Barbie’s Bubble Burst

You won’t find these Barbie dolls in toy stores: a darkly humorous exhibit examines the secret side of the plastic princess.

By Adrienne LaFrance
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BulimiaBEVERLY, Mass.—She’s the bleach blonde with the tiny waist, vacant stare, perpetually pointed toes, and presumably ideal life. No other female in American history has been as popular or as scrutinized for so many decades. Here’s a sobering fact from her maker, Mattel — there are more Barbie dolls than human beings in America. Love her or hate her, you can’t escape Barbie.

Now, some artists have come together to pay homage — tongue-in-cheek, skeptical, loving — to the mass plastic pixie of femininity (note: this exhibit is not for kids!) Montserrat College of Art’s vibrant exhibit “Plastic Princess: Barbie as Art,” re-examines the pop-culture icon’s place in society, but to its credit, it doesn’t take the easy way out, rudely knocking Barbie off her pedestal of ideal femininity. None of the contributors go out of his or her way to blame the plastic bombshell for generations of women with poor body images and patriarchal mindsets.

Instead, most of the colorful works from a variety of artists focus on Barbie as an innocent victim of a society that encouraged and perpetuated the very image of plastic compliancy for which she has been criticized. In other words, this is art-as-social-commentary but with a sardonic smile plastered on its face. For example, it is impossible not to laugh at Tom Forsythe’s collection of glossy photographs titled, “Food Chain Barbie,” one of which features a row of dolls wrapped in tortillas and drizzled with sauce.

Another amusing entry, “Heatwave,” presents some Barbies draped on the skewer of an automatic rotisserie broiler grill. Then there is the satire “Sizzling Links,” in which Barbie dolls are treated as helpless pieces of meat waiting to be consumed by the society viewing her as such. Her indifferent gaze is almost eerie.

The most intriguing collision of unique humor and incisive social expression is Gwendolyn Holbrow’s “Pets,” which features two Barbie dolls lounging in a gilded birdcage. Inside, there are pink pebbles lining the floor, a pink-framed mirror, a pink hairbrush, even a pair of hot pink plastic heels stashed in a container where food might be.

The piece’s playful quality reaches its peak in Holbrow’s subtleties: the Barbie lounging in a pink beach chair reads a miniature “Cosmopolitan” — the hot pink cover features the original Barbie as a model and includes headlines such as “What Ken Doesn’t Want You To Know,” “1,000,001 Weight-Loss Tips,” and, best of all, “Sex Without Genitals.”

Of course, Barbie’s new digs are something of a Dream Cage, a send-up of the commercialized accessories of Dream Car, Dream Mansion, and Dream Life. The message is that what contributes to Barbie’s image also serves to enslave her.

Forsythe makes the same point by placing the doll within the lethal clutches of ’50s appliances. In this way, he suggests that Barbie, as an image of femininity, is as dated (and worthy of nostalgic fun) as old rotisseries and blenders. The precariousness of Barbie’s plight — she is sizzling on a fry pan, nearly ground up in an old-fashioned blender — visualizes the threat posed by domestic gender expectations.

Nearly every piece in the exhibit features Barbie in the nude, perhaps to expose her vulnerability. After all, when she’s not astronaut Barbie, doctor Barbie, presidential candidate Barbie or any of her other alter-egos, she’s just a hunk of plastic and synthetic hair. The upshot is that the exhibition, which is obsessed with Barbie, also asks why people are so taken with this doll.

“Plastic Princess: Barbie as Art” features two videos: Todd Haynes’ “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” (1987), the copy of which is a bootleg because Haynes’ unauthorized use of Carpenters songs makes it illegal art. The other video stars a mute Barbie at a movie audition. The casting director victimizes Barbie by asking to brush her hair and caress her neck. Even in Hollywood, Barbie gets no respect.

One delightful, larger-than-life piece, and one of the few that depicts an empowered (even dangerous) Barbie, is “Queen Kong,” a life-sized replica of the original bathing-suited Barbie. Donning a black-and-white striped one-piece and holding a pair of 1950s-style sunglasses, Barbie clutches an ordinary Ken doll in her other hand. Ken, dressed in a furry suit, resembles the famous gorilla to which the piece’s title alludes.

Ken dolls are peppered throughout exhibit, three of which make up the head dress of the other life-sized piece, Richard Leonard’s “The Mother of All Barbies,” a gold, seemingly-defiant, mannequin, hands on hips, who wears a skirt comprised of rows and rows of feathers and gold-painted Barbie dolls.

Overtly sexual, boundary-pushing photos by Crudo question Barbie and Ken’s heterosexual image with lesbian and gay depictions of the dolls, such as one piece that centers on two Ken dolls, “Behind every man, there’s another great man.”

A series of photos by Pia Schachter boldly illustrate the conflict between air-brushed ideals and real life. One baby-toting Barbie flees an abusive Ken figure and a bulimic Barbie leans over a toilet. In one of the exhibit’s edgiest pieces, a red-haired Barbie disposes of a baby in a trashcan. But despite these and other examples of the exhibit’s critique of the polished and wholesome Barbie who appears boxed on toy shelves, her roots are also acknowledged in the photos of Bild Lilli, the German pin-up doll that influenced her original design, which hit stores in 1959.

Still, does the exhibition say anything that hasn’t been said about Barbie before? Maybe not, but it forces visitors to think about Barbie’s influence in new ways. Holbrow asks a salient question: “What does her cultural power tell us about society?” Ironically, one of the most potentially interesting attempts to answer that question in “Plastic Princess: Barbie as Art,” is one of the least organized. Artist Kathleen Bitetti explores Barbie’s body proportions in comparison to those of women in history (specifically, Abigail Adams) and those of the
average woman in 2005.

We’ve all heard the numbers — that Barbie’s measurements would be an impossible 38-18-34 were she a real woman — but instead of just comparing the figures (no pun intended), Bitetti actually sewed clothing that would fit a life-sized Barbie. The result: pants suits with waists that look fit for legs and designs that seem to fit alien proportions that visitors are free to pick up and examine for themselves. Among the pieces are a 32DD bra, leopard-print pants, splashy dresses, and other pieces draped in a hot pink suitcase.

The problem is that the collection of binders detailing Bitetti’s research and work is frustratingly hard to follow, especially in a show whose barbed satire is designed to be breezy. All-in-all, the exhibition is smart enough to raise entertaining and irreverent questions about the cultural clout, for better or worse, of the most famous doll in the world.

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