March 02, 2006

Tracking snowclones is hard. Let's go shopping!

Michael Kaplan recently offered up a snowclone in need of investigation:

X is hard. Let's go shopping!

He was unsure of its origin, but a commenter on his blog wrote:

"Math is hard, let's go shopping" came from a talking Barbie doll. Mattel got a lot of heat for that one (people believed it made the science and math gap between males and females worse). Later models of the Barbie had the phrase deleted.

Well, it's a bit more complicated than that. Since talking dolls seem to lend themselves to the embellishments of urban folklore, I thought I'd track down the origins of this putative Barbie-ism.

It all started in 1992, when Mattel Inc. rolled out Teen Talk Barbie, the first talking Barbie doll in two decades. Each Teen Talk Barbie could say four phrases, selected from a total pool of 270 randomly programmed sayings. The doll was unveiled at the American International Toy Fair in February of '92 with great fanfare. The Washington Post reported on the unveiling with barely concealed sarcasm:

So here we are - a curtain rises, a stage appears and it's TEEN TALK BARBIE!
"You look great!" Barbie says. "Want to go shopping? Okay, meet me at the mall."
A thin, leggy blond woman (one of scores of such creatures brought in for the fair) introduces the chatty new doll and all her new clothing. The woman, with her hair and enthusiasm, is Barbie. She is holding a Barbie. The two Barbies are having a conversation, except the doll is doing most of the talking.
"Let's have a campfire!" says the doll. "We could take a Hawaiian vacation! Wouldn't you love to be a lifeguard?"

The doll began to be sold to the general public in July, and on Sep. 25 the Wall Street Journal broke the news of some serious objections about one of Teen Talk Barbie's utterances:

Barbie is a troublemaker.
The latest incarnation of the popular doll is posing a bit of a marketing problem for maker Mattel. Specifically, the Teen Talk Barbie Doll quips (among other remarks) that "Math class is tough." That has angered some women educators, who say they are already fighting to sustain schoolgirls' interest in math and science.
"If Barbie gives the message that math is tough, Barbie could be turning off girls to math and science, and that's a mistake," says Anne Bryant, executive director of the American Association of University Women, a research group that issued a report this year titled, "How Schools Shortchange Girls." The report found that, although girls and boys both do well in math prior to sixth grade, boys are more likely to score better and take higher-level courses after that time.
Judy Blitch, chairwoman of the education department at Wesleyan College for women in Macon, Ga., says she and a dozen students called Mattel's 800 number to protest. "We were concerned," says Prof. Blitch, who bought the doll for her five-year-old daughter. "We need to do whatever we can to encourage girls in that area. Barbie represents an important part of girls' lives and can influence thinking."
But Mattel mailed Prof. Blitch a reply that didn't address the issue. It doesn't plan to change the doll, which sells for about $25 and says four phrases. There are 270 sayings randomly programmed into different dolls, such as "Let's have a beach party" and "Don't be late for school." Says a spokeswoman: "I don't think math was chosen because it's more or less difficult. You can also get a doll that says, 'I'm studying to be a doctor.'"

Once the story was picked up by news outlets nationwide, however, Mattel soon caved in to public pressure. As the New York Times reported on Oct. 21, Mattel decided to alter the computer chip in Teen Talk Barbie to remove "Math class is tough" from the programmed selection of sayings.

So Barbie did talk vacuously about the difficulty of math ("Math class is tough") and the fun of shopping ("Want to go shopping? Okay, meet me at the mall"), but she never put the two sentiments together in one utterance. (I don't know if she ever said the exact words "Let's go shopping," either. More likely that was a confusion with another toy marketed to girls in the early '90s: the Pressman Toy Corporation's board game, "Let's Go Shopping.")

That might have been the end of things, but around Christmastime of 1993 came word of a shadowy organization known as the Barbie Liberation Organization, dedicated to switching computer chips between Teen Talk Barbie and her gender-stereotype opposite, Talking Duke G.I. Joe. (More about the BLO here, though the page inaccurately dates its founding to 1989.) The New York Times detailed the BLO's activities in a Dec. 31, 1993 article:

Your son tears the wrapping paper off his fierce new "Talking Duke" G. I. Joe doll and eagerly presses the talk button. Out comes a painfully chirpy voice that sounds astonishingly like Barbie's saying, "Let's go shopping!"
Does your son:
A) Furiously vaporize the doll with his own phaser rifle?
B) Go shopping with Joe?
C) Say: "Mom, I suspect we're the lucky victims of an elaborate nationwide publicity stunt designed to ridicule sexual stereotyping in children's toys. This barbaric little action figure you gave me may turn out to be a valuable collector's item."
If the answer is C, your son may be a collector's item himself, for he has correctly divined the latest socially conscious news media prank to hit the nation's toy stores.
For the last several months, a group of performance artists based in the East Village of Manhattan has been buying Talking Dukes and "Teen Talk" Barbies, which cost $40 to $50 each, painstakingly swapping their voice boxes and then, with the aid of cohorts, replacing dolls on the shelves of toy stores in at least two states.
The group, which asserts it has surgically altered 300 dolls, says its aim is to startle the public into thinking about the Stone Age-world view that the dolls reflect.
The result is a mutant colony of Barbies-on-steroids who roar things like "Attack!" "Vengeance is mine!" and "Eat lead, Cobra!" The emasculated G. I. Joe's, meanwhile, twitter, "Will we ever have enough clothes?" and "Let's plan our dream wedding!"

Publicity for the BLO's campaign of doll terror thrust Teen Talk Barbie back into the news and also resurrected the "Math class is tough" controversy from the previous year. Further proof that Teen Talk Barbie's inanities had struck a chord in the pop-culture consciousness came when The Simpsons aired an episode on Feb. 17, 1994 titled "Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy." In the episode eight-year-old Lisa launches a campaign against Barbie-esque Malibu Stacy when a talking version of the doll is released. Here are some of the things Malibu Stacy says (thanks to The Simpsons Archive):

I wish they taught shopping in school.
Let's bake some cookies for the boys!
Don't ask me; I'm just a girl <giggle> <giggle>.
Now let's forget our troubles with a big bowl of strawberry ice cream.
Thinking too much gives you wrinkles.
My name is Stacy, but you can call me <two-note wolf whistle>.

A few months later, the canonical form of the pseudo-Barbie-ism "Math is hard, let's go shopping" finally showed up in Usenet discussion, when Nick Fitch used it on May 27, 1994 in the gay and lesbian newsgroup soc.motss. But it took another couple of years for the expression to be snowcloned by Usenetters. The earliest example I've found is in a Jan. 30, 1996 post on ("College Bowl is hard ... let's go shopping!"). On Apr. 25 of that year, one contributor to soc.women.lesbian-and-bi who was stuck on a particular bit of phrasing made the tongue-and-cheek comment, "Language is hard. Let's go shopping." (Another contributor responded, "Shopping is hard. Let's go water skiing.") But 1997 was when the snowclone started to achieve popularity on Usenet, particularly on soc.motss where it became an in-joke for some of the regulars (among the items placed in the snowclone slot that year were "lit crit," "sociology and metaphysics," "situational ethics," and "sacrifice").

It wouldn't take long for the snowclone to move beyond newsgroups like soc.motss and into wider online usage. Nowadays just about anything can fill the slot of "math," from property to navigation to democracy to development theory to the programming language LISP. Michael Kaplan's post that set off this investigation stuck address formats in the slot. And the fact that Kaplan used it without being quite sure of its origins suggests that the snowclone has moved into a new phase, where the template can spread without being considered a direct allusion to something. Rather, use of the snowclone can now simply allude to other instances of the snowclone. How very meta.

[Update, 3/11/06: Barbie's thoughts on math and shopping also cropped up in a mid-'90s video game. See here for details.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 2, 2006 03:42 PM