Smoke and Plastic: Feeling the Environmental Past

I have been very curious about the Barbie movie, so I decided to watch a few interviews with the director and co-writer Greta Gerwig. In one feature regarding set design, Margot Robbie, who plays Barbie, glides down a spiral pink slide and skates over a pool, as though it were made of ice. “There is no water in Barbieland,” she notes and then adds, “There is no water or fire. There are no elements.”[1]

The suggestion that Barbie lives in an immaterial world was not lost on environmental icon Smokey Bear who, upon noticing her campsite, tweeted a visual critique. The tweet’s image, featured above, shows a scene from the film in which Barbie tends to a portable grill in the woods. A cotton candy pink shovel and a fuchsia pail, highlighted by a thick red circle, have been placed in the foreground. Smokey Bear’s annotation implies that Barbie ought to consider the environmental consequences of her life in plastic. Nevertheless, these two icons share more than he might like to admit.

Although it is now September, the summer of 2023, which scientists have called the hottest on record, is still within view. In recent years, we have heard many arguments regarding how to periodize anthropogenic climate change, such as whether to begin with colonization of the Americas or the industrial revolution.[2] Although still debated, scientists in the Anthropocene Working Group have chosen the 1950s as the moment they observe the impact of human activity upon layered sediment worldwide.[3]

The 1950s also brought us Barbie and Smokey Bear as icons of U.S. culture. Gerwig’s film directly takes on the cultural baggage around Barbie as a problematic figure of feminism and asks the viewer to consider how she has served children over decades. Similarly, representations of Smokey Bear, originally a masculine fire prevention icon, transformed from a militarized soldier-bear in the mid-century to a paternalist friend by the late twentieth century. In more recent PSA ads, he riffs on Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” and Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back” to encourage viewers to “Get Your Smokey On”; to give him a bear hug; and to ask him for advice as a virtual assistant Siri-bear.

Barbie and Smokey Bear are “scriptive things”:  toys that prompt us to behave in particular ways by virtue of how they look and feel as material objects.[4] A few years ago, I went to consult the USDA archive in Beltsville, Maryland. I found that, over the last seven decades, Smokey Bear had been fashioned into many things: collectible plates, ashtrays, mugs, water bottles, patches, piggy banks, bubble baths, bobble heads, plush toys, board games, and plush toys. These proliferating products offer a chance to smoke with, drink from, bathe with, or cuddle the bear. They condition play while upholding sociocultural assumptions regarding what it means to care for the environment as well as ourselves.

Why does the human ask the bear to ask the human to protect the forest?

National Parks and Forests were carved out of stolen land while early U.S. conservation movements imagined white male citizens as the guardians of natural environs. As the nation state implemented racialized borders, containment, and separation through laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the Dawes Act (1887), and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), U.S. conservation movements linked the environment to whiteness, thereby privileging white belonging in National Parks and Forests. As such, Smokey Bear, who is an icon of the U.S. Forest Service, draws upon a specific history of race, which attributed forest caretaking to white men while blaming destructive fires on Black and Indigenous communities.[5] In fact, the Barbie movie briefly riffs on “white fragility,” the concept that white people in the U.S. have been insulated from racialized harm throughout history, when Ken, in his feature song, asks: “Is it my destiny to live and die a life of blonde fragility?”

Image 2. An image of the Smokey Bear Black Power t-shirt, first available in 2017.
[Image description: This image is a black t-shirt that reads “resist” in all-cap yellow lettering. Superimposed in front of the text is a brown and yellow rendering of Smokey Bear who holds up his flaming fist in a kind of Black Power salute. He looks down with his eyes covered by a ranger hat. He wears jeans and holds a shovel in his other hand.]

The implications of these histories continue to manifest. In 2020 when the forty-fifth president opened millions of acres of public lands for energy extraction, I noticed the circulation of a brown and yellow screen-printed image of Smokey Bear performing a gesture of Black self-determination.[6] It was a clear example of how scriptive things can be reinterpreted against the logics of their production. Although I’ve never been able to locate its artist (write me!), his downward gaze seems a reference to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s respective Black Power salutes on the winning podium of the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City.[7] Here fire, long blamed on Black and Indigenous subjects perceived to be incapable of self-governance, became the means of resisting a regime that was itself thought to be out of control. Fire’s destructive capacity, in other words, has also signified revolution, rebirth, and sacred relation.[8]

What are we to do with cultural scripts that offer such limited accounts of racial capitalism, colonization, and climate change?

I have hesitated to write this essay because of the very real and ongoing threat of widespread fire around the world, particularly during summers. Toys like Barbie or Smokey Bear have not equipped us with the many sensibilities we need to grapple with climate change.

I remember participating in fire prevention coloring contests in grade school. Thanks to Smokey Bear, it is a truth universally acknowledged that school children’s fire prevention posters feature irresponsible relationships to matches and some kind of domicile in flames. This very narrow view of environmental responsibility, occasioned by a philosophy of nature that assumes the campfire is the epitome of exposure to the natural world, is a cultural legacy we must shake off as we learn what it means to live with climate change in the present.

Climate change emotions feel so unlike those generated by a gendered doll and a gendered bear that I have wondered whether it is indeed necessary to retread the environmental past in sociocultural terms. Yet, these icons do tell us something about who has been prioritized throughout the environmental history of the United States. We have work ahead to attune our feelings toward antiracist global environmental education.

[1] Architectural Digest, “Margot Robbie Takes You Inside the Barbie Dreamhouse,” YouTube video, 4:02 (June 16, 2023).

[2] Heather Davis and Zoe Todd, “On the Importance of a Date, or, Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 16, no. 4 (2017): 761–780.

[3] Noel Castree, “Did the Anthropocene start in 1950—or much earlier? Here’s why debate over our world-changing impact matters,” The Conversation (July 18, 2023)

[4] Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 27, no. 4 (2009): 67–94; Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood and Race from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2011).

[5] Beth Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018); Miles Powell, Vanishing America: Species Extinction, Racial Peril, and the Origins of Conservation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016); Donna Haraway, “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908–1936,” Social Text, no. 11 (1984): 20–64; W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1998). On Smokey Bear specifically, see also Jake Kosek, Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), chapter 5.

[6] Colin Dwyer, “Trump Administration Finalizes Plans to Allow Development on Downsized Monuments,” NPR (February 6, 2020).

[7] Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (Newark, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012).

[8] Elizabeth Hinton, America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s (New York, NY: Liveright, 2021); Fire!!, ed. Wallace Thurman; Daniel Heath Justice, Our Fire Survives the Storm: A Cherokee Literary History (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

I would like to acknowledge my pandemic writing group. I am always thinking of you. Thank you to Dr. Genie Yoo for labor and insights.

*Cover Image: This tweet comes from Smokey Bear’s Twitter handle @smokey_bear.

[*Cover image description: This image is a tweet from Smokey Bear’s Twitter handle which features an amended drawing of Barbie and Ken around a grill in the outdoors. The viewer is meant to deduce that Smokey Bear has added a pink shovel and pail to their campsite for safety, which he has highlighted with a red circle.]

Edited by Genie Yoo, reviewed by Alyssa Kreikemeier.