Summary: How does social change happen? For more than a century, this question has inspired much sociological research. Within the study of social change, sociologists have often focused their attention on social movement activism and various forms of contentious politics. More recently, some sociologists have sought to move beyond these parameters to ask what other things might “count” as activism. For example, Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Social Movements Mobilizing Ideas blog recently featured a two-part series entitled “New Ways to Define Activism” (Part I and Part II). Often, sociologists cite new digital media environments and technologies as timely reasons for why we must revisit “old” definitions of activism. While this question might be relevant in the contemporary context, this video illustrates how activists began to strategically draw upon digital media technologies more than twenty years ago. In 1993, a group of artist-activists launched a multi-faceted media campaign call the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO) in reaction to Mattel’s new talking Barbie, which contained an electronic voice box that played stereotypical phrases such as “Math class is tough” (listen to talking Barbie). The campaign mixed traditional and electronic media, hardware hacking, and “boots on the ground” activism, resulting in this video, which sought to raise awareness of gender stereotypes in a normally difficult-to-reach population of Americans. This video would become one of the earliest and most influential demonstrations of electronic media culture jamming. Instructors can use this video to elicit discussion of successful culture jamming in several ways. First, the video is presented as a legitimate news report, which begs larger questions about the trust we place in news media or the authority of corporations in general. Second, the purported newscast is peppered with clips from actual investigative news reports, such as A Current Affair, to further enhance the legitimacy of BLO’s report. However, many of the clips are taken out of context and edited to subvert the original message, such as when one toy expert’s words are used to accuse Mattel of "terrorism against children” when she was instead accusing BLO of such tactics. Here, we see the artist-activists employing the very medium they challenge to contradict the intended message, which is the crux of culture jamming practice. Finally, the video serves as a DIY tutorial—no different than the myriad of how-to videos populating the web today—which instructs viewers how to perform the voice box swap at home, thus giving consumers and activists alike agency to subvert the toy’s intended message. For a culture jamming video assignment, also posted on The Sociological Cinema, click here.
Submitted By: Josh Gumiela and Valerie Chepp