What if Barbie went for a swim? Thoughts on the “Drown the Dolls” Project

“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 her 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.

“Drown the Dolls,” an art exhibit premiering this weekend at the Koplin Del Reio art gallery in Culver City, California by Daena Title 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…

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