Artifact: Dolled Up

Authoritarian regimes play make-believe


Credit: AP

Her name is Sara, and she's the new "national doll" of Iran. Developed by Iran's Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, Sara promotes "traditional values." More to the point, she's intended to displace Barbie. As Sara was being introduced earlier this year, the popular American doll was banned.

Barbie's a danger, the regime believes, because she's un-Iranian. Among other things, she dresses immodestly, drinks alcohol, and has a close relationship with a man (Ken) who isn't her husband. She is, in short, an invitation to Western wantonness. As one Teheran toy dealer said, "I think every Barbie doll is more harmful than an American missile." Sara, in contrast, is a modest little girl with a brother (Dara) instead of a boyfriend. The Arab League is currently developing "Leila" as a similar alternative to Barbie.

The notion of an enforced "national doll" is rather like the old enforced Soviet rock scene; it accepts a consumerist model of culture while assuming it can control consumer desire. But while little girls can make their dolls dress and act as they please, regimes can't do the same with their citizens. That's a make-believe game they've never been able to win.