Barbie Liberation Organization

Igor Vamos

The Barbie Liberation Organization or BLO, sponsored by RTMark (an anti-consumerist activist collective), are a group of artists and activists involved in culture jamming.

They gained notoriety in 1993 by switching the voice boxes on talking G.I. Joes and Barbie dolls. The BLO performed ‘surgery’ on a reported 300–500 dolls and then returned them to the shelves of stores, an action they refer to as reverse shoplifting or ‘shopgiving.’ This action resulted in girls opening their new Teen Talk Barbie to hear it say phrases such as ‘vengeance is mine’ and boys hearing their G.I. Joe say ‘The beach is the place for summer.’

The BLO was originally conceived in an effort to question and ultimately change the gender stereotypes American culture is known for after Mattel released a speaking Barbie that said ‘Math class is tough.’ It took place in the middle of the culture wars of the 1990s when creative dissent was once again gaining popularity and artists and activists were often trying to conceive of new ways to rebel against cultural stereotypes and powerful forms like network TV. By 1993, criticism for Barbie as a negative gender stereotype for women was commonplace both in academia and popular culture. This may have been partially responsible for the generally positive response of the public to the project, the criticism they were making was familiar and not a controversial point to make during the 1990s. Although their criticism was not new, the creative form of hacking used by the BLO was noteworthy.

There is a detailed description of the complex ‘surgery’ they performed available on their website, encouraging others to take part in the surgeries themselves. The surgery required some technical skills, tools and precision, but the voice boxes in the dolls were similar enough that the procedure could be reproduced by non engineers. They also produced a video to explain their rationale. They used the familiar form of the nightly news message, intermixed with cutting edge video art techniques. Viewers would be unable to tell exactly what was news and what was made up, they made some points through exaggerations and some through the use of actual news footage.

The media responded with coverage, but no legal issues were ever seriously raised. Hasbro and Mattel, the makers of the dolls brushed off the action with little fuss, although one person was outraged with the ‘terrorist attacks’ directed at children.

Because of the nature of culture jamming, it is hard to tell how many Barbies and G.I. Joes were actually switched, and how much of the media attention was orchestrated by the group. The artist Igor Vamos, known for acts of media intervention, intentionally fed information to the media to report more cases of the switched identity surgeries. Although most sources suggest from 300–500 toys were hacked, other reports up to 3,000 across the country and in other countries like Canada, France, and England. Others assert that only 12 toys were actually switched and the rest was cleverly arranged media hype by Vamos and his associates. This perspective indicates that the project was also a critique of the nature of the television and media culture of the 1990s, which led to other media interventions by Vamos, collaborators, and other groups in the coming years.

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