Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Beyond The Pink: The Subversion Of Barbie

Image: Barbie is a modern doll with a classic sensibility
Barbie: “A modern doll
with a classic sensibility”
Barbie is iconic.

Ubiquitous, and evocative, she is an inscrutable Mona Lisa for our times. Her pink-themed branding aggressively colonizes entire sections of every mainstream toy store.

Critics have decried the doll’s image for the 50 years of her existence. Yet her glamorous power endures within our cultural topography.
“Women my age know whom to blame for our own self-loathing, eating disorders and distorted body image: Barbie.” 
- Amy Dickinson, Time Magazine

The Iron Maiden of The Beauty Myth?

Barbie for President:
‘Iron Maiden’ or
In her best-selling feminist work, The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf describes the pernicious effects emanating from a widespread societal obsession with a coercive ideal of feminine appearance.

In Wolf’s view, the mis-proportioned figure of Barbara Millicent Roberts almost certainly embodies this malign ideal -- an unrealistic ‘iron maiden’ from which young women struggle to escape.

Meanwhile, Mattel, the maker of the doll, brightly and optimistically casts Barbie as an empowering, aspirational model -- a toy manifestation of the American dream where any identity is possible.

Which view is correct?

Iconoclasts and Subversion

Tom Forsythe was famously sued by Mattel, for his absurdist Food Chain Barbie photographic series. His challenging legal journey opened the path for other artists to freely experiment with Barbie-themed images, without fear of litigation.

Fondue For Three - Tom Forsythe
This series sparked a 5 year legal battle with Mattel
over fair use, free speech and artistic expression

I want to mention and share the work of several such artists, each of whom leverages and re-mixes the standard portrayal of Barbie in some way. The sequence progresses from coy and conventional, through to a much darker world view.

These images form entry points for reflection on our deeply persistent cultural relationship with Barbie. Our understanding of her turns out to be as mutable as the clothes she wears.

Barbie’s Wedding

Beatrice De Guigne captures “Barbie and Ken’s Wedding” through the ironic lens of an actual wedding photographer...

Beatrice De Guigne’s Wedding Photography
Click here to view series

This series is kind of cute, even saccharine, and is more of a playful take on stereotypical wedding photos, than it is a commentary on the Barbie universe. But this naturally leads to the question, “What happens after the wedding?”

The next two photographers suggest some possible, not entirely happy answers...

in the dollhouse

Dina Goldstein’s ‘in the dollhouse’ series features real-life models posed as Barbie and Ken.

It purports to examine ‘the less than perfect life of B and K. B is a super doll, the most successful doll in the world. Her partner K is grappling with his sexuality and finds himself in a loveless marriage. He struggles with his position in the household and faces his lack of authenticity.’

Dina Goldstein’s ‘in the dollhouse’: an unhappy marriage?
Click here to view series

Check out Dina Goldstein’s ‘in the dollhouse’.

Goldstein is most well known for her Fallen Princesses project, which creatively imagines less-than-idyllic scenes of post-fairy-tale life.

Mariel Clayton: Disturbing Yet Funny

Mariel Clayton’s work takes the Barbie aesthetic, and corrupts it. The results are disturbing, incorporating elements of sexuality and grisly force.

Ontario-based Clayon’s meticulously arranged dioramas often show the aftermath of violence. Barbie exists, in this world, as a smart, sexy, psychotic -- in control of herself and the situation -- rather than as a vapid materialist concerned solely with clothes and fashion.

Mariel Clayton: Grim humour amidst banal clutter
Click here to view more


I particularly appreciate the careful detailing of each photograph. Clayton’s rooms are filled with the banal clutter of domesticity, a mundane backdrop to the turbulence elsewhere in the scene.

We are drawn into a fantastic and gruesome world where Barbie has taken matters into her own hands — a world where she has liberated herself from the drudgery of her consumer existence. The message is anarchic. Irreverent. And, I think, delightful.

Mariel Clayton’s work on Facebook
Mariel Clayton’s website

Barbie: She Is Us

profile image of Barbie
Barbie: a fascinating figure
Barbie influences -- and represents -- our cultural values in many ways, whether we approve or not. She is our Madison Avenue Madonna, our corporate-generated Venus. She is a fascinating figure, at once the subject and object of artistic critical interpretation.

500 years from now, historians and anthropologists will study the doll, and her endless accessories, as valuable indicators of our fashions, social institutions, customs and mores (A visit to Barbie’s Facebook page or her YouTube channel is remarkably instructive).

What is your opinion of Barbie? If you are a woman, did you play with Barbie as a child, and how did you interact with the doll? If you are a man, to what extent did Barbie shape your impression of feminine beauty? What role, if any, did Barbie have in forming your expectations of gender norms?

If you are a parent -- are you going to buy Barbie for your children, or will you attempt to shield them from ‘princess’ culture?

[LINK: Aqua - Barbie Girl]

Bonus Barbie: What would Barbie look like as an average woman?

Nickolay Lamm recently released a short set of of photos depicting a normally proportioned Barbie that he fashioned using a 3D printed model (based on CDC measurements of an average 19 year old American woman). The contrast is striking.

Nickolay Lamm's 'average Barbie'.
Click here to view more.

Lamm discusses the process he undertook to create this version here.

See Also (Official Barbie site)
Barbie History
Life In Plastic (The Economist)