Meat Dress Barbie at Niu Pot is a feminist’s conundrum

Meat Barbie is available as a hot pot addition at Niu Pot restaurant in Flushing, Queens.
Meat Barbie is available as a hot pot addition at Niu Pot restaurant in Flushing, Queens. Photo Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

By this point, you’ve likely seen the photos of Meat Barbie.

She’s pictured clad in a floor-length gown constructed from thin slices of raw short rib, a cluster of rainbow-colored pom poms in her hair. She stands atop a mound of ice, her arms posed as if she’s about to begin waltzing with Ken.

Meat Barbie’s edible haute couture — on the menu as an $18 hot pot addition at Niu Pot, a Chinese restaurant in Flushing — calls to mind the infamous Lady Gaga “meat dress,” which riled up animal activists when she wore the outfit sewn from cuts of flank steak to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. (“I am not a piece of meat,” she later affirmed in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres.)

When she first arrives at our table at Niu Pot, I can’t help thinking of her as anything but a “piece of meat.” Every feminist fiber of my being screams out, “This is male objectification of the female form personified!”

Meat Barbie was slowly stripped of her clothing.
Meat Barbie was slowly stripped of her clothing. Photo Credit: Nicole Levy

Barbie has been pimped out. Her nude figure and her fleshy threads exist solely as objects of literal and sexual appetites. Day after day, she is undressed layer by layer with dexterous chopsticks and consumed by the insatiable male gaze.

Where is her dignity? And how can I free her from meat bondage?

What tempers my outrage is Ken’s presence at our neighbor’s table. Robed in his own flesh skirt and planted in his own bowl of ice, he leans — as if bowing in subservience — toward a boy of 6 or 7 watching TV on his tablet. Ken is utterly humiliated. The boy is entirely oblivious.

The broth in our cauldron begins to boil menacingly (or invitingly, depending on the way you look at it). It’s time we begin peeling away at our mannequin’s clothes.

The delicate fabric, short rib, is a cut from a cow’s belly, laced with fat and resultantly rich. My boyfriend, our friend and I also have ordered scallops, okra and other veggies to thicken up our chicken broth, but we won’t plop everything in at once. The secret to hot pot, our friend T.J. explains, is to cook only what you can eat in one small bowl’s worth at a time; otherwise you’ll end up with rubbery meat.

My soup at Niu Pot came with not only meat, but mushroom, cabbage and other vegetables.
My soup at Niu Pot came with not only meat, but mushroom, cabbage and other vegetables. Photo Credit: Nicole Levy

The strips shrink as they cook, floating amid bubbles on the broth’s surface. A taste by chopstick confirms that yes, Barbie’s attire is tender and delicious.

She remains proudly erect as we tear her garment to shreds in simulated violence, but her aloof expression — blue eyes wide open, painted eyebrows aloft, lips slightly curved — is open to interpretation. Is she traumatized victim, serene martyr or divine Aphrodite? Should we be protecting, thanking or worshipping her? And should the lens through which we examine this bizarre Meat Barbie phenomenon shift if it’s a woman, not a man, undressing her? What if my stripping of Barbie to her breast-like mounds and her “Barbie”-embossed underwear really signifies all the years I’ve spent trying (and failing) to liberate myself from society’s impossible standards for feminine beauty?

A group of four girls and one solitary dad takes a seat at a nearby table, snapping me out of my philosophical reverie. They order their own meat-clad doll, and no one — not even the guardian of these young women’s self-esteem — seems to be overthinking it.

Meanwhile, our Barbie is now completely naked, crotch-deep in ice. T.J. says he wonders who in the kitchen is assigned to prepare these short rib displays, the way a serial killer might freeze his victims’ limbs. It’s kind of creepy, right?

We laugh at the absurdity of it all and slurp up the remaining broth.