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…

What if you’re in the market for a vampire daddy this father’s day?

If you have been following pop culture over the past 5 years, you probably know the genesis of vampire fathers: He’s the vampire who turns you into a vampire via toothsome bite or venom injection. The most popular contemporary vampire series, Twilight and True Blood, don’t feature any vampire mothers. But they do present us with a number of good, even godly, vampire fathers. Twilight’s Carlisle Cullen is a perfect undead dad to permanently teenage vampire Edward. And when Bill Compton, the hunky undead leading man of HBO’s True Blood, becomes a reluctant father to vampire Jessica, he steps up quite well.

It’s clear Twilight author Stephanie Meyer would put Carlisle up for the prize for best vampire dad. He literally MAKES his vampire Brady-Bunch family, by, yes, turning people into vampires. How preferable to having to reside in one of those icky woman-wombs for nine months! And, in a saga that so values the sex-free life, he is a surprisingly good matchmaker, turning first the seductive Rosalie into a vampire to provide his century-long-virgin-son Edward an opportunity for bumping uglies, then, when that doesn’t fly, voting to make Bella undead. (Imagine if he sought sex partners for DAUGHTERS–now that would likely cause quite the stir, no?)

Even the non-vampire dads in these series compete for best dad status. In Twilight, Charlie is a benevolent dad to heroine Bella Swan, giving her the space and independence most teens desire and even supplying her with cool wheels. Billy Black is touchingly protective of both his werewolf son Jacob and Bella, and Sam is the dedicated, if overly authoritarian, muscle-daddy of the werewolf pack. True Blood is full of touchingly queer fathering arrangements: queer cook Lafayette serves as a quasi-father to his cousin Tara, shapeshifter Sam acts as dad to waitress Arlene’s kids when she is on a bender induced by an evil manead (don’t ask!), and the town yokel Hoyt plays the role of compassionate, forgiving father-figure to his unlikeable mother.

But, if I were in the market for a vampire daddy to call my own, I would pick the surprisingly progressive Bill of True Blood. Despite his reluctance to vamparent, he is patient with his new vampire daughter, Jessica, helping her to find a synthetic blood she can tolerate and carefully teaching her the rules of vampire life. And, with heroine Sookie’s help, he recognizes Jessica is a sexual being and does not go all Edward-in-Twilight-crazy with talk of her “virtue” or how sex will damn her soul. The final episode of Season Two included a particularly touching scene where Bill and Jessica are each dressed to the nines for impending dates. Bill tells Jessica “you look quite the vision.” She worries this is a nice comment to soften his coming complaints about her dating a mortal (the goodhearted-but-hapless Hoyt). Instead, Bill admits “times have changed” and tells her “I hope you and Hoyt have a nice time.” What a nice trade from dad as quasi-virginity warrior (a concept Jessica Valenti explores in her book The Purity Myth). I would much prefer this kind but not-overbearing Bill to Carlisle’s creepy matchmaker habits!

The uber-pale good vampire daddies in Twilight and True Blood certainly outclass the bad vampire dads of older texts. Such narratives represent vampire dads as crazy, violent and racist (as in the 1987 film Near Dark), as creep-fest, power-hungry patriarchs (1987’s The Lost Boys), or as tooth-happy ghouls who turn innocent girls into wanton, lustful beasts (as in Stoker’s paradigmatic Dracula). In contrast, the human daddies are the bomb. In Near Dark, for example, protagonist Caleb is turned back into a human by his kindly father. Daddy even saves Caleb’s vampire love Meg, who turned Caleb into a vampire in the first place. How sweet.

While these dad-saviors that populate vampire narratives are appealing–they allow us to envision fathers who approve of our chosen mates (as Bill and Carlisle do) –they fail to have equally satisfying mother figures. They reveal the sad fact that our culture still assumes that fathers, even when vampires, werewolves, or shape shifters, know best.

Twilight takes “father-knows-best” to an extra level of creepiness with the notion (one fostered by Freud and certainly held by many Mormon polygamists) that females are seeking daddies via their romantic relationships. In a horribly irksome piece originally posted at Save the Males (who knew they needed saving!), writer Henry Makow argues that men “ought to be more ‘father-like’ in their approach to women;” they “should seek younger women who ‘look up’ to them.” Meyer seems to agree with this notion, providing Bella with a man who has 100 years on her and matching up baby Renesmee and toddler Claire with much older wolves via the imprinting meme (were the wolves “imprint” on a mate – a sort of love at first sight which involves male wolves imprinting on much younger female humans). Such May/December romance is only natural, according to Makow:

Many men want a daughter-figure, someone who will demonstrate the loyalty, trust and devotion that a girl feels for her father. A man wants to be affirmed in his authority as husband and father, not mothered like a child.

So there you have it people: If you are a hetero woman, go find yourselves an older daddy-man to look up to! If you’re not hetero, you can read more (PLEASE DON’T!) from Makow on how homosexuality is destroying capitalism, the family and the world.

To close, here’s hoping that you, dear readers, have a good father or father-figure in your life to celebrate this Sunday. And, nope, I don’t mind at all if that figure happens to be a vampire, werewolf or even a woman! Seems to me we should celebrate parenting in general rather than gendering the phenomenon…

(cross-posted at Ms. blog here)

What if you are no more than a walking womb?

My recent post at Womanist Musings ruminated about the plethora of monstrous mothers that grace our screens and pages.  From Beowulf right up to Precious and Coraline, the monstrous mommy has threatened us with her sMother love.

This bad mommy meme was evident as well on last night’s episode of Lost, which depicted Claire as going knife-happy on Kate due to her mommy induced craziness. The episode even hints that bad Locke is bad cuz his mommy was a nutter. Sheesh!

The emphasis on woman AS mothers that Lost perpetuates (as I write about here) is in keeping with a cultural notion of females as not much more than walking wombs.

The female as most important in relation to reproductive capacity is also evident in the never-ending reproductive rights battle writ large most recently in the healthcare debate.

If, when, and how a woman becomes a mother is still a defining component of that elusive mantle of ‘womanhood.’ Then, once one finally achieves this supposedly crowning glory of femininity, one can do no right but will be depicted as crazy mom (Lost) or abusive mom (Coraline). The only way to be championed for this role it seems is to be perfect mom – or white, heterosexual, money-privileged, and good-looking AND willing to mother not only your own children, but the entire world (The Blind Side).

Will, this womb has got walk now, I have mothering to do…

What if we nixed the green eggs and ham and opted instead for some Ramona the Brave? (On why NOT to celebrate Dr. Seuss’s Birthday during Women’s History Month)

Why all the unadulterated LURVE for Dr. Seuss?

When my kids were little, Dr. Seuss birthday was always cause for big classroom celebrations, usually replete with green eggs and ham. Why no birthday celebrations for the likes of Beverly Cleary, Beatrix Potter, Peggy Parish, Lauren Child, Judy Blume, Margaret Wise Brown, Jan Brett and so many other important female children’s book authors?

These women need to be written into history for all their work, much of which is gender inclusive in a way Dr. Seuss books are DECIDEDLY NOT (not one female protagonist in his over forty kids books!) As noted in a 1995 NY Times op-ed, “Even Dr. Seuss, that titan of the preschool bookshelf, known and loved for his egalitarianism, feeds the cult of the preening princess.”

In addition to side-lining poor sister Sally and writing about “girls who like to brush and comb,” Dr. S, like Walt Disney, penned racist propaganda cartoons for the War Dept.

Alas, on the second day of Women’s History Month, young children throughout the USA hear his books, eat funny looking eggs, and celebrate the man who, if they are girl children, did not celebrate them…

What if you don’t want a bundle of joy let alone a man to call your own?

We live in a culture addicted to the idea of weddings, marriage, and babies. TLC is just one of the smorgasbords where we are encouraged to stuff ourselves silly on a veritable buffet of shows touting white poufy dresses and perfectly planned pregnancies.

The other evening, a quick exchange left me reeling. “All my daughter wants is to get married and have babies. It’s all she talks about,” a mother told me as we chatted during a concert intermission. Said daughter is eleven. ELEVEN! It is bad enough that each semester so many of my female women’s studies students share in their introductory speeches something of the variety “Yeah, I’m in college, but my real goals are to get married and have kids. I dream of being able to be a stay at home mom.” But – ELEVEN? Makes me want to move to another planet.

Now, far those of your raising your pitchforks in the air and shouting “Shut up you feminist baby hater!,” step back. I do not hate babies. I had two of them. Still love them both even though they are far beyond the gaga baby phase our culture fixates on. I don’t hate stay at home mom’s or see them as feminist sell-outs. This fabricated “mommy war” (so fabulously explored in Susan Douglas’ work) is yet another tool of the patriarchy that hammers away at women, keeping them firmly divided and conquered.

If you wanna have you some babies, fine. If hetero monogamy is your slice of pie, eat up. These choices are not the problem. The problem is that our culture does not present them as choices, but as imperatives. We live under what I have elsewhere called “the woman as womb paradigm.” If you don’t got or don’t want a baby and hubby, you ain’t squat.

Perhaps nothing more vividly captures our accelerating descent into this regressive paradigm than the final book of the Twilight saga, Breaking Dawn. Bella, our intelligent, klutzy heroine drawn to danger and adventure, mutates into a pregnant cyborg, her body bruised, battered, and broken from the parasite within. Gone are her college plans, her motorbike-riding-self – in their place, a fetus-incubator fixated on how much she loves, loves, loves the growing BOY inside her. Of course, said boy turns out to be a girl, but how typical that she transfers her fixation on Edward to what she envisions as mini-Edward! Like a good patriarchal daughter, she envisions the perfect child as male. When the baby is female, she then names it after her mother and mother-in-law, combining Renee and Esmee into Renesmee. Ah, what a potent symbol of this human/vampire hybrid’s future – she too can be a mommy, her name a metaphor for her future role! And, as she ages so far beyond her years, maybe she can aim for mommyhood at 11 rather than Bella’s 18. She already has a wolf-boy to call her own to help her produce the pups. Yuckety yuck yuck yuck.

What if you are looking to educate young girls about important black female activists/feminists?

My nine-year-old was assigned a report for Black History Month a few weeks back. While I do wish teachers assigned non-white male focused reports year-round (see my earlier post here on this matter), I suppose I need to  be happy with the small steps mainstream education is taking to be more inclusive (while working to encourage bigger steps behind the scenes).

Being the feminist that she is, my daughter insisted on avoiding the obvious male suggestions she was given (Martin Luther King, Junior, Malcolm X, Obama) and doing a woman. (As an aside, how sad is it that here, in 2009, elementary school curriculum is still so male-centric!!! How sad that I still have to be excited when she gets the chance to focus on women in school. This should be the norm – not the exception!)

My daughter  emphasized she did NOT want to do Rosa Parks. “Everyone already knows about Rosa Parks mom!” she lamented. “Who else can I do?” Thus, she understands the importance of RAISING awareness rather than merely repeating information her classmates already know.

So, with a number of names in our head, we  headed to library in search of kid-friendly biographies. I envisioned finding many at our impressive local library. Ha! How wrong I was.  The only two we found of the women on our list were biographies of Coretta Scott King and Zora Neale Hurston. Where were the juvenile women’s history books/biographies covering Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Josephine Butler, Lorraine Hansberry, Shirley Chisolm, Fannie Lou Hamer, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Phillis Wheatley, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, Cynthia McKinney…?Heck, where were the ADULT books on these women?

Of course, copious information about these women can be found online, but my daughter’s assignment required a print biography. While King and Hurston are certainly worthy of attention, my daughter wanted to talk about a woman that her classmates had likely not heard of. Further, she wanted to spread a feminist message to her fellow 4th graders. Granted, she did not use these exact words, but her comments regarding the type of woman she wanted to research and the message she wanted to convey revealed these aims.  (I love how kids express anti-racist and feminist views in the simplest of ways. If they grasp the concept that we should all be treated equally regardless or our skin color, gender, body, etc, why can’t adults?)

Dismayed by our lack of choices at the library, we spoke to a reference librarian to ensure we hadn’t missed any books. Nope, we hadn’t. So, I asked my daughter if her teacher said she HAD to read a biography for research and it turns out she didn’t – the assignment required book research, but not necessarily a biography. As I knew our library stocked the children’s books by bell hooks, a light bulb went off in my head.

“Why don’t we check out the books by bell hooks and then we can research her biography online. This way you have done BOTH book and internet research.”

“Sounds good,” she replied.

But, being the stickler that she is, she insisted we try to read a biography too. Hence, we ordered Bone Black and I read it aloud to her (edited a bit for nine year old ears). And, what fabulous messages it contains for children! An analysis of gender policing, sexism, white privilege, racism, classism, the marriage imperative, and familial violence runs throughout, yet the material (typical of hooks) is presented in very approachable way.  Ah, if only all kids (and adults) read hooks!

I am so glad my daughter’s assignment led us to this book. I dog-ear hooks theoretical works tirelessly, but never before now had I read  her memoir(s).

As I read Bone Black with my daughter, stopping frequently to discuss all the issues hooks raises, I found myself continually wondering why there are not MORE books like these, and more written for children. Why can’t there be more kid-friendly, exciting  biographies rather than the dry, verbose tomes that fill the library shelves???  Moreover, where are the books that teach children about social justice and equity issues? Enough of the Hannah Montan-ing of childhood already! We need books that don’t merely serve as advertisements for the latest Disney brand.

So, dear readers, why not celebrate this black history month by reading Bone Black: Memoirs of Girlhood with your kids?  If you don’t have kids, read it for yourself and use all that extra time not having kids gives you to dip into those areas and voices of black history that are too often forgotten and neglected…

Happy Black History Month everyone, and here’s to a future in which we don’t need “special months” to honor history other than that of DWMs (dead white males).

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