Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body
Author: Kim Toffoletti
Publisher: New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007
Review Published: October 2009
The vast majority of books dealing with posthumanism and cyborgs tend to be works by science fiction fans using academic terminology in order to legitimate their intellectual interests. Far too often, a text that promises to look at the impact of posthumanism on modern society simply focuses on characters like Data, Seven of Nine, the Terminator, or any other science fiction character popular at the time. These works are typically underwhelming because they present analyses that are not only completely obvious, but localized to ideas of cybernetics, robotics, or genetic engineering. Moreover, many of these manuscripts use cultural theory in such superficial manners that it seems the author(s) has a list of requirements that they simply check off as opposed to genuinely placing the theories they cite in discussion with their ideas. It is for those reasons that Kim Toffoletti's Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body shines.
As the title of the book implies, Toffoletti does not examine popularized images of cyborgs or posthumans found in Star Trek or Star Wars. Instead, Toffoletti looks at Barbie Dolls, photos of Marilyn Manson from his "Mechanical Animals" album, TDK advertisements, and the artwork of Patricia Piccinini. Yet, the strength of Toffoletti's work is not just how she engages her topics, but how they are presented within the structure of the book. Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls is broken up into eight sections: six distinct chapters, and an introduction and conclusion that act as bookends for the text. I find this to enhance the reading experience -- not only will one gain much from the book by reading the chapters in order, Toffoletti does such an excellent job of focusing on the topic of each chapter, that they remain valuable even if independent from the larger work.
I find this to be a bonus because as someone who plans to teach at the college level, I can easily envision assigning individual chapters in future classes that I want to teach. For instance, chapter 1, "Feminism, Technology and the Posthuman," is an excellent "overview of how the posthuman has been understood in critical theory, feminist thinking about technology and the posthuman, as well as a study of the visual climate in which we consume images and how this impacts on our engagements with images of the posthuman" (5). Because of the quality and thoroughness of this first chapter, I know it should be assigned in every course on feminism and/or science fiction. Additionally, I also feel this way about the second chapter. As someone who has struggled to understand the work Jean Baudrillard, Toffoletti successfully explains key aspects of his work and integrates them into her study of posthumanism.
Beyond the bibliographical and theoretical nature of the first two chapters, the remaining chapters each function as potentially excellent reading assignments for undergraduate and graduate courses. For instance, chapter 3, "Barbie: A Posthuman Prototype," brings three key insights to the study of Barbie. First, Toffoletti acknowledges that Barbie has been negatively portrayed by feminists for several decades; yet the author successfully shows that Barbie as a posthuman artifact challenges traditionally views of the toy. By doing this, Toffoletti allows Barbie to become more than just an object within pro and anti-feminist debates. The second insight developed in this chapter and in the rest of the text is the deconstruction of Barbie as a form of plasticity. This approach not only provides a unique materialistic approach to studying Barbie, but allows Toffoletti to look at the toy through some of Baudrillard's theories. In particular, the author uses "Baudrillard's idea of the trans state ... to suggest that the plasticity of Barbie's form disturbs conventional understandings of Barbie as passive and static" (74). Moreover, by engaging posthumanism through the lens of plasticity and Barbie, Toffoletti explores how traditional binaries "of self/other, mainstream/marginal and real/virtual" (72) are not only no longer effective, but have collapsed entirely into one another. The third useful aspect of this chapter is that it shows how much more there is to study. Prior to reading Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls, I assumed that Barbie as a cultural artifact had been thoroughly explored. Toffoletti's study of Barbie is an excellent tool to show graduate students that there are still plenty of worthy research topics left to explore.
While her work on Barbie is fascinating, the book's most original chapters are those that deal with Marilyn Manson, TDK advertisements, and Patricia Piccinini's artwork. I find the chapter on Marilyn Manson, "Posthuman Monsters: The Erasure of Marilyn Manson," to be insightful for several reasons. First, she doesn't engage Manson as a threat to or reflection of society's moralities. More importantly though, she looks at photographs from Manson's "Mechanical Animals" album as a means of using the posthuman to challenge "the distinct categories of 'male' and 'female'" (82) and as a means of exploring the collapse of "boundaries separating the organic and machine, the human and non-human, interiorities and exteriorities, self and Other" (87). By applying Baudrillard's notions of simulation and simulacra, Toffoletti is able use Manson's photographs as an example of how posthumanism breaks down traditional binaries, because there is no inherent oppositional entity present. As Toffoletti writes, "as the distincitions between autonomous spheres no longer hold, the production of meaning in particular categories and genres is made impossible" (91); as a result, "in the context of digital image making, the real and the imaginary aren't separate spheres but merge to create a hyperreal experience" (91).
The issues that Toffoletti explores through Manson's photos are touched upon again in the fifth chapter, "Communicating the Posthuman Way with TDK." By studying this advertisement campaign Toffoletti incredibly displays how posthumanism pushes the boundaries of how to view consumerism. In particular, Toffoletti's thoughts on speed show that "when speed erases the distinctions between subject and object, observer and observed, representation no longer functions in terms of a practice of signification that upholds the relation between representation and reality" (114). In short, as boundaries between advertisements/products and consumers are collapsed, as the distinction between commercial spectacle and spectator is erased, posthumanism forces theorists to approach the real and visual in new ways.
As Toffoletti shows how posthumanism opens up new theoretical avenues of engaging advertisements, she, in the sixth chapter, looks at the posthuman significance of Patricia Piccinini's artwork. Continuing to expand how posthuman images move past traditional opposites of viewer and viewed, or male and female, Toffoletti discusses how posthuman artwork forces us to question -- if not outright move pass -- the notion of "origins." Using Piccinini's work, primarily her statues of cloned children, Toffoletti expands on Baudrillard's "matrix known as code" (153) to suggest that all biology, all aspects of humanity, have become reduced to binary code and are now no different than digital or other types of information. The brilliance and terror of this insight is that it places posthumanity -- and all humanity -- beyond any type of traditional theoretical understanding. As humans become intertwined with plastics, manipulated genetically, or recreated artificially, we move in to an era that demands new perspectives that not only challenge, but are free of traditional dualistic perspectives.
Regardless of whether or not a person agrees with Toffoletti's final conclusion, Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls remains worth reading. Her use of Baudrillard should be read by anyone wishing to learn more about the theorist, or that plan to use him within the fields of popular culture or feminism. Furthermore, the cultural artifacts that Toffoletti engages show that studying posthumans and cyborgs does not mandate a reference to contemporary science fiction. In doing this, Toffoletti gives all individuals in cultural studies a means to address the posthuman in their respective works.
Nicholas Yanes is a first year PhD student in American Studies at the University of Iowa. His interests range from Colonial America to contemporary popular culture. In particular, he studies the myth of the superhuman and science fiction. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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