This month's guest contributor to the Provocative Objects series Amelia O’Mahony-Brady (independent design researcher, archivist and recent Trinity College Dublin graduate) introduces us to Barbie Velina: a limited-edition doll exclusive to Italian audiences, released in Summer 2002.
Irrespective of consumer age or appetite, the recent influx of Barbie Fever has proven inescapable, newly familiarising many with the Mattel doll’s profusion of career paths. Although Barbie’s foray into feminist marketing – namely the 1985 campaign “We Girls Can Do Anything!” - transpired some 25 years after her conception, the doll’s successful pursuit of multiple professions (be they female- or male-coded) had been advertised from the outset, when Teenage Fashion Model Barbie (1959) traded the catwalk for stints as a singer (1961), a surgeon (1973) and a student teacher (1965).
Interviews with her inventor, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler (1916-2002), stress Barbie’s intended purpose as a springboard for career ambitions, whose triumphs in the workplace could motivate her target audience (viz. pre-teen girls) to venture beyond the domestic realm (1). Whilst some Barbies garnered achievements that catapulted them literal light years beyond their flesh-and-blood contemporaries - consider the oft-cited Barbie Astronaut (1965), released 13 years before NASA accepted women onto their space shuttle programme - others performed jobs that girls, and girls alone, had long been encouraged to pursue.
The latter certainly applies to Barbie Velina, the first career-themed Barbie made exclusively for Italian consumers. Named after the television showgirls, or veline, that pervaded domestic media culture, two limited-edition versions of this doll were produced - a blonde (purchasable with the August 2001 issue of Italy’s Barbie Magazine) and a brunette (available from 2002 in national toy shops). Upon release, Barbie Velina was swiftly embroiled in national scandal: families and feminist scholars led the criticism, with one writer dubbing the doll “an erotic product” (2).
Whilst there are many viable reasons for which Barbie provokes controversy - including her embodiment of unrealistic body standards and, indeed, her sexualised representation - no doll had previously triggered such damnation from the Italian populace, who was, at this stage, well-acquainted with Barbie (1964 marked her arrival in Italy, when the doll was showcased at Milan’s Salone del Giocattolo) (3). Furthermore, in the context of Barbie attire, the doll’s clothing reads as reasonably innocent: comprising a cropped t-shirt and floral-printed shorts, the outfit even forgoes Barbie’s ubiquitous high heels - considered a marker of sexualisation (4) by critics - in favour of wedged sneakers. Why did Italian society react so adversely to this particular Barbie?
The answer lies with Barbie Velina’s inspiration source: Maddalena Corvaglia and Elisabetta Canalis, real-life showgirls then starring in satirical news programme Striscia la notizia. Launched in 1988 by Mediaset, a commercial broadcaster owned by eventual Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Striscia channelled the misogynistic bent of Berlusconi’s media empire, marketing young women’s bodies (provided they subscribed to current aesthetic ideals) as desirable commodities to be ‘shopped’ alongside the clothes they wore, the products they promoted.
The soaring popularity of Striscia’s veline - a blonde and brunette duo replaced every few seasons - helped to normalise this concept of woman qua sexual object. Whilst the show’s male hosts supplied commentaries that parodied political corruption and dissected scams, their veline co-stars would spend most of the episode kneeling atop the news-desk, acting as smiling, silent adornments. They occasionally interspersed this squatting with stacchetti; brief dance routines that, thanks to the fetishising camerawork and choreography, reinforced the velina’s status as docile body-object. When permitted to speak - itself a rare occurrence - veline were tasked with validating the male presenters who, in turn, mocked the intelligence of Italian showgirls.
There’s no question that Barbie Velina was designed in direct homage to the show. Her aforementioned top, emblazoned with the word ‘Velina’, derives both typography and colour scheme from the Striscia la notizia logo. These similarities extend to Barbie Velina’s marketing graphics: both the packaging and promotional magazine feature this Striscia-inspired font, whilst the accompanying slogan, ‘Dance with the velina!’, echoes a 2000 ad for the Striscia la compilation CD, in which Corvaglia and Canalis encourage the audience to “dance with us!”. (5)
Although veline performed scenarios that indulged the apparent desires of heterosexual men - a mandate issued by their male-dominated production team - women comprised the majority (60%) of Italian television viewers during this period, closely followed by children and adolescents (6). Mattel’s marketing of showgirls to schoolgirls is thus unsurprising: they targeted a sizeable cohort of velina fans, whose daily exposure to their shows had already instilled the notion that female existence, and success, is predicated on appearance.
Whilst societal disquiet surrounding the velina was sparked by the rise of Berlusconism, Barbie Velina magnified this sense of moral panic amongst Italians, leading some critics to adopt ‘Barbie’ as a pejorative synonym for showgirls. Decades after the doll’s short-lived release, this association remains: in 2015, Canalis announced her pregnancy by uploading a photo of Midge (Barbie’s pregnant best friend) to her Instagram, acknowledging - however facetiously - her enduring image as living doll (7). Such comparisons, whilst reductive, are understandable: Barbie may have more in common with the velina than any career-woman she has thus far endorsed. Both Italian showgirls and dolls are exploited as props of visual advertising, their bodies deemed exemplars of artificial, facsimile beauty. Both possess an involuntary muteness that accents their value as exclusively aesthetic. As fetishised objects within commodity culture, they are above all subservient to the will of their ‘owners’; their producers and puppeteers behind the scenes. Handler once avowed that Barbie represented “the fact that a woman has choices” (8), yet Barbie Velina conveyed the inverse, setting a new generation on the path to pseudo-agency.
 Sarah Kershaw, “Ruth Handler, Whose Barbie Gave Dolls Curves, Dies at 85,” The New York Times, 29th April, 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/29/arts/ruth-handler-whose-barbie-gave-dolls-curves-dies-at-85.html  Danielle Hipkins, “Who Wants To Be A TV Showgirl? Auditions, talent and taste in contemporary Italian popular cinema,” The Italianist 32 (2012): 158.  Andrea Angiolino, Storie di giocattoli (Rome: Gallucci editore, 2019) 49.  Aurora M. Sherman and Eileen L. Zurbriggen, “‘Boys Can Be Anything’: Effect of Barbie Play on Girls’ Career Cognitions,” Sex Roles 70 (2014): 198.  VHS Memories, “Spot Striscia la compilation. Con Elisabetta Canalis e Maddalena Corvaglia (2000),” YouTube, 9th November, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSmGK67Ev8c  Loretta Zanardo, Il Corpo Delle Donne, Vimeo video, 24:08, 23rd July, 2009  Sveva Galassi, “Elisabetta Canalis mamma: le ultime foto con Skyler,” NostroFiglio, 29th September, 2015, https://www.nostrofiglio.it/site_stored/imgs/0002/018/1canalis.1500x1000.png  Catherine Gourley, Gidgets and Women Warriors: Perceptions of Women in the 1950s and 1960s (Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2008) 16
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