Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel has been called the most powerful woman in the world.
But this week, another polarizing female figure has attracted attention in Berlin.
Global icon and plastic plaything Barbie is the star of a new life-size dollhouse that opened on Thursday, though it has provoked protests for weeks now. Among the protesters was a topless woman burning a Barbie strapped to a wooden cross — set inside in a giant, pink high-heeled shoe.
The flashy pink townhouse (and the shoe) look a bit out of place in gritty urban Berlin, with East German tower blocks rising up behind it.
But it’s the scene inside that prompted Michael Koschitzki and others from the youth organization of Germany’s political Left Party to form a protest group called Occupy Barbie-Dreamhouse.
“The first room I’ve seen is the kitchen, where children have to do cupcakes, they are doing them virtually,” Koschitzki said. “At the same time Ken is outside the virtual window cleaning the car.”
Since her debut in 1959, Barbie has always been a color-coordinated career girl — from computer engineer to aerobic instructor, astronaut to news anchor.
That’s not the case here, says Koschitzki.
“In this Dreamhouse, there’s really only a one-sided picture presented. You can only be a pop star, or a top model,”he said.
But Christoph Rahofer, of EMS Entertainment, is taking the protests in stride.
“I was told that no matter what you do in Berlin, there is a protest,” said Rahofer, who produced the attraction in conjunction with Mattel, the maker of Barbie.
Rahofer says he was surprised by the vitriolic reaction to what he considers family entertainment.
“This is the Barbie Dreamhouse, and we are not meant to be a career opportunity center. We are trying to have fun,” he said.
They’re also trying to make some money. Entering the Barbie Dreamhouse Experience costs 12 euros (about $15) and there’s an additional fee for costumes and makeup to walk the catwalk or sound stage. Naturally, you exit through a gift shop filled with Barbie paraphernalia.
“Ten years ago, we would have said things like that only happen in the U.S. and U.K.,” said gender researcher Stevie Schmiedel, who heads the group PinkStinks Germany.
She thinks the arrival of the Dreamhouse highlights some troubling questions about German society.
“Sexism that’s out there in advertising, in the toy industry," she said, "basically conditions women into accepting that they will enter the workplace and not earn as much as men.”
PinkStinks aims to stop what Schmiedel calls the "pinkification’ of girls’ culture," as a way to get at bigger issues. She points out that Germany has the largest gender pay gap in Europe, and German women are more likely than men to be in long-term unemployment, and less likely to hold high-level executive jobs — despite having a woman as head of state.
But should all that really be placed on the shoulders of an 11.5-inch American doll?
“Based on Barbie’s history, it’s fascinating that the Germans bristle so much about the message that the current incarnation of the Barbie doll is giving to young girls,” said M.G. Lord, author of the book, “Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll.”
In it, Lord wrote about Barbie’s little-known German origins. Mattel transformed a sexy, 1950s German cartoon figure, Lilli from the tabloid Bild, into a groundbreaking doll — one that allowed little girls to fantasize about single adulthood, not just motherhood.
Lord says neither the simplified choices offered in the Dreamhouse Experience, nor the protesters’ knee-jerk reactions do justice to Barbie’s history.
“I think it’s reductionist to assume that Barbie represents an ideal of womanhood, or that Barbie is wholly negative and represents some really damaging image of womanhood. I mean she’s just a plastic object. Children can play with her as they see fit,” Lord insisted.
And they do — Mattel says a Barbie is sold every three seconds somewhere in the world. As for the Barbie Dreamhouse Experience, another, permanent, version opened last week in Florida, to no protest at all.
Barbie’s controversial Berlin abode will remain in the city until Aug. 25 — then it will wend its pink way throughout Germany, and on to the rest of Europe.