Be Who You Wanna Be, B-A-R-B-I-E
Written by Jamie Sterlin
for Prof. Neil Hartlen
In the science fiction stories “Options” and “The Barbie Murders,” John Varley discusses the novum of body modification through opposing points of view. In “Options,” the author suggests that body modification can be a safe way to explore one’s gender and / or sexuality while still remaining oneself, if one takes into account their loved ones. However, “The Barbie Murders” explores a world where extreme body modification can end up causing issues in society. The attitude taken in “The Barbie Murders” tends to be more convincingly developed; we are able to see this through the use of such literary techniques as novum, tone, and the use of both dynamic and static characters.
The first literary technique used in both stories is the novum. Both of these stories, being in the science fiction genre, take place in fictional worlds wherein drastic body modification is easily achieved. In “Options,” the body modification is generally used to switch sexes but can be used for other aspects as well. “The Barbie Murders” is about a cult of people who have all chosen to give up their individuality and to look the same through body modification. They become identical female beings that resemble Barbies, regardless of their original sex. In “Options,” the novum is described as follows: “When cheap and easy sex changes first became available to the general public, it was seen as the beginning of a revolution that would change the shape of human society in ways impossible to foresee” (414). The novum is described as beginning a revolution due to its popularity. In “The Barbie Murders,” the novum is also popular but only for a specific type of person: one who would like to give up all individuality, a person who would like to join the Barbie colony and give up any rights of being their own person. When explaining what the surgery would entail, the doctor says that “It wouldn’t be much of a job. […] Your height is just slightly over the parameters; I could take that out of your thighs and lower legs, maybe shave some vertebrae. Take out some fat here and put it back there. Take off those nipples and dig out your uterus and ovaries, sew up your crotch. […] Say two days’ work, one overnight and one outpatient” (129). Although this surgery may seem drastic, it is also described as very simple and easy. However, the difference between the two stories is that in “Options,” the modification is generally seen as a positive thing used by many people; in “The Barbie Murders,” it only seems to be used by one specific cult that strips its members of any individuality. Since everybody in this cult is identical, when a murder occurs, the detectives are unable to identify the murderer, regardless of the fact that the murder was caught on tape and that there were a slew of witnesses: “The fact is that the barbies were seen as a menace to society. They could kill at will and blend back into their community like grains of sand on a beach. We would be powerless to punish a guilty party. There was no provision in the law for dealing with them” (130). It is ultimately revealed that the murderer solely kills those in the cult who have an “individuality fetish” and choose to dress up and not look like everyone else. As we can see, although both stories have a similar novum, they have very opposing views on said novum. “The Barbie Murders” suggests that body modification can have drastic repercussions; in “Options,” the novum is generally considered harmless. The novum in “The Barbie Murders” is more convincingly developed than in “Options” because it explores possibilities more fully.
The second literary technique used is tone. In “Options,” the tone is generally neutral, discussing the idea of modification with simplicity and understanding. In “The Barbie Murders,” the tone used when discussing drastic modification is much more opinionated; people tend to question the process. In “Options,” on one occasion, Cleo is sleeping with a man who is not her husband and whom she suspects was in fact born a female: “‘You were born female, weren’t you? I mean I thought I might be able to tell.’ ‘It’s no longer important how I was born. I’ve been both. It’s still me, on the inside’” (425). As we can see, the man in this situation does not believe it necessary to dwell on his past being. He believes that it is a non-issue. Another example in “Options” of the sex change being discussed in a neutral tone is during the discussion about how Cleo’s daughter would react to the change: “I talked to Lilli about that. Just theoretically, you understand. She said she had two teachers who changed, and one of her best friends used to be a boy. There’s quite a few kids at school who’ve changed. She takes it in stride” (417). Once again, we can see that the idea of easy modification is discussed and viewed neutrally; even children are undergoing this change. In “The Barbie Murders,” Bach, the detective in the murder case, is considering undergoing surgery to look like a Barbie in order to infiltrate the cult and find the murderer. However, she does not take this decision lightly; she thinks it through thoroughly: “There was one course of action that might show results. She had been soaking for hours in the hope of determining just how important her job was to her” (138). As we can see, the tone in said story is much more opinionated and not automatically accepting. For Bach, the process of modification must first undergo intense consideration. Once again, the theme in “The Barbie Murders” can be said to be more thoroughly developed.
The third literary technique used to convey the theme is the presence of both dynamic and static characters. In “Options,” the characters are shown to be quite dynamic, since they are able to easily switch back and forth between sexes. Indeed, Cleo discusses with her husband the idea of switching between the sexes: “I want each of us to try and accept the other as they are. For me, that includes being male whenever I feel like it” (436). As we can see, switching between sexes creates a constantly dynamic character. In “The Barbie Murders,” the characters who have undergone surgery are shown to be extremely static. Once they become part of this cult, they give up their entire identity and remain plastic versions of the same being. They all look the same, dress the same, and act the same. If they stray from this status quo, there are harsh repercussions. Individuality is a crime in this cult. In addition, their personality must become completely the same. In order for this to be accomplished, every night they must engage in something called equalization: “Each barbie did things during the day that were as close as possible to what everyone else had done. But someone had to cook meals, tend to the air machines, load the freight. Each component had a different job each day. At equalization, they got together and tried to even that out” (139). Once again, “The Barbie Murders” shows a very specific issue, the erasing of individuality, made possible through body modification. “Options” tends to skirt possible issues, envisioning a dynamic possibility over a static one.
In conclusion, although both stories were able to get their message across, the theme in “The Body Murders” tends to be more convincingly developed. “The Barbie Murders” discusses the topic of losing all individuality through the novum of easy body modification whereas “Options” discusses this novum from a more relaxed point of view. All in all, they both develop these unique perspectives of the novum through an exaggerated science fiction lens.
Varley John. “The Barbie Murders.” The John Varley Reader. New York: Ace Books, 2004.
Varley, John. “Options.” The John Varley Reader. New York: Ace Books, 2004. 121-145. Print
About the Author: Jamie Sterlin is in her final semester of Psychology in Dawson College. She will hopefully continue studying Psychology in the University Of Toronto next year. She wrote this piece for her English class, Gender and Utopia, for her professor Neil Hartlen.