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The other day, an artist friend was telling me about when she was in first grade and her older sister "opened this pink suitcase of mine and out rolled Barbie and Ken, naked, in this love-locked embrace." My pal had imagined the satiny suitcase interior as a romantic hotel where the couple could go to do whatever you do when you’re young and plastic and in love. But she was mortified to see her matchmaking so rudely exposed. And worse — they were her older sister’s dolls.
This came up because we were on our way back from seeing the smart and funny and somewhat frustrating show "Plastic Princess: Barbie As Art," which has been organized by Leonie Bradbury and will be up at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly until February 4. My friend’s memory was stirred by Framingham artist Gwendolyn Holbrow’s sculpture Keep It Clean, which featured Barbie and Ken naked in the shower (a real fountain) in a love-locked embrace. Before long, we were talking about the whole Barbie body-type, female-sexuality, power, self-esteem, child’s-play, corporate-values thing. You can’t help musing about such weighty matters when you see the work of these 13 artists.
From the start, Barbie was a witches’ brew of such ingredients. She appeared in 1959, a knockoff of a leggy blond Aryan doll that Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler discovered while shopping with her daughter Barbara in Switzerland. As M.G. Lord reports in her excellent 1994 book Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, that doll was inspired by a saucy German newspaper comic strip called Lilli. (When a policeman warns Lilli that it’s illegal for her to sport her two-piece swimsuit on the boardwalk, she replies, "Oh, and in your opinion which part should I take off?") Barbie the doll got Barbara’s name and boyfriend Ken was named after her brother. (Think about that the next time you catch the pair naked in a love-locked embrace.)
Barbie’s supernatural figure and penchant for blather about shopping and proms and "math class is tough" has long irked women. But she was also always a career girl — nurse’s aide, fashion designer, student teacher, stewardess, astronaut — and symbol of powerful independent women. So even though she’s had many wedding gowns, she remains childless — which may have something to do with her arrival on the scene a year before the birth-control pill hit the market.
Over years that saw the rise of name-brand Feminism as well as Weight Watchers, Barbie became a modern idol, our Venus of Willendorf, embodying our memories and fantasies, our hopes and fears about women and society.
This is hot stuff — and Pia Schachter tackles it head on with photos of Barbie hugging a toilet (Bulimia), fleeing a fist-shaking brute with her baby strapped to her chest (Wife Beater), and dumping her naked infant in a garbage can (The Mistake). In the catalogue Schachter writes, "These are realities that need to be confronted and acknowledged so that we can begin to overcome them, and to heal." Her subjects are rich and her images attractive, but her treatment feels naggingly familiar, like old one-liners. A number of the artists struggle with this. You nod or laugh in agreement with their works, but wish you wound up farther from where you started. There’s more to unearth here.
Quincy native Kathleen Bitetti’s pieces ask: whose physique, whose intellect should we emulate? She offers a suitcase of human-sized Barbie clothes to try on, most memorably white shifts that she sewed to the measurements of Barbie ("large bust 32DD, small waist and hips, and extra-long leg length") and, using information taken from dresses at the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Abigail Adams ("dress size is a medium, short"), the fiery proto-feminist and wife of our second president.
Performance and visual artist Cynthia von Buhler, a familiar figure in Boston before she moved to New York, challenges the values Barbie teaches with Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, a pair of electronic toy mirrors presented before and after a makeover. Press the button on the first one and a blonde Barbie appears in the glass to say, "You look beautiful. Let’s go to the party. One day you’ll meet your prince." Activate the other and a rainbow coalition of princesses appears to announce, "You are so talented and creative. You are very smart. You have good ideas. You look happy and healthy. One day you’ll rule the world." I love how von Buhler hot-wired the toys so as to ask what alternatives can we provide children to our society’s overwhelming bimbo commercialism. But her work’s earnestness gets me worrying about the difficulty of making toys that kids love and parents approve.
Hollywood director Todd Haynes (2002’s Far from Heaven) ties all these Barbie themes into one brilliant whole in his 1987 underground film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Barbies and Kens play all the characters in this docudrama about the pop singer, whose anorexia led to a fatal heart attack in 1983, when she was just 32. One of the many haunting scenes: Haynes tips the camera up to the bathroom ceiling to give you Karen’s view as she downs bottle after bottle of ipecac.
Using Barbie to "play" Karen is a masterstroke. (Haynes hollows out the doll’s cheeks as the film progresses.) It conjures all this messy uncomfortable stuff — the power and place of women in society, women’s work, beauty and "body issues," sexuality and how corporations project their values into our culture — without clunky involved explanations. And then — and this is key — it transcends Barbie. Haynes charges that the brother-and-sister music duo were a sunny escape from gritty ’60s rock, protest, and war. He connects the Carpenters’ obsession with their professional image to Karen’s disastrously distorted self-image to Richard Nixon’s paranoia about his self-image to Nixon’s petty tricks to the upending of his presidency to Ronald Reagan’s triumph as a man of image over substance. And there’s great boneheaded dialogue, like Karen’s line during the stumbling recording of "Close to You": "I’m sorry, Richard. Goddamn it, I’m really flubbing it up today. . . . I just want it to be perfect."
Galleries are lousy places to see films, but you’ll be glad you sat through all 43 minutes of this grainy bootleg, which because of questions regarding musical rights is rarely screened. And it got me wondering what Barbie would make of this show. "Plastic Princess" probably wouldn’t even twinkle on her radar — her taste in art has long tended toward the conservative and the apolitical. Two paintings of kitties hung in the living room of her 1964 dream house. When Barbie, as the story goes, took up art soon after, she produced a realistic painting of a seaside park with a sailboat in the distance. Ten years later, her town house (with elevator) was chock full of hippie Victorian paintings of flowers and ladies. However her 2002 "sass-to-the-max!" Talking Town House offered a talking front door, automatic shower, and giant TV but as far as I can tell no art. And the Barbie Hawaiian Hotel sold at my local Target features a single painting of hula girls.
My inner schoolmarm (or should I say Guerrilla Girl?) frets: what is Barbie saying to girls about art by increasingly ignoring it? And then I think back to my friend. Never underestimate the creative force of a young Barbie lover and her pink satin-lined suitcase.
In association with "Plastic Princess," Tula Asselamis will screen her film I, Doll on January 26, artist Leika Akiyama will talk on February 1, and Linda Carney-Goodrich will perform Barbie Monologues on February 2 | 978.921.4242 x 1319
Issue Date: December 16 - 22, 2005
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