Why the 'Living Barbie' is dangerous

Valeria Lukyanova is becoming famous on the Internet as a real-life Barbie doll. She actually does look just like the famous toy, with Barbie’s almost-impossibly thin waist, big breasts, perfect bottom and blonde hair. But Lukyanova and Barbie share even more than that; they both have a blank stare, flawless (almost-Geisha-like) complexion and rather stiff, plasticine posture.

Valeria is, therefore, perhaps an iconic symbol of things to come.

It hasn’t been enough that women by the millions implant silicone or saline bags in their chests to alter their appearances.

It hasn’t been enough that men and women flock for facelifts and nose jobs and liposuction.

It hasn’t been enough that we fashion contrived biographies on Facebook that turn us into mini-reality-TV versions of ourselves that aren’t real at all.

Now, it seems, a la Valeria/Barbie, our selves may become entirely dispensable and disposable, in favor of becoming a living duplicate of a famous product, or a dead ringer for a celebrity, or (and, trust me, this will happen, too) a would-be tiger, tattooed orange, with stripes, wearing a tail at all times.

I don’t know the particulars of Valeria’s psyche. One could theorize, however, that a woman moved to imitate a doll—a woman who looks, in fact, lifeless in many of her pictures—may have become so estranged from her real thoughts and feelings and real life history that she has cut herself free from them and is floating in a synthetic world of gawkers who treat her much as she seems to treat herself—an entertainment phenomenon, an “item,” not a human being.

Millions of us now, of course, are on that same spectrum, just not quite so far gone.

It has become absolutely commonplace for young people to be high on marijuana most days of their lives.

It is clearly commonplace for most people to present themselves as “stories” for public consumption on Facebook.

Reality TV shows in which people pretend to be living out what are clearly scripted scenarios, requiring them to be anything but real, are big hits. And it is also clearly true that many of the tens of millions of people on Prozac and Klonopin and Percocet (all of which can be Godsends when truly needed) are being medicated as an alternative to being fully alive—to fully feeling.

Elements of Valeria/Barbie are nothing new. She’s just the end of the line—a wakeup call about where we could be headed.

There have always been folks who felt like Rambo, maybe even saw the movie a few dozen times, got jacked at the gym and took on that nickname.

There have always been people who enjoyed wearing designer labels, as though the style of Louis Vuitton would “make them” fashion icons, too.

There are people who legitimately enjoy a nip or a tuck or a tattoo and who seem to suffer no ill effects from it and look better, as well.

The trouble is with the new momentum behind the abdication of self and the fashioning of alternate identities. This is something new because it's fueled by information technology and medical technology and designer drugs and psychiatric medications and a political climate that, in the hands of some “leaders” supports the setting aside of one’s own self and thoughts and actions, in favor of a collective, non-individual, non-independent mind.

Back in 1964, the great writer and social commentator Marshall McLuhan, in his groundbreaking book Understanding Media, warned that “cool media”—those that beckon the user to participate—would dramatically alter the psychological makeup of human beings. “First we build the tools,” he said. “Then they build us.”

The living Barbie, if a sign of things to come, predicts a time when people flee from their real emotions and real capacity to change their lives and empathize with those of others. It predicts a time when what passes for “happiness” is being anethetized, when living this “life” requires one’s psychological death, when “self-expression” requires mimicry of others, even of inanimate objects or fictional characters.

This loss of human potential would be tragedy enough, but it is also the case that those who are the living dead—these Barbie and Ken dolls and all the other posers and panderers to illusion—cannot empathize with the suffering of others. They are, therefore, capable of causing enormous pain in the world, possibly even enjoying it, unconsciously. This is, by the way, how despots are created—when people stop being autonomous, cede their impulses to a central authority and project their buried rage about being dehumanized onto a group of victims (think Holocaust).

I know. I know. Many will say I am being alarmist, expanding irrationally from one plastic woman to a people.

Well, let the alarm here be sounded. We are losing ourselves. We must reclaim ourselves.

Everything depends on it.