if not the support, of a whole nation. Her cousin, Margaret Rhodes, described Elizabeth in youth as “a jolly little girl, but fundamentally sensible and well-behaved”. She has maintained that image her whole life, a scandal-free 70-year reign is no mean feat. 

Barbara Millicent Roberts (better known as Barbie), the 11-inch doll, pilot, astronaut, doctor, Olympian, and presidential candidate, took her place as the queen of the crèche only seven years after Queen Elizabeth II, in 1959. Both Barbie and the Queen have symbolised and influenced the culture of femininity, adding to its strange tension between power, duty, biology and image, for the better part of a century. Now, in a very strange turn of events, they are one person. 

On the 21st of April, Barbie’s American father company, Mattel, launched a Queen Elizabeth II Barbie as part of Barbie’s ‘Tribute Collection’, which was launched last year to ‘celebrate visionaries for their incredible contributions, impact and legacy as trailblazers’. A look at Barbie’s website shows they now have all sorts of Barbies based on real people: Ida B. Wells, Helen Keller etc. All of these women are stripped of their actual faces (all are wrinkle-free) and bodies, and given more generic/ideal ones, in doll form. The politics of a move like this are scattershot, and characteristic of any moves by companies, which focus too closely on the various images of femininity. Who are these dolls for exactly? Little girls? The Queen herself? I think the answer is doll collectors (the price and low edition run certainly suggest that), but what are the politics of a doll collector? What does it mean to make/own/play with a doll of a real woman?  Ruth Handler, Barbie’s inventor, stated that ‘Barbie always represents the fact that a woman has choices.’ She certainly does, and Barbie relentlessly makes good ones, as her career goes from strength to strength.

The Girl Power, Career Woman feminism of Barbie reminds me of that phrase emblazoned on every T-Shirt and mug that didn’t have somewhere else to be in the early 2000s; ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history’, variously attributed to Marilyn Monroe and Beyoncé. This phrase, however, was plucked from an obscure academic article entitled, ‘Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735’ in American Quarterly, written in 1976 by feminist Mormon historian, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The article actually argued for attention to be paid to the forgotten, dutiful women in small communities, and was not intended to imply that well-behaved women are weak. Either way, Queen Elizabeth II disproves the statement.

Both the Queen Barbie and the repurposing of Ulrich’s quote seem to rise out of the murky relationship we as a culture have to feminine duty and, perhaps, in their own way, are symbolic of the feminine desire to always have it all ways, to have and eat cake forever and ever. 

The critical reaction to this Queen Barbie has largely been that of confusion and hilarity (she looks more like Helen Mirren etc.), but there are some voices shouting loudly that the doll is insulting to women, for a perplexing combination of reasons. These include outrage that the Queen, at age 96, should be made to look sexy, that she is being celebrated at all given her class (because not all little girls could be queen), that she reinforces gender stereotypes (because not all little boys could be queen), the list goes on.

I will end unsatisfactorily, with some more questions. Starting with that cliché one, what do women want? Ulrich’s quote, in both its intended context and it’s co-opted one, implies it is to ‘make history’. I am not certain this is true of all women; but say it is. What is making history if not having many people bear witness to your life, being Seen (in the psychological sense)? Does good behaviour increase your chances of being Seen? Do the Queen and Barbie, and the Queen Barbie, help women be Seen? Are all the accessory cans of worms this Barbie Signature Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Doll comes with included in the box, or is each sold separately?

Image: Barbie Signature Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Doll

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