Everyone knows that Teen Talk Barbie never said, "Math is hard; let's go shopping!" It caught on nonetheless; there was something about the phrase that made people think that, yes, this is just what a talking Barbie would say.
Speech is one of those things that is supposed to set "the human" apart from "the inhuman," as what Anca Parvulescu describes as "one in a series of properties invoked as [the] minimal difference, a catalog that offers something to hold on to whenever the human risks contamination with the nonhuman" (4).* Animated dolls occupy a special place in western lore as objects that particularly challenge that distinction, though these minimal differences like (realistic) speech and (real) laughter are sticking points where the distinction is nonetheless upheld.
Still, dolls and automata are powerful figures for women in particular, or rather, the distinction between a woman and a doll has frequently seemed to be particularly easy to erase, from Galatea to Coppélia to the aestheticized-into-objecthood daughter Pansy in The Portrait of a Lady. Michael Taussig notes of a collection of eighteenth-century automata that the figures represented include "everything but the white male. There are negroes in top hats and tight breeches, the 'upside-down world clock' with a monkey playing the drum, ... and women—especially women" (213-4).
Women's propensity to be confused with dolls, and the triumph of artificiality in that confusion, is perhaps one of the sources of anxiety that has long surrounded the Barbie doll in particular as an "unrealistic model" for girls. Barbie's nonhuman appearance—her slender foot perpetually extended for the high-heeled glass slipper that would make of her a princess—registers not as uncanny but as ideal.
The talking Barbie's speech is therefore the place where the inanimate doll gets a chance to seem more "lifelike," and, by the same stroke, the place where it is feared that her "lifelike" quality will reveal the lifelike dimension itself (what women are "really like") to be, in essence, no more than the mechanical, unthinking doll with which women are so often conflated.
Enter "Math is hard; let's go shopping!" As Benjamin Zimmer documents in the LL post linked above, "math is hard; let's go shopping!" is an abbreviated pairing of two real phrases that Teen Talk Barbie originally played,"Math class is tough" and "Want to go shopping? Okay, meet me at the mall." The urban legend version stages an exchange; the newly more-lifelike (talking) Barbie eschews "hard," intellectually challenging math in favor of (pleasurable?) shopping.
The two things are of course gender-coded. But more importantly, they're gender-coded on precisely the grounds on which women are confused with dolls. The math signifies intellectual activity, which Teen Talk Barbie legendarily renounces because it is "hard"; at stake here is not only intellect but volition, the will to take on what is difficult and to engage in ("hard") work. At stake is the possibility of being all there. Teen Talk Barbie doesn't have it, of course. But it is perfectly believable that she can engage in shopping, which Rachel Bowlby has described as, at least in certain versions, a fully automatized leisure activity. The female shopper, as figured in the late nineteenth century, is devoid of volition and powerless before the commodity, seized by an insatiable desire not genuinely her own. (The classic portrayal is in Zola's novel Au Bonheur des dames.)** She is rendered an automaton before the bargain table.
For the patently unrealistic yet more-real-than-real-women Barbie to come alive by saying "Math is hard; let's go shopping!" is thus a bigger betrayal than just the usual reinforcement of gender stereotypes around STEM fields. The whole point of automata is for them to become self-aware, rise up, and shake off their oppressors (us). The betrayal of Teen Talk Barbie, succinctly rendered as "Math is hard; let's go shopping!," is that she uses her moment of speech not to become self-aware and subvert the inhuman decorativeness for which she was designed, but rather to reject cognition and embrace the doll-like automatism that is already attributed to real women. That is: inhuman Barbie is representative of real women, more representative than the real women are, and what she "says" goes.
The above image is a Creative Commons licensed Flickr image. The photographer's caption reproaches Barbie for, well, being a doll: "empty-headed." Tellingly, the sole comment to date reads, "i've met women with a gaze like that... scary indeed."
* Parvulescu is alluding to laughter in this description--laughter being another candidate for that minimal difference.
** There is also a twentieth-century "savvy" female shopper—the two kinds of shopper always exist in tension, as Bowlby explains. Judging from ads, the volitionless shopper seems to buy chocolate and desserts, while the wily shopper buys cleaning supplies.
See also the "X is hard" Snowclones Database entry.
Bowlby, Rachel. Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping. New York: Columbia UP, 2001. Print.
Parvulescu, Anca. Laughter: Notes on a Passion. Cambridge: MITP 2010. Print.
Taussig, Michael. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.
Image: Barbie. Pete Lounsbury, 2004. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.