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Down the #authenticity hole with Socality Barbie

Parody is the new normalcy, says consumption expert Zeynep Arsel
September 18, 2015
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By Zeynep Arsel

Images courtesy of Socality Barbie (Instagram)


Created by an anonymous wedding photographer from Portland, Oregon, the Socality Barbie Instagram account is currently at 1.2 million followers ... and counting.  Zeynep Arsel, marketing professor at Concordia's John Molson School of Business, examines the satirical implications of a Barbie doll wearing lumberjack chic and posing "just so" for selfies.
 

Our lives — mediated by lifestyle publications, and continuously broadcasted, Instagrammed, tweeted and like-buttoned — are not as unique as we think, declares the parody-persona Socality Barbie.

This is an Instagram account with stylized photos documenting Barbie’s carefully propped life as she navigates from camping to intimate coffee shop conversations. Kinfolk Magazine, a striped blanket, and at least a dozen hashtags are usually with her.

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Sometimes her barista/model/writer/woodworker boyfriend joins this #humblebrag. "When you love community, but you also really love stuff," she writes. 

The moral position underlying Socality Barbie’s statement is not very new, as my dissertation work on hipsters showed. For example, Unhappy Hipsters, a blog that mocks Dwell Magazine photos, was onto this kind of satire years before it was cool.

Parody is the new normalcy for the identity politics of a generation struggling with authenticity imposter syndrome. They want to live rich, meaningful and honest lives full of pleasure, surprise and originality; but the harder they try the more their lives feel like a caricature of hip materialism.

In a project on homes, my collaborator Jonathan Bean and I found out that many people need inspiration when crafting the aesthetics of their daily lives; and therefore gravitate towards mass-media narratives that provide coherent models of everyday practice.

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We call these narratives "taste regimes." They are everywhere: magazines, home improvement shows, celebrity brands like Gwyneth Paltrow. They tell us how to prop our lives, how to set a dinner table, what not to wear, and more importantly, where to hang that fake antler in our living rooms. They also prescribe us ways to document our lives.

Some formulas don’t make sense at all at first, like laying out a set of objects for a photo (perhaps a meme borrowed from editorial photo shoots): a rustic bouquet, a few #artisanal jewelry pieces, a fashion-forward bag, a low circulation magazine with high production value, a latte as precious as the snowflake design on the foam.

Maybe some scattered coffee beans on the table, to add some ruggedness; better yet, some twigs. Heck, I’ve seen granola and jam scattered on tables; I hope they had a Roomba. 

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This template underlies hundreds of Instagram photos I came across; frankly I might have mimicked it myself. It is a stylistic résumé, abstracted; all class markers laid out on one’s reclaimed wood table. It is the cliché of an aspirational lifestyle, and Socality Barbie nails it.

While browsing at a home decoration store the other day, I saw enamel mugs, perfectly worn and distressed, as if they had endured years of camping; only to realize that each and every one of them had the same markings, at identical spots. Hah, machine made!

These markings are mass-produced icons of #authentic experiences and memories that we long for. We might go camping and drink our coffee from a cup that was passed down from a relative, but as a Plan B we can also buy a facsimile: $5.25 a piece, in six different colors.

Socality Barbie tells us that the carefully composed photos in our Instagram feeds sometimes look just like those mugs; beautiful and inspiring, but not the unique and precious snowdrops we wanted them to be.

They are a product of a homogenizing regime that fits our aesthetic desires perfectly, like those vintage looking gloves we found at Urban Outfitters. We just have to make peace with the ordinariness of this.
 

Zeynep Arsel is the Concordia University Research Chair in Consumption and Markets at John Molson School of Business. Her research focuses on places, exchanges, value and taste. 

All images courtesy of Socality Barbie (Instagram)

 



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