The Case of Agbogho-mmonwu Mask and Barbie Doll.
Chinyere G. Okafor
This is the pre-publication copy.
(For the published version, see (2007) “Global encounters: Barbie in Nigerian Agbogho-mmuo mask context.
Journal of African Cultural Studies
. Vol. 19, No. 1.

This is a discussion of Agbogho-mmonwu mask of the Igbo (Nigeria) as an icon that is comparable to Barbie image of American popular art.  The two icons are as different as black is to white, as man is to woman, as Africa is to America, in the sense that one is sacred and the other is profane, one is a tribal product designed by men while the other is a corporate product designed by a woman. The differences are indeed conspicuous, but a close scrutiny reveals that they are not skin deep in their feminine ideology, and this is the main focus of this paper that addresses a number of issues and questions. How do different societies maintain gender ideologies? Whose views of beauty are considered societal? Is the ideology of women’s beauty created by women, men, or society? Whose views influence or dominate societal ideology? Men, women, corporate, Hollywood, Art, Moneyed class, or what?

If we show that similarities exist in the seemingly disparate icons, so what? Will this contribute to the feminist debate on universalizing concepts and our appreciation of other seemingly glaring disparities such as cultural, racial and sexual ones? Will it contribute to our understanding of the socio-psychological maneuvering of global agendas? In discussing these questions, this paper will show that:

     The two icons are models of feminine beauty and subjects of feminist interpretation and criticism.
    Although different, the icons are similar in ways that show how cultural disparity can reveal commonalities that are disguised         by context.
    The comparison has implications for international relations (suppression and empowerment), because Barbie is an agent of             globalization.

                            Barbie                              Agbogho-mmonwu

The above images do not represent the varieties of the icons, but they help to provide visual images as we introduce the two principal characters, starting from the mask. Agbogho translates as maiden while mmonwu translates as spirit, but Agbogho-mmonwu as a term is not limited to youthful spirits. In usage, it is a generic name for mask-spirits that depict the female essence. The commonest is the youthful spirit mask that depicts a young female, but there are other variations of the mask that simulate women of various ages and experiences. In performance, Agbogho-mmonwu tries to epitomize societal views of feminine personality:  communal, moral, good form and features, nurturing, gentle, vigorous, and dynamic. Feminine outlook are varied and often complex in their mixture of traits, such as gentility and vigor that may appear contradictory in American terms, but which is accepted and admired in Igbo setting. The complexity and variations in female personality traits influence mask productions, through a process of selection and depiction of traits that appeal to the produces of mask performances.

 Mask is a composite art that consists of form, spirit, action, oral saga, and symbolic meaning, as well as audience-performer interaction/context. Its supernatural dimension is of primary significance, because it gives the mask a mystical aura and sacred authority (Cole and Aniakor 1984, Okafor 1997). In a traditional society that views the world in proximity of those who are alive in uwa nkea (this world) and uwa ozo (the other world of spirits and forebears), masks represent inhabitants of the chthonic realm and their performance is an affirmation of their link within the community of the living humans. The meaning of a mask is expressed through the face, figure, costume, movement, music and dance. Audience-performer interaction is also a vital aspect of performance that enlarges the multi-directional perception of meaning because, “adi ano ofu ebe ene mmonwu” (One cannot stay in one place to view a mask). This multidirectional approach to criticism influences this discussion that leans on feminist theorizing.

In Igboland, particularly some northern Igbo communities, Ijele mask is seen as the epitome of beauty. It is huge and symbolizes the vastness of the world with icons drawn from Igbo experience, cosmology, and history.1 It embodies the past, present, and future of the society. It is a spectacle that is rich in symbolism as it glides in a gentle majestic movement that compares with the Ekwe mask of Ugbene in Nsukka-Igbo. Both are noted for the way people are drawn to them as they spread blessings in the community.   The word “Ijele” is not just a masking nomenclature, but has become a metaphor for greatness. Some women take the Ijele title, which is a public acknowledgement of their superior beauty, in the sense of achievement and status through economic wealth, social success, wisdom and intelligence, just as the Ijele mask is superior in the masking arena.  Although such a woman is acknowledged as “Ijele-nwanyi” when she takes this title, the term is often used as a tribute or salutation for excellence.  Thus, an untitled woman can be saluted as “Ijele-nwanyi,” because of her greatness in major areas of societal operation – art (music, dance), economic, socio-political and religious.   Feminine beauty, therefore, is appreciated in its totality as spiritual, intellectual, and physical; beauty that is often enhanced by body adornments, such as elaborate ceremonial hair-do, skin designs with traditional cosmetics and ornaments.

Agbogho-mmonwu is not seen as a doll that is owned by individuals for private play like Barbie, although some people own dolls that are derived from societal conception of feminine personality just as the mask.2  At its best, Agbogho-mmonwu is a communal art that involves the mask, the mask group, and the society in a public performance. The facial mask is usually carved from wood, but woven and other variations do exist. It may be made by an individual artist who is commissioned by the mask group, and it may be the work of artist members. In recent times, it can be purchased from veteran artists and mask stalls in public markets. However, her reception by women and men is through public performance, where she projects qualities and traits that represent the feminine. Her spiritual essence validates her femininity as given and sanctioned by the supernatural.  Human beings and other mask-spirits gravitate towards her in a multiple arena formation where various mask-groups are performing. Her feminine and female aura marks her out in the arena teeming with male mask-spirits and performers, some of whom are impressed by her performance. It is not uncommon for a Law-enforcer mask to guard her and ward admirers off, thereby creating more acting space, adding to the fun, and enlarging the symbolism of the mask.

 Agbogho-mmonwu is produced by cultists, consisting mostly of privileged men. The mask therefore communicates femininity from   male perspective with emphasis on the physical. Her head is usually  oblong, although there are variations of this, with features that are   marked out in the wooden face. A lot of attention is on the hair-do,  which often consists of elaborate head-crest. The breasts are usually  prominent. Most maiden-spirit masks that depict young female spirits usually have breasts that resist the law of gravity, although there are few that show different levels of downward inclination, just as in real life. Mother masks often have baby components that compliment their beauty and represent the oneness of women and their families. Omelu-nne-na-nwa usually appears with her husband, Aku-eju-ozo, and their child. Obang-Ijele of Oba–Idemmili (Museum of African Tribal Arts, Portland, Maine), and Agbala-nwanyi (Anthropology Museum, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas) depict women of achievement and experience. Icons of authority, power, and wealth such as horse-tail, giant ivory bracelets, anklets, and corals are unmistakable in their adornment. Female nature spirits such as Ani (Earth) and Mmili (Water) are sometimes incarnated in mask spirit form.

Very prominent in a maiden mask figure is the costume that is usually derived from women’s attire, but is stylized for artistic purposes. Colorful tight-fitting appliqué costumes that hug the body and accentuate the contours are the commonest for young maiden masks such as Ada-mma. However, different dignified attires represent a variety of masks with the aura of senior women.

Feminist scholarship attempts to understand and theorize women’s lives globally, and so provides a basis for negotiating, critiquing, and rethinking issues about women.  One of the commonest views about women’s experience is that in all cultures, women are associated with the domestic sphere while men are associated with the public. This view essentializes all women and excludes cultures that are different from the norm. It is, therefore, not adequate for critiquing women’s experience globally, as seen in the case of Agbogho-mmonwu mask spirit that represents various possibilities for women in  the traditional society.  The possibilities such as daughter, mother, and achiever transverse the domestic and public spheres of life, because a woman’s primary identity is that of daughter  who operates in different mixed capacities of gendered and non-gender positions that are similar to what Sudarkasa termed Independents (Sudarkasa 1999).  Nkiru Nzegwu’s experience of the dynamics of her activities as ada in her family throws some light in our description of the fluidity of women’s spaces, as well as how cultural significations contribute to the perception of women. She describes how she stepped out of the American cultural scheme and went into Igbo cultural space of “family-connectedness and family obligations” that constituted the central basis of time-allocation, time-management, and her personal identity (Nzegwu 2001: 4).

As soon as Nzegwu landed in Lagos (Nigeria), her identity as a black scholar was modified and positively enlarged. She was no longer black. The categorization of blackness was gone, because in Nigeria people did not perceive or react to her as black. She retained her gender privilege and disadvantage, her achieved preeminence as a scholar, as well as her position in the family and responsibility as daughter. She performed her obligation as the daughter who must organize her natal family for its role in the funeral of a titled relation (Nzegwu: 4). Whether married or unmarried, as umu-ada, women carry out their responsibilities as daughters of families, lineages, and villages as Nzegwu did. They execute the duties of their occupation in addition to those of their positions as daughters in naming, marriage, funeral ceremonies as well as family disputes and other important affairs. 

The term “daughter” cannot be coded only with its Western equivalent as the female child. It has another significance that is lost in such a translation. Igbo terms for the female child include, nwa ada, nwa-nwanyi and ada, that encode the special positions and actions of the female in the lineage. Woman is like ogbu or gum that holds the different segments together through cultural and ritual performances as well as political maneuvers. A household that does not have a daughter is problematized in a way that is different from when there is no male child who will be the continuity of the patrilineage. That a woman operates in a gender position as wife does not necessarily mean that she operates solely in the domestic sphere, because as a daughter she engages in socio-political activities outside the wifely sphere such as those in her natal home. From her domestic base, she frequently engages in economic activities such as marketing. This is deftly illustrated in the live stories of women recorded in Foluso Ogbe’s study of women in resource management. For example, the boundary between the domestic and public spheres is interwoven and often blurred, as Mercy Osemena’s cloth weaving industry and Ademoni Agboju’s ceramic school   illustrate in the study (Ogbe 2001).

Michelle Rosaldo’s delineation of women’s experience universally is important in clarifying commonalities among women and also for generating critical thinking and debates about some of the ideas, because of her attempts to generalize from the basis of Western culture. One universalist idea that has generated a lot of criticism in my classes is that the work of men are valued more than the activities of women in all cultures (Rosaldo 2002: 6, 21). One of my students from Baule nation in Ivory Coast  reacted to this idea by asking whether playing golf is more valued that giving birth to children. A critical look at the place of birthing performance in Igbo practices shows the centrality of omumu (birthing) in the culture.

Representation of Mmuo-omumu mask indicates that the activity associated with female fertility and child birth is of prime importance in traditional Igbo society. Its performance is not only an entertainment but also seen as a core ritual of continuity that elevates the concept of womanness. Fertility involves men and women but birthing activities, rituals, and performances emphasize the importance of women. The location of Omumu shrine in front of the obi (family front house) 3 is an architectural representation of its preeminence in the compound. This reasoning concurs with the theory of art and cognition propounded by Ayn Rand in 1975, and supported by Louis Torres and Michelle Kamhi in their 2001 reevaluation of Rand’s theories. Rand’s idea that art is a “recreation of reality in accordance with metaphysical value-judgements” (Rand 1975: 45) helps us to appreciate the place of Omumu both in design and performance in Igbo communities.

Mmuo Omumu of Idemmili area of Anambra State has a round figure and raffia covering.  Her symbolism rests on her full-size that signifies the fullness of nature. Appearance defines it just like oral saga does, as gleaned from its popular chorus:

      Enje enje nje 
      Enje na nje

Oscar Mokeme, the Ozo Ugo-Oji, Ozo-Dimani of Oba explains that the word “Enje” that is from the verb “to go” delineates the purpose of the mask, which is continuity.4 Repetition of the word emphasizes the purpose of the mask performance in movement or motion, alluding to continuity of the society. In American terms, Mmuo-omumu would be considered fat, but in Igbo terms, the beauty lies in its fullness and purpose, much like the beauty of a pregnant woman. Omumu as an ideological construct through which the primacy of woman is naturalized. Women and men with fertility issues seek divine intervention through the performance, but women are the controllers and lead actors. The women followers of Mmuo-omumu are veteran nde-dibia (medicine women) whose presence shows the viability of women in healing and priesthood.5 One cannot classify this women’s culture as domestic because it is performed by women, or to the public because of its public display and involvement. Its place in the society lies in its value in the sociopolitical and ritualistic ecosystem. The Omumu example helps to show that opposition between the private and domestic spheres that is used to critique gender hierarchy in America is inadequate for exploring the Igbo woman’s experience because both spheres are usually not clearly demarcated, so

Women’s occupation and responsibility are also expressed in masking. Only a woman who is recognized as oke-nwanyi (prime woman) by age and experience can be accepted in the inner-circle of masking ceremony or performance (Okafor 1992). The women are incorporated because of some vital roles that they play. An oke-nwanyi, for example, activates the colossal Ijele mask as Mother, even though the mask is produced by male cultists. Oke-nwanyi metaphor also resonates in allusions and sometimes through the representation of mask figures. Ochi mask figure, for example, exhumes the aura of a veteran poet represented through the string of verbal metaphors that announce her presence.  Like medicine women, this mask-figure validates the non-gender positions of women.  Similar figures of non-gender women’s power also exist in other African cultures. An example is seen in the Okpella tradition of the Edo (Nigeria) where a woman achiever can choose to celebrate her prominence by producing a great female mask that depicts her aura particularly economic success.  Chiwara, an antelope mask that carries a baby on her back, represents the earth spirit and mythical creature that introduced farming to Bamana people of Mali. She is an ancestral mask that represents the original farmer and founder of the Bamana.

Non-western scholars have drawn attention to the imposition of western conceptual categories on non-western cultures with different conceptual logic. This criticism takes a central place in Oyeronke Oyewumi’s The Invention of Women (Onyewumi 1997), where she asserts that “woman” as a social category did not exist in traditional Yoruba (Nigeria) communities in the sense of the body as the basis of social roles, inclusions, and exclusions. Seniority is the main determinant of hierarchical power in a lineage. This makes it possible for a daughter to play the same role a son would play such as inheriting land, trade, or the throne. She argues that “body-reasoning and the bio-logic that derives from biological determinism inherent in the Western thought have been imposed on African societies” through colonization and control of academic episteme (x). Although there are some African societies, with a bio-logic determination of roles that would contradict the Yoruba example, the main point of her text on the Oyo Yoruba demonstrates power hierarchy that supersedes gender. Her study also illustrates the impossibility of totalizing women’s experience, and therefore is relevant to our argument that the installation of Barbie-image as the global icon of femininity is problematic because of its false universalist stance.

Much of the argument of standpoint epistemologists aims at overcoming the ethnocentrism of universalist views that are presented as objective knowledge, yet the knowledge is actually generated from the basis of one perspective that marginalizes other experiences and ways of knowing; what Helen Longino calls “heuristic biases” (Longino 1993: 102).6 Universalist views generated from the viewpoint of privileged white women’s experience is inadequate for explaining the lives of women of other class and ethnic backgrounds within the United States, and even more so of women of other parts of the globe with different contextual configurations. Knowledge is socially situated, so presenting the feminist thinking of western privileged white women as universal marginalizes other views and ways of reaching those views. Class authority and racial influence empowers their gender discourse, just as global support empowers the spread of Caucasian image. This is why one appreciates Sandra Harding’s view on standpoint epistemology, which favors the practice of starting scientific enquiry from the margins to the center, because it enriches our understanding of the lives of the marginalized and the centered, and also reveals how dominant groups distort and monopolize knowledge (Harding 1993: 52). She argues that this distortion could be eliminated or minimized by using context as a primary axis in all levels of scientific discovery.  

Context is not just environmental but includes the material conditions of existence that in turn have effect on the environment and the people.  This idea of context was deftly articulated by the wife of a poor miner, Domitila de Chungara from Bolivia Andes. At an International Women’s Year Tribunal organized by the United Nations, an upper class woman from Mexico told Domitila to focus only on issues of ‘women’ rather than her plight as a poor person. Her reply is classic in delineating the oneness of her experience as a woman with her context at the bottom of the economic ladder:

Every day you show up in a different outfit and on the other hand, I don’t. Every day you show up all made up and combed … yet I don’t. I see that each afternoon you have a chauffer in a car waiting at the door of this place to take you home, and yet I don’t … I’m sure you live in a really elegant home, in an elegant neighborhood, no? and yet we miners’ wives only have a small house on loan to us, and when our husbands die or get sick or are fired from the company, we have ninety days to leave the house and then we’re in the street (de Chungara 1997: 422)

Domitila de Chungara’s connection of gender and class shows that theorizing women’s experience on the basis of one center, which is gender, is limiting because it excludes the class axis of power that not only binds with gender, but in fact undermines it for majority of women. Karl Marx’s explanations of power from the standpoint of the oppressed masses rather than from an elevated class position, shows that knowledge can begin from the marginal standpoint as Harding argues. Marxism is useful in appreciating the class position of de Chungara and that of the privileged woman that she addresses.  It is, however, insufficient for understanding the totality of her experience because it does not include gender and the possibility of other axes. Her experience shows that feminist inquiry is larger than class or any other axis, because it encompasses all axes that illuminate gender in any particular context. With gender, we do not focus on one axis of power as Marx does with class, but on intersections of different systems of power and power relations. Our concern is on multiple centers.  Knowledge should be all-inclusive and we can do this by counting all, including the less visible and the excluded. If we can imagine a circle of women’s experience with only gender at the center, we will notice that other centers are absent or marginalized, yet women’s experience is complex and multi-dimensional. It is like eccentric circles with many centers that intersect and delineate their linkages.

Gender context is not just about multiple centers that intersect, but also includes the dynamics of power within one circular framework; power that we can examine through the idea of concentric circles with a common center, in which benefits are concentrated on the center.  The benefits become fewer as the circle gets wider and the disadvantages become greater. In fact the disadvantage of the others often contributes to the benefit of the center. This structure is useful in discussing the issue of global femininity, in which national femininities are being evaluated or explained in their approximation to a central femininity that is prevalent in Hollywood films, magazines, and other media. We shall see that the process of this approximation elevates the central white femininity and opens it to more opportunities. Joya Misra’s contribution is particularly relevant to my purpose in this study because of her idea that dialogue across boundaries, rather than the use of one cultural theory to evaluate others, is the most tenable Feminist approach. A comparative study of Barbie and Agbogho-mmonwu provides a cross-cultural dialogue that aims at showing the nuances and complexities of construction and reconstruction of femininity across cultures, the racial politics in the global construction of femininity, as well as the flow of benefits and disadvantages.

As mentioned earlier, Agbogho-mmonwu is produced and performed by cultists, but is communally enjoyed in performance during festivals. Rites of passage, seasonal, occasional, and annual Thanksgiving festivals are occasions for the production of mask performances. Although the purpose is entertainment, the performances invariably offer paradigms for social behavior. The maiden masks, for example, depict feminine ideas and behavior.  Songs, dances, and plays with notions of femininity, masculinity, wisdom, power and authority, are presented and applauded. Undesirable non-conformist behaviors of men and women are satirized through such masks as Efulefu (rascal), Edi (idiot), and Akwuna (prostitute). The populace internalizes the images as paradigms for social conduct, so masks influence social norms in a manner that recalls the influence of the television in a technological society.                                          

Unlike Agbogho-mmonwu, Barbie is not communally owned, although she is popular in the society and can be found in almost every home. Barbie is usually blonde; however, non-blonde and non-white versions have joined her ensemble. Unlike the mask whose origin is attributed to the masking cult or the society, Barbie was created by a woman, Ruth Handler in 1959.  She was inspired by a German doll, Lilli (a pin-up for men after War II derived from a television comic), to design the doll that she named after her daughter, Barbara (Wright 2000: 3). The result is a beautiful doll that is loved by girls, women, and men; a doll that many young women describe as their best friend. Many young girls do fun things with Barbie that also help to socialize them into feminine culture, such as using proper clothes and make-up for occasions.  She gives girls endless opportunities to costume her, brush and style her hair, and position her in different settings, such as aerobics class, a school dance, or the shopping mall (Rogers 2003: 94).

Barbie is elevated to iconographic proportions through the possibilities that she offers to women. She started from the private sphere where she was packaged in such images as a lady in her powder room with its full décor and a mother rocking her baby in a push chair, and moved to images of the public domain such as the college student, dentist, astronaut, and many other forms that expand possibilities for young women. She is said to have over a hundred careers (Byrne 1999: 1). There is Graduate School Barbie with pink PC and a complementing Professor Ken who is her advisor in her quest for higher education. Here Barbie operates in the male dominated world where her advisor, Ken with a permanent frown, represents male authority and control.  She bursts into tears from time to time, due to the stress of graduate work while her advisor gives instructions. This scenario reinforces some traditional perspectives of gendered body politic that emphasizes the emotional in women (weeping), and downplays men’s appearance (frown).  As advisor, Ken is not so much valued by his good looks than by his intelligence and authority, seen through the permanent frown.  

The body of the original Barbie is comparable to Agbogho-mmonwu because both represent adult women, but they differ in essence for one is a plastic doll while the other is a mask with spiritual aura; a mask that is performed by an actor who wears it. While Agbogho-mmonwu’s supernatural characteristics might curtail undue reproach from her audience, it does not prevent evaluation of her performance as a theatrical figure. She is judged according to how well she represents feminine movements, dance, and behavior as conceived by the male producers: proud, coquettish, and innocent (Cole and Aniakor 1994: 124). This behavior is however not standard for all maiden sprits and certainly not shared by the few mask-figures produced by women.

The Ogbodo-enyi mask produced by women of Izzi has neither the features nor the behavioral traits of the maiden- spirits produced by men’s cults. Her beauty is not overtly physical with elaborate crests and colorful costumes. With a wooden mask representing an elephant and a costume that allows free movement, the mask-figure is agile, vigorous, and in control of the arena (Okafor 1994). In a performance that this writer observed in Aba village of Izzi (Igbo, Nigeria) in 1991, the character did not have a policeman masquerade control the acting space as often seen in productions by male cultists. She did the policing job by chasing away some young men that she perceived as antagonists, and came back to continue with her dance before an audience of men and women. She exhibited friendliness, nurturing, and no-nonsense traits, which are more in tune with the way women see themselves in the setting. Her mask group was composed of women home-makers, rice farmers, and market women, as well as male and female instrumentalists. Her performance calls to mind the Sowei mask worn and performed by women of  the Sande society of women among the Mende of Liberai and Sierra Leone. Sowei mask represents female beauty through its sex appeal seen in the elaborate coiffeur and neck creases, as well as health and vigor depicted in dance.

The noted similarity in the adult figures of the Agbogho-mmonwu and Barbie notwithstanding, there is a difference in details. Although stylized, Agbogho-mmonwu’s breasts are not huge like Barbie’s, nor is her waist very thin. Barbie’s body parts have been constructed to represent a very tall figure with long slim legs, very thin waist, sizeable buttocks and massive breasts.  The computer magnification of Barbie places her at five feet ten inches that weighs one hundred and ten pounds.  The average American woman falls short of this image, with her five-four height and one hundred and forty five pounds weight (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).7 This indicates that Barbie’s breasts and buttocks are out of realistic proportions, but as Marita Sturken explains, images through which the national subject is visualized do not have much to do with whether that visualization is correct (Sturken 1997).  Her breasts are pointed like those of the youthful maiden-spirit, but unlike the other varieties of women-spirits, they resist the law of gravity. Barbie’s breasts never tilted even as she got to middle age. With such voluptuous breasts and buttocks, it is a wonder that her thin legs and tiny feet are able to carry her. A natural woman would certainly need more stable legs for that support.

Many of us cannot stand criticism of Barbie because of her role in our childhood fun. Barbie is just a doll. Why would we think that she can influence human action? Why do we compare her to a mask that is animated by human actors? In Barbie’s world, she walks, talks, sings, goes to school, and graduates from college, through power activation. We might take her actions for granted because we understand modern technology, but if we can suspend disbelief and imagine the world without batteries and electricity, Barbie might generate a wonder that is similar to spirit reincarnation. The beauty and functionality of Barbie contribute to her popularity and longevity. Ironically, that beauty raises serious issues about women’s body image in the way that she is used to project unrealistic pictures of beauty. Jeannie Thomas touches on this irony when she praises Handler for creating a doll that would help girls “deal with changes in their bodies during puberty,” and also points out that the designer’s “measurements are problematic” (Wright 2000: 4). It is in a similar vein that Jean Kilbourne discusses advertisers and castigates them for bombarding women with images of thinness  that contribute to the “body hatred so many young women feel and some of the resulting eating problems” (Kilbourne 2003: 261), like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

All these show that the supposed lifeless doll is indeed very influential, and her imagery has impact on girls as they grow to adulthood, engage various physical and psychological spaces. The image is seen in children’s literature, teen magazines, adult magazines, bill boards, advertisements, movies and many other media. Live models, particularly super models help to humanize the image, and make it appear natural through their approximation of dimensions that are comparable to those of a magnified Barbie. The average super model is between five feet ten inches and six feet, weighing between one hundred and ten to one hundred and twenty pounds.9 These dimensions are unattainable for majority of women, because only five percent of American women have that figure, and most of these have it at a very short period of their lives. This means that majority of women see themselves excluded from what is considered beautiful. Attention has been on women who try to slim themselves to the unrealistic proportions and end up with eating disorders and other kinds of illnesses and death, but Siebecker draws our attention to how prevalence of the figure contributes to discrimination against “overweight” women (Siebecker  125). In short, Barbie-like super model image is a huge presence that affects majority of women, because they do not approximate to the dimensions.

Some of us would claim that it had and has no influence on us, but our internalization of its contours is sometimes revealed in our language, when we describe a woman with super-model-Barbie-like figure as “the perfect beauty,” and so use it as the standard for evaluating, marginalizing, and excluding other kinds of beauty.  Many women resort to plastic surgeries in their bid to acquire the image. Statistics on cosmetic plastic surgery indicate that in 2000, six of the seven million Americans that underwent cosmetic surgical and non-surgical plastic surgery were women. By 2004, the number had risen to 10.7 of 11.9 millions, representing 90% of the total number (The American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, ASAPS). Most of the surgeries were for breast augmentation and upper arm lifts, tummy tucks, and buttocks lift. While one may not link all these directly to the image, we cannot completely rule out the effect of the constant bombardments of our psyche with Barbie-like images. Latent learning through observation has been shown to be a very effective way of motivating our actions (Bandura 1986), and this is how we internalize the images of popular culture.

Appreciation and criticism of Barbie’s image are varied and include cultural, racial, gay and lesbian interpretations. Erica Rand’s study of Barbie’s queer accessories focuses on possibilities for queer interpretations, in spite of Mattel Company’s obvious heterosexual intentions. She analyzes Barbie’s physical and psychological contact with Midge, and reads lesbian meanings in different hugs and touching. Although this writer hesitates to accept these as indicators of sexual intimacy, the hesitation begins to wane while looking through the framework that Erica uses. Why would one accept such intimacy as sexual in a heterosexual bonding and would not in a woman to woman sharing? This question will make interesting controversy in Agbogho-mmonwu’s context especially with the writing of supernatural in the performance politic of the mask. In assessing Barbie’s status, Mary Rogers views her unmarried state as an “unusual femininity” (Rogers 2003: 94). If one views femininity in masculinist terms as a woman who lives up to patriarchal ideals of hooking under a man in marriage, one would welcome Rogers’ view. But viewed from a woman-centered perspective that would see her in terms of connectedness with self, profession, family, friends, and other social groups, her womanness is large and complex. She is steeped in her professional experiences, personal relationship with Ken and various friendships that fill her life in a way that viewing her in marital context alone may not.

Criticism of the limitation of Barbie to the blonde Caucasian led to the expansion of her world to include non-blonde and racial minorities. Mattel has enlarged her social circle to include friends from ethnic minorities such as Christie (black) introduced in 1966 and Teresa (Hispanic) introduced in 1988. There are African, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and other national Barbies.  In spite of this widening, the Caucasian Barbie is at the center of the artistic arrangement. Her Caucasian features and unrealistic body dimensions are basically retained.  This is problematic for American ethnic minorities, and has generated accusations of racism and white purism. Projecting that image to the world is equally problematic, and initiates a clash of feminine standards between Barbie-like images and the countervailing feminine standards of other nationalities and cultures. The Barbie image, its meaning as perfect beauty, and the effect of that meaning, are important considerations in the globalization of Barbie.  Raka Shome’s view of national memory-making as a highly political process is important in our understanding of how one image is eulogized and implanted in societal memory as the ideal from which others are evaluated.  The process of idealizing involves suppression, erasure, and exclusion, because for each story told about the global ideal, and about who is imagined as that ideal, “there is some story that is not being told, that is not allowed to emerge, and that is lost and forgotten in the politics of remembering” (Shome 2001: 125)

The globalization of Barbie and Barbie image has to be understood within the socioeconomic and political agenda of global capitalist system.  Produced by the Mattel Company, she has become part of the international image-making network that consists of fashion-design industry, beauty pageants, advertisements, television, and other media that project the national image of Anglo imagination; the fantasy of tall thin white women as the ideal of beauty. As explained earlier, this marginalizes and excludes many national and ethnic beauties, as well as many Anglo beauties. The effect is not just psychological, but also political and economic. Using beauty pageants for illustration, there is more possibility of white women winning beauty pageants than other racial beauties who have to spend more money in trying to acquire the body dimensions, features, color, that approximate to Eurocentric models, because the closer a model gets to the ideal, the better her appearance is perceived to be. This goes for acting, modeling, and many other professions that favor the Caucasian image and its approximation.8 Even businesses that aim at non-white women also favor the kind of beauty that derive from the Caucasian model.  For example, the producers of Hip-Hop music videos prefer “lighter-complexioned women of color, with long and straight or loosely curled hair.”  Imani Perry sees their hair as a contrast to “the real hair of most black women” and their beauty “as impossible to achieve as the waif-thin models in Vogue magazine are for white women” (Perry 2003: 138).

The unwritten message in privileging Barbie-like femininity is that girls and women should change themselves, and spend money to acquire the “ideal” forms and traits. We have seen that the effect is not just aesthetic and social but also economic and political.  Modern technology assures us that we can change through plastic surgery, and the media helps to create the appetite for more acquisitions. This appetite creates the need for more money and jobs to sustain this new culture. The migration of Barbie image to Agbogho-mmonwu’s culture area and many other Nigerian cultures raises economic questions through the clash of standards. Is it a clash of two giants on equal footing? One is standing on global socio-economic and political support, while the other holds on to a traditional base even as it stands on a weakening sociopolitical economy.

Just like the variety of beauty depicted through the representation of the mask, there are varieties of human beauties in Agbogho-mmonwu culture area. They include Agbala-nwanyi that refers to an agile, beautiful, no-nonsense, strong woman; Ijele-nwanyi noted earlier as the strong beautiful achiever; the gyrating beauty with sexy ikebe (big buttocks); those with big breasts, amre-ola (string of precious stone), and many others.  All these images may possibly come in conflict with the image of Barbie’s fragile frame, skin color, and hair texture. A look at the prevailing modifications of skin color, hair, and cosmetics in favor of western inspired ones is informative.  In Igbo and many Nigerian nations or ethnic groups, elaborately plaited and woven hair in different designs used to be major beauty enhancers. Plaited hair is beautiful, because of the patterns carved on the scalp showing the lines and shapes of units of plaits, which are chunks of hair that are tightly sculptured with threads. The style of the plaits are differentiated by their suggestive names, such as boys-follow-me, kpofu-kpofu, and kpafinga (referring to the way fingers and threads are squeezed in-between fingers in the production process). 10 The styles display faces to advantage and are able to withstand rain, heat and harmattan cold weather, without breaking or sagging. They complement the artistic design of female attires and confident personality. Their significance in women’s grooming is probably why they are characteristically represented in Agbogho-mmonwu masks.

These styles are being replaced by the more expensive, time-consuming, and easily messed-up, chemically processed hair with Caucasian-inspired styles. A similar situation exists in cosmetic usage where traditional cosmetics are fast disappearing. Cosmetics such as uli, egu, and nkasi-ani used in making designs on the body, eye makeup like  odo and otangele,  as well as body rubs like uvie, obala-abakpo, and ude-aki  have almost disappeared in the cosmetic apparatus of  modern women. Many strive for the so called modern look that ultimately helps to suppress traditional industry.  Western body lotions, hand creams, and facial make-up are not only imported but also manufactured by the Nigerian wings of global conglomerates. Skin-lightening cosmetics are common in spite of their cacogenic agents. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa may soon add to the list of ailments. Although one recognizes that colonial psychology and Western education did the ground work before Barbie was born in 1959, Barbie image in the global image-making network, as well as the support of global socio-economic power, heavily weighs the odds against the Nigerian standards.  Some of us argue that straightening the hair with chemicals is more manageable, but that is because of the decline of the industry that manages African hair and promotes its unique outlook.

If all women undergo surgeries, lighten their skins, and dye their hair blond, so what? The pundit may say that as long as it is their choice and it makes them happy, they should do what they want. This paper argues that it is not really “their choice,” because they are conditioned to make that choice, and that choice demeans traditional beauty industry; many of which have ceased to develop, and therefore give the global ones the opportunity to thrive. Moreover, many of the skin-lightening lotions cause health problems that would be managed by global pharmaceuticals. These add to the economic burden of the women, and stress in the face of increasing unemployment.  In the final analysis, they further the political economy of globalization by supporting the profit of image-making conglomerates, making them more powerful and able to control the world.

Nigerian folklore appreciates different sizes including thinness in young women, but excessive thinness is not usually appreciated as it is often seen as a sign of illness or unhappiness.  Terms like tuturu gbajie, (suggesting a person who can be “picked and broken” like a stick), and  esekele-m’awu  (refering to a mosquito-like figure), are used to poke fun at extreme thinness.  This does not mean that they favor fatness or obesity, but that healthy appearance without excesses is desirable. This is not only depicted in the Agbogho-mmonwu that we described earlier in this paper, but is also illustrated by standards of Nigerian media personalities who are the modern parameters for discussing women’s beauty in the country.

Guy Murray-Bruce of Silverbird productions understood that there was little hope for Nigerians in the “Most Beautiful Woman” contests, because Nigerian standards are different from Western or so called “international beauty standards” (Onishi 2002:1). They, therefore, made a strategic plan to focus on the amere-ola kind of beauty that is closer to the required standards and exclude all other Nigerian standards. This plan led to Agbani Darego’s winning of “the most beautiful woman” contest in 2002, and becoming the first black African woman to win the contest in its fifty one years’ history. Nigerians applauded her, but some quickly pointed out that she was too skinny, and “uncharitably, a white girl in black skin” (Onishi 2002: 1). These reactions are not surprising from people with contradictory notions of beauty, Even though slim stature is in the variety of shapes and sizes that are appreciated in young women; her six feet height made her appear too thin and unattainable. Her winning helps to raise Nigerian image, but it also lends support to the Barbie-like image that undermines local images. She has become a role model for many young women who now dislike their appearance, and therefore spend money in trying to look skinny like her. This is comparable to the influence of Western images of beauty in Fiji.  Before the introduction of the television in Fiji, loosing weight was the sign of a problem, and “you’ve gained weight” was a compliment. By 1995, television was widespread in the island and a study conducted in 1998 reveled that 70% of teens in the study felt “too big or too fat,” and 62% had dieted in the past one month (Kilbourne 2003: 260).

This discussion based on Barbie has focused on the image as a way of drawing attention to the global network, which sells fantasy images that reflect narrow view of woman’s beauty. It is produced by industries that are mostly controlled by male producers, artists and designers who acquiesce with the industry’s obsession with the image. The industry is not just Mattel that produces Barbie, but includes the network that disseminates the images. The capitalist economy has made possible the merging of big media companies that “have been buying and merging with other companies to create ever-large media conglomerates, all of which are now global in their activities (Croteau and Hoynes 2003: 22). ABC, NBC,CBS, AOL, Time Warner, Disney are big names and mergers whose main interest is capital, whose feminine ideology is limited to the so called sexy thin women. Barbie has been described as the fantasy of men, but ironically it was designed by a woman and this horrified mothers who took part in an early fifties marketing study (Byrne 1999 1). The big issue is not that a woman designed it, but who controls the industry and whose purpose does Barbie ultimately serve.

Who benefits from the body image of the doll? The girl who plays with the doll no doubt has a lot of fun, but the ultimate fun rests in the large profit of those that control and benefit from the network of doll-making, fashion, media, cosmetic, and cosmetic surgical business. The health problems associated with the quest for the “perfect figure” are also of serious concern, particularly in the Nigerian context of dwindling economy and inadequate medical facilities. The desire for Barbie-like images is strong among young women, since it is aggressively promoted through cable television, movies, and magazines. The opposing attributes of Barbie and Agbogho-mmonu are highlighted in the global arena and the privileging of Barbie becomes obvious and unacceptable, especially for the older population. It is a traditional base with its spiritual controlling mechanisms that is pitted against a secular one with its powerful network of global associates.  

This discussion has shown how the odds are against Igbo and Nigerian femininity, but there is hope in the opposition from the cultural base. This base includes the orature that eulogizes local beauties. Songs, tales, satires, music and dance, women’s language, and the general societal sensibility, constitute the main life force of traditional femininity. It is this life force that has sustained the continuity of aspects of traditional femininity in the face of colonial influence. The society has not recovered from colonial damage to its psyche, and is conscious of postcolonial influences. Many are sensitive to further incursions by global network perceived as new colonial maneuvers, even though there are also others with contrary views.  Thus, socio-political thinking as well as aesthetic sensibility steeped in tradition are important in evaluating the direction of Igbo femininity.

In the colonial and post-independent period of the sixties and seventies, the dress-code for work and formal events was Western outfits, but people’s desire for African attire in work places eventually held sway in the eighties, not without political intervention. A military decree required people to appear on television in African attires.  This had a ripple effect that eventually led to a boon in local fashion industries including hair, cloth-weaving, cloth-dying, and dress-making, that were largely in the hands of women. The decline in hair plaiting discussed earlier is mutating into a boon in hair scarves, which have become more elaborate and stylish with suggestive names. This trend in fashion can be interpreted as a strong area of resistance against the Barbie image, and prevent us from making a definitive statement about a drama that is still unfolding. Moreover, the process of change and continuity is varied, and different power relations influence it as one moves from the rural to the urban, from one part of the city to the other.

In spite of this optimistic view, we have to remember that global Barbies are usually clothed in ethnic costumes, so creativity in costume is not in serious threat. The main problem that has been focused on is the Caucasian derived image of femininity with its weight-height-color equation that is expensive, is associated with health problems, and threatens Nigerian standards. Just as in the case of traditional attires, we might need strong social intervention in working against global installation of images that will be detrimental to health and a strain on the dwindling economy. We might consider creating awareness through formal and informal learning that will include the media, as a way of empowering girls to make informed choices about the images. The government and non-governmental organizations might bring workable solutions when they recognize the need for intervention. The strongest technique is continued appreciation of varieties of beauty and the traditional base that gives it support.


I am grateful to Agnes Illo and Anthonia ofodu for useful discussion of Ibgho women’s beauty and hair styles; and to Oscr Mokeme, the Ozo Ugo-Oji of Aborji Obe, and Ozo-Dimeji of Oba, for valuable discussion of the agbogho-mmonwu.




1. Each community has its own symbolic ideal, but I use the Ijele in this discussion because of its popularity, especially in women’s culture.

2. Agbogho-mmonu icons can be part of private collections in the sacred collectibles of some titled men. An example is the icon used in this essay which is part of Agbasiere’s collection.

3.  Family front house that is the ritual and cultural center of the household. For example, it is where the household head salutes Chi-na-eke (God who creates) as the sun emerges from night. It is also used for formal and informal meetings.

4. Interview with Oscar Mokeme, the Ozo Ugo-Oji and Ozo-Dimani of Oba, Anambra State. Nigeria. . February 21, 2002.  

5. In Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In the Sun, Asagai from the African continent did not see any problem in the heroine becoming a doctor as her American brother did, because of the preeminence of women in medicinal powers. In short, healing is not gendered in many African societies. In Chinua Achebe’s Thing Fall Apart, the patriarchal and seemingly indomitable hero, Okonkwo, cowed at the superior power and authority of Chielo, the priestess.

6. A method of discovery – the process of selecting and discarding  hypotheses and presenting what the researcher thinks are important. What she thinks are important are highly subjective, based on her context only.

7. The average U.S. woman is 5' 3.7 (162 centimeters) tall and weighs 152 pounds (69 kilograms). <http://www.wonderquest.com/size-women-us.htm>

8. A New York Times article places the average supermodel at nearly 6ft tall with 120lb weight (New York Times, Sept. 1, 2002). According to the website that advises Wannabe models , “The minimum height is usually about 5'8", and average weight for a model is 108-125 lbs . . . You should be tall, long-legged, and lean” (http://www.soyouwanna.com/site/syws/model/modelFULL.html)
See the American Society of Plastic Surgeons’ website (gender statistics).

9. Employers often require their employees to “slim down” and/or “look good” for the customers. Looking good refers to beauty derived from popular culture’s images that are mostly Barbie-like. This practice is more prevalent in fashion and music industry, but not limited to them. It is not uncommon in Africentric sites. An example is the making-over of the president of the African American Leadership Institute, Colorado. She was noted for her pride in her neat natural Afro hair and attires.  In a recent makeover, initiated by her daughter and granddaughter, her hair was chemically treated to be straight, and she donned a western evening gown (Ambush Makeover, KAKE TV, June 16, 2005). She did protest against this, but went along with her family to change her Afrocentric outlook. There is nothing wrong with change of personality, but the continued change of African in favor of Caucasian speaks to our concern for the threat that faces African standards.  

10. Other hair styles include hands-up, koso, songas, akwukwo-akpu, af-pati, I-salute etc.


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