Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Feminism in the Art World: Barbie, Friend or Foe?

Researching the feminist art scene, one that does not exist here in Ithaca, I came across this: Brooklyn Museum: Feminist Art Base.  There are many different artists, but one of the first that struck me is Daena Title. Her paintings are a commentary on the distorted images both girls and boys, men and women are bombarded with regarding the sexualization of women's bodies and the long lasting affects of these images, specifically Barbie.  Barbie has been revered and reviled; Is Barbie friend or foe?
Daena Title. Dark Friends, 2009.
Daena Title. Madonna of the Dolls, 2010. 

Daena Title speaks about her work.

Then the song "Barbie Girl" by Aqua, with lyrics like "I'm a blond bimbo girl, in the fantasy world/ Dress me up, make it tight, I'm your dolly" it's no wonder it has only added to the controversy surrounding Barbie.  I hate this song, with it's catchy sound and offensive lyrics, it's the perfect combination to drive a person crazy.  Thank you, Aqua, for reinforcing not only the heteronormativity, but the patriarchal ideal of women existing purely to be a man's "dolly."  

In Marge Piercy's poem, Barbie Doll, the girlchild sacrifices her own gifts--"So she cut off her nose and her legs and offered them up."--to fulfill the social expectations which dictates women are objects to be looked at and they should adhere to and are only acceptable when they fit this very narrow ideal.

Barbie Doll 
by Marge Piercy

This girlchild was born as usual
and presented dolls that did pee-pee
and miniature GE stoves and irons
and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.
Then in the magic of puberty, a classmate said:
You have a great big nose and fat legs.

She was healthy, tested intelligent,
possessed strong arms and back,
abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity.
She went to and fro apologizing.
Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs.

She was advised to play coy,
exhorted to come on hearty,
exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.
Her good nature wore out
like a fan belt.
So she cut off her nose and her legs
and offered them up.

In the casket displayed on satin she lay
with the undertaker's cosmetics painted on,
a turned-up putty nose,
dressed in a pink and white nightie.
Doesn't she look pretty? everyone said.
Consummation at last.
To every woman a happy ending. 

I played with Barbie, my dad built my sister and I a dollhouse, and while playing with the dolls I had no notion of feminism, heteronormativity, or gender roles.  I was also a tomboy and while I loved playing with my barbies, I also loved playing baseball, my wardrobe had become a t-shirt and jeans, and I loved playing with my G.I. Joe and He-man action figures.  They all mixed and had sex together and went on adventures and none of this seemed to trigger any inner self-consciousness about how I didn't look like Barbie.  However, there were subliminal messages being sent about what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man and what the world deems acceptable for either.

In the years to follow it did become more obvious to me that it seemed like I should want to play with dolls more than play sports, that I should prefer the color pink to blue, that I should just accept the fact that I was no longer allowed to play baseball, but had to play softball.  It became more and more clear the expectations that existed for me because I am a girl were different from the boys who lived next door.  None of that sat well with me and it still doesn't.  But should Barbie get the bad wrap she does?  I think the intention behind Barbies creation was good.  "Co-founder of Mattel, Ruth Handler, saw her daughter Barbara giving adult roles to paper dolls. As most dolls available at the time took the form of infants she wondered if there was a market for a more adult-looking version that would allow girls to dream and role-play their future." At a time when women were entering the workforce, Barbie was an example that women could be more than a wife, mother, at home in the kitchen.  

But Barbie has struggled over the years, with racist dolls being recalled, and the questionable career choices she has had, Barbie is still reinventing herself and she has more choices today then when she first hit the market.  What if we had Barbie dolls that started to break stereotypes too?  You could buy Feminist Barbie, Lesbian Barbie, Create-Your-Own-Barbie where you could pick the color of her skin, the clothes she wears, her career choice and sexual orientation.  They had choose your own ending books, why not dolls?
While, I believe Barbie is a great way to create a dialogue surrounding the bigger issues, even if Barbie didn't exist, sexism, herteronormativity, and patriarchal ideologies still would. 

Is Barbie friend or foe?  Did you play with Barbie?  Do you like feminist art?  Who is an artist you like and why?  Comment below or email me shapedbymylife@gmail.com

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