“For decades, Barbie has remained torpedo-titted, open-mouthed, tippy-toed and vagina-less in her cellophane coffin—and, ever since I was little, she threatened me,” writes Susan Jane Gilman in her article “Klaus Barbie.”
This sentiment towards Barbie, one Gilman describes as “heady, full-blown hatred,” is familiar to many females (myself included) – but, so too, is a love of Barbie and a nostalgia for Barbie-filled memories.
Feelings towards Barbie often lie along a continuum that shifts with life’s passages –as children, many love her, then as tween and teendom sets in, she is tossed aside, forgotten about for many years, and then later, when children come into one’s life – through mothering or aunty-ing, Barbie once again enters the picture. For feminist women, the question of whether or not Barbie is a “suitable” plaything for the children in their lives often looms large as they navigate the toy-fueled world of early childhood.
Daena Title’s “Drown the Dolls,” an art exhibit premiering this weekend at the Koplin Del Reio art gallery in Culver City, California, continues the feminist tradition of analyzing Barbie, this time with an eye towards “drowning” (or at least submerging) the ideals of femininity Barbie embodies. In the video below, the artist explains her fascination with Barbie as “grotesque” and how her distorted reflections under water mirror the distorted messages culture sends to girls and women about feminine bodily perfection.
Title’s project and the surrounding media campaign (which asks people to share their Barbie Stories in 2 to 3 minute clips at You Tube), has garnered a lot of commentary. Much of the surrounding commentary and many of the threads have focused on the issue of drowning as perpetuating or normalizing violence against women. For example, this blogger at The Feminist Agenda writes,
“When I look at the images… I don’t so much get the message that the beauty standard is being drowned as that images of violence against women – especially attractive women – are both acceptable and visually appealing in our culture.”
Threads at the Ms. blog as well as on Facebook include many similar sentiments. While I have not seen the exhibit yet, the paintings featured in the above clip are decidedly non-violent – they do not actively “drown” Barbie so much as showcase her underwater with her distorted image reflected on the water’s surface – as well as often surrounded by smiling young girls. As Title indicates in her discussion of her work, it is the DISTORTED REFLECTIONS of Barbie that captivate her – as well as the way she is linked to girl’s happiness and playfulness – a happiness that will be “drown” as girls grow into the adult bodies Barbie’s plastic body is meant to represent.
The reactions thus far of “drowning” as violent focus on the project’s title alone, failing to take the content (and context) of the paintings into account – they are not a glorification of violence but a critique of the violence done to girls and women (and their bodies and self esteem) by what Barbie represents.
To me, Title’s work is in keeping with the earlier aims of the Barbie Liberation Organization who infamously toyed with Barbie’s voicebox to have her say GI Joe’s line “vengeance is mine” rather than her original “math is hard!” Her work adds to the tradition of feminist work on toys, gendering, and girls studies – a tradition that is thriving and continues to examine new and old toys alike (as here and here).
The negative commentary regarding Title’s work as perpetuating violence seems to me a knee-jerk reaction – one not based in critical reading of her work. While maybe Barbie (and the bodily perfection her grotesquely ABNORMAL body represents) SHOULD sink, Title’s work – and the critiques of Barbie it is fostering, deserves to swim…
Kim — January 7, 2011
It scares me more that people consider Barbie to be 'real' then the idea that these pictures are normalising violence against women. If the critics listen clearly to the statement about them they will realise that there is a deeper meaning behind the exhibit. Barbie does have presence in this world it is almost as if she is a person. I wish I could see this exhibit for myself as the message really hits home with me. I remember playing with Barbie dolls and being so afraid of growing up. I realise now that I wasn't scared of adulthood, it was the idea of becoming submissive and silent like this doll. You get the idea in your younger years that this is something you are meant to aspire to be later in life. You should want to be perfect, beautiful and exactly like this doll. I think it is important that the idea of Barbie is challenged. This doll is one of the first concepts of womanhood that a child (mostly girls) will encounter and it's popularity says a lot.
Tweets that mention POP GOES FEMINISM: Should Barbie Sink or Swim? (Thoughts on the “Drown the Dolls” Project) | Girl with Pen -- Topsy.com — January 7, 2011
[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by natalie wilson. natalie wilson said: Please check out my new post on Barbie and Drown the Dolls project http://girlwpen.com/?p=1948 [...]
Read: I Command It 9/01/2010 | Let's Drink Tea and Get Laid — January 9, 2011
[...] 1) POP GOES FEMINISM: Should Barbie Sink or Swim? (Thoughts on the “Drown the Dolls” Project Girl w/ Pen This is an artist’s take on Barbie as a toy and an icon. So what do you think? Do these images normalise violence or do they, instead, comment on what is considered beautiful? Natalie Wilson speaks about the criticism this work has received and whether this is a feminist piece. [...]
Anonymous — January 10, 2011
Personally, when I was younger, I NEVER thought, "I want to look exactly like Barbie!" I know there have been many concerns about Barbie being a large factor in eating disorders in young women. Then there was a "pregnant" Barbie which apparently promoted sex to young girls. Barbie is a DOLL. It was a way for little girls to play make believe and make Barbie into whatever they wanted to be. If Barbie is such a terrible "role model" (why would you want to look like a doll in the first place?) then wouldn't Polly Pocket and all the other little plastic dolls be promoting the same image? Should we continue to give little girls baby dolls? Or is that just telling them to practice taking care of a baby? That could be said to promote sex at an early age. I believe that people should not be looking to a doll to tell them how they should look.
Greg — January 10, 2011
Ok, so we have Barbie telling us how "perfect" women should look right? What about all of the hard bodied, chisled action figures that boys play with? Isn't that sending a poor message too? I'm 100% certain I will never look like the toys in the "boy" aisle. Stereotyped toys create a hindrance for both genders, no doubt about it.
Natalie Wilson — January 10, 2011
Thanks for the feedback, everyone!
To Greg -- great point. There is a great section in the documentary Tough Guise that speaks to this issue, revealing how action figures have become more and more muscular over the years, creating a more distorted, violent image of sexuality. And most come with weapons -- some even have the weapons welded to their body!
Barbie is Officially Under Water : Ms Magazine Blog — January 12, 2011
[...] Ms. Blog readers and fellow feminists on account of its title, blogger and scholar Natalie Wilson decodes the show best when she [...]
Drown the Dolls | Girls' Studies — January 28, 2011
[...] Title’s exhibit Drown the Dolls. I’m very excited to join the wonderful Melanie Klein, Natalie Wilson, and other panelists discussing the ubiquitous doll and her effects. There’s been a lot of [...]