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March 14, 2009

Your Turn: Barbie Celebrates Her Big Five-Oh

Eddie_Adams Barbie.jpg

by contributor John Lucaites

Eddie Adams’ infamous Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner in the middle of a Saigon street is among a small handful of photographs regularly referred to when one considers the Vietnam War.

As with so many other iconic photographs, it retains its symbolic value through mass circulation and reproduction as it is appropriated, performed, and parodied according to particular cultural and political interests. I was recently reminded of the ubiquity of such usages by a collection of examples at the site, A quick Google search turned up still others, including the one above by an artist named minipliman.

I leave it to you to interpret this image as it marks that key cultural event this year, the mass media celebration of Barbie’s fiftieth birthday.

Adapted from a post at No Caption Need. Other NCN posts regarding the Eddie Adams photo can be found here, here, and here.

(image 1 Eddie Adams/AP. image 2: © 2009 by minipliman at

  • cenoxo

    (John, your Google Images search link has no results.)
    Barbie and guns, sex and violence for all ages: this should engender some progressive discussion.
    Photojournalist Eddie Adams‘ infamous image shot during the 1968 Tet Offensive in Saigon was mostly luck of the draw:

    “Eddie Adams said, “I just followed the three of them as they walked towards us, making an occasional picture. When they were close – maybe five feet away – the soldiers stopped and backed away. I saw a man walk into my camera viewfinder from the left. He took a pistol out of his holster and raised it. I had no idea he would shoot. It was common to hold a pistol to the head of prisoners during questioning. So I prepared to make that picture – the threat, the interrogation. But it didn’t happen. The man just pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it to the VC’s head and shot him in the temple. I made a picture at the same time.

    It was a decisive moment for everyone involved:

    Eddie would cover other wars and revolutions – and there were many other pictures from Vietnam – but the sensational Pulitzer Prize- winning photo of a Vietcong summarily executed on a Saigon street is what comes to mind when discussing his work. It became – often to his annoyance – his signature picture.
    The story of the photo has been told and retold and is available elsewhere. Not always included, however, is how the picture has haunted Eddie for decades afterward.
    Two men died that day,” Eddie says, “the Vietcong and Col. Loan who shot him. Pictures do not always tell the full story,” Adams says, “and this is one case where that is true.
    Not many know that Loan was highly respected by his men and by the Vietnamese, Adams says. He was an educated man dedicated to the survival of his nation. Earlier on the day he shot the VC his aide, his aide’s wife and his aide’s children were executed by the Vietcong in the fury of the Tet offensive.
    Adams came to know Loan in the weeks after the picture was made, but Loan held no grudge. He commented only that his wife said he should have confiscated Eddie’s film. Loan was promoted later but in the end had to flee Vietnam and take up residence in the U.S.

    Without the eyes (and reflexes) of a skilled photographer behind them, cameras see nothing.
    Children, however, see everything. It’s no surprise that the continuing popularity of Barbie directly reflects how girls of all ages (including the boys who watch them) perceive themselves. Marketing, like war, knows no borders:

    In this post’s lead Barbie shot, perhaps the old girl is pointing the gun in the wrong direction.
    Adapted from a Metafilter comment.

  • cenoxo

    …the continuing popularity of Barbie directly reflects how girls of all ages (including the boys who watch them) perceive themselves.
    And races, too — from the MomLogic post, Michelle Obama: My New Barbie Doll:

    However, at 27, I feel like a little kid with a life-size Barbie when I look at Michelle Obama. Of course, as a politically aware adult, I care about this witty lawyer’s agenda and what she will do as the First Lady. But just like my Barbie childhood fantasy world, I am tempted to play out the First Family’s life in the White House in my mind like a never ending game of Simms.
    My mental playtime goes a little something like this: Should Michelle use a pressing comb today? Will flats or heels look better with that dress? No Barack, this china will be better for the White House. I’m so happy my new Barbie has a butt! I think a beagle would be best. In my virtual reality, Barack and Michelle will be playing Monopoly at Camp David, talk pillow talk at night and drink lemonade on the White House lawn at sunset. Sigh.
    In light of the failed economy and unfinished wars, I know I shouldn’t be thinking about such trivial things as Michelle’s next outfit and butt size. BUT, for all the little girls (black, white, Asian and Latina) still playing with their dolls, I am glad that they have a flesh and blood Barbie fantasy to play with — namely, a young black girl whose family told her she could do anything, who grows up to go to law school and marry a Ken who, instead of a souffle, doesn’t mind a frozen meal, and who welcomes a woman who will give him an honest critique.

    In the war to capture hearts and minds, bullets aren’t always made of brass and lead: photons work perfectly well:

  • Lucaites

    cenoxo: I like your analysis. And note that you have to look really closely to know if she is pointing the gun at Ken or herself. I assume the image is clearly a comment on the whole Barbie celebration, and in that context what else could Barbie do! It reminds me of an episode of the Simpsons where Homer is bequeathed a collection of American icons made over in potato paste. He comes across one that resembles the flag raising at Iwo Jima. He looks at it befuddled. He says “uho” — so he recognizes it — and then he does the only thing any decent person could do — he eats it!
    As to the google search link: That’s really strange. Its not the way the link was when I did the post over at NCN. But it has changed in both places. Weird. In any case, if you search at google for “Eddie Adams, Saigon, photograph” and go to google image you will find a number of such appropriations. Here is the one that comes up on the second screen:

  • Clem Guttata

    Speaking of the (perceived) power of Barbies… concerned that girls are not sufficiently encouraged to pursue educational opportunities, a Democratic delegate introduced a bill this month to ban Barbie sales in W.Va.:

  • cenoxo

    …you have to look really closely to know if she is pointing the gun at Ken or herself.
    True — I had to look twice. Although in minipliman’s original image the automatic pistol’s position is a little clearer, in your post’s image the blurred cars in the background form an image of a revolver pointed back at the shooter:

    Looks like Barbie blowback to me…

  • cenoxo

    More pictures and discussion about “ethnic” Barbies at Sociological Images: Seeing is Believing:

    Black Barbie, 1980
    [Quoting from the book Skin Trade by Ann DuCille]:
    Just what are we saying when we claim that a doll does or does not look… black? How does black look? …What would make a doll look authentically African American or realistically Nigerian or Jamaican? What prescriptive ideals of blackness are inscribed in such claims of authenticity? …The fact that skin color and other ‘ethnic features’ …are used by toymakers to denote blackness raises critical questions about how we manufacture difference.

    Or the perception thereof?

  • Alan Chin

    For all the discussion about Barbie and its role in our society, which for as long as I remember has spawned spoofery, commentary, etc., (see Todd Haynes, “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” 1987) at the end of the day, isn’t a doll just a doll?!? Especially one that has proven so popular as to have become ubiquitous…it’s like the Coca-Cola bottle falling from the sky in another movie (“The Gods Must Be Crazy,” 1980)…Barbie and Coca-Cola are so much a part of our everyday lives, like it or not, that the permutations of their use are endless, and rightfully so.
    What is interesting in this parody of the Eddie Adams photo is that it is Barbie shooting Ken, and not the other way around. Which could lead to a conversation about gender roles, emasculation, violence against women, battered wives, the virgin/whore complex, the empowerment of of women, and so on. Think for a moment, what if this were a REAL photo (think Lynndie England abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib), then we would be in excruciatingly uncomfortable territory — part of the scandal of Abu Ghraib and Ms. England’s notoriety may have come from the fact that she is a woman — we may expect men to torture, to summarily execute as Col. Loan did, but when it is a woman holding the gun or the leash, then it still has the power to shock.
    Eddie Adams’s photograph, like the Zapruder film and other iconic images from the sixties showing extreme violent death, made us used to, inured to, this kind of horror. To have grown up with these images, as I did, was to be part of the culture war that rages in this country. If you felt that, as I do, that it’s important for everyone to see everything in order to have informed opinions and responses, then you revered Adams and the AP editors who ran the photo. On the other hand, conservatives felt that images like this “lost” the war and in response imposed heavy handed censorship and control during the First Gulf War, and to a lesser extent now through the embed system. To make fun of this picture, use it with Barbie as this artist has done, would have been almost unthinkable when it was first published. But now it barely raises eyebrows…

  • Lucaites

    Alan — Your point about Barbie shooting Ken is well taken. And we don’t have to speculate on how folks would react. In addition to Lyndie England (which is of course complicated by numerous factors, notwithstanding the fact that she doesn’t actually shoot anyone) we have Thelma and Louise. As I recall that movie created quite an uproar because Thelma (or was it Louise) shot a man in cold blooded murder.

  • cenoxo

    If you felt that, as I do, that it’s important for everyone to see everything in order to have informed opinions and responses, then you revered Adams and the AP editors who ran the photo.
    More on YouTube:

    Forty years later, schoolchildren now routinely carry cell phones that can photograph or video any event and upload it directly to the Web for the world to see. No judgment by adult editors need be involved.
    Image technology is getting smarter, but is it making us any wiser?

  • cenoxo

    Women shooting men is not a new theatrical theme.
    Fifty-one years before Thelma and Louise (1991), bad girl Bettie Davis — playing adulterous wife Leslie Crosbie — ruthlessly shoots her male lover (clip from Turner Classic Movies) in the opening scenes of The Letter (1940).
    The screenplay was adapted from a 1927 play of the same name, which goes to show that men have been no-good SOBs for at least 80 years or so.

  • Lucaites

    Yes, but that wasn’t my point. My point was that when it happened in Thelma and Louise there was a fairly major public outcry that it was a somehow especially inappropriate usage of violence. I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing that this didn’t happen with B. Davis. Indeed, that she was glamorized as a “bad girl” would pretty much suggest the opposite. Then such behavior almost had an exotic (or should I say erotic) quality. We’ve moved in somewhat different territory here viz. Alan’s post.

  • Alan Chin

    Also Thelma and Louise and Bette Davis et al. are fictional, the actual real life depiction of a woman committing an act of extreme violence is still very rare, that’s why I was thinking of Lynndie England and Abu Ghraib. In fact I can not readily think of any other image, off the top of my head, anyway, which documents a woman in this role. And yes, England was torturing, not killing. I cannot think of, then, a single actual photograph where a woman is pulling the trigger the way that Col. Loan is in the Adams photo. Can anybody else?

  • Victor F

    It’s easy. This picture is about how commercialism and ubiquity can cheapen the effects of something is terrible as the Vietnam War. Adams’ picture is well-known the world over. People see it again and again when others talk about exceptional photojournalism. This has made it iconic to the point that is has become another meme. It can be sold like millions of plastic figurines, and by looking at it again and again, we lose a sense of who the people in the image really are.
    Who are Barbie and Ken? They could be anybody, and nobody. The same goes for the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.

  • cenoxo

    Not offhand, but that’s what you would normally expect in ground wars: the ratio of female combatants to male combatants (especially with infantry/insurgents) is still very low.
    Combine that with the even lower probability that an experienced photographer would be: 1) on the scene; 2) able to capture shooter and victim in the same frame; 3) reflexive enough to press the shutter at the decisive moment; and images similar to Adams’ would be extremely rare. No doubt women have shot men at close range in 19th, 20th, and 21st century wars, but no one with a camera happened to be there to photograph it.
    On the other hand, fictional portrayals of women shooting men in films, television, and yes, video games, are far more frequent, pervasive, and influential in portraying women shooting men. Monster (2003) directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Academy Award winner Charlize Theron, would be a more recent (and widely acclaimed) theatrical example, but there have been many others. Scenes like these can easily reach into every living room, and girls are no more immune to them than boys.
    A photo of Barbie shooting Ken may not be so controversial any more, but what if Ken was blowing Barbie’s brains out instead?

  • ivyleaves

    Just had to join the discussion here. I found it breathtaking that the first post suggests that Barbie should suicide rather than shoot Ken. I find it amazing that apparently only men seem to have felt moved to comment on this photo, addressing the ubiquitous cultural icon and the intersection of femininity, race, and identity whereas we women actually experienced it all and haven’t found the words. I was so stunned by the original photo I couldn’t really form a post on first viewing, and now with all the misinterpretations of Thelma and Louise added to the mix and suggestions of destruction of women, I’m gonna make sure that feminists get a chance to analyze the comments here. Just WOW!

  • croatoan

    Barbie did a bad, bad thing.

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