May 4, 2018
By now we know that the future is most definitely femme, but the question still remains: what is feminine and who decided what it should be?
Since her invention in 1959, Barbie has served as a body onto which ideas of womanhood and femininity have been mapped. As cultural critic and journalist M.G. Lord wrote in her book Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll (Walker & Company 1994), "At worst, Barbie projected an anomalous message; at best, she was a sort of feminist pioneer. And her meaning, like her face, has not been static over time." Some of Barbie's many reconstructions include her 1967 twist-able waist and a swath of mascara, and her 1971 post-sexual revolution, Malibu edition, whose painted-on eyes, for the first time in Barbie's history, gazed outward instead of down and to the side, à la Manet's Olympia. Barbie continues to be re-imagined, not only by her sculptors at Mattel, but also by artists, many of whose “Barbiecentric” works were displayed in 1994 at The Kitchen during an exhibition titled “Salon de Barbie.”
Set against the backdrop of photorealist Charles Bell’s mural size painting The Judgement of Paris, the exhibition, curated by Alison Maddox, featured works such as David Levinthal's Kodalith prints The Barbie Series 1972-73 and Maggie Robbins' sculptures Barbie Fetish and Berlin Barbie. In addition to the exhibition, The Kitchen hosted Café Barbie , an “inter-continental salon” and "untamed media event" (as described by Café Barbie’s press release) celebrating Lord's Forever Barbie, featuring interviewees from her project, and discussions with various philosophers of the feminine.
The evening was organized as the second of three inaugural events of the Electronic CafeTM International at The Kitchen, designed as discussions in which minds came together across the globe, united by early videoconferencing technology. Founded by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz in 1988, Electronic CafeTM events joined together an international network of high-tech cafes that offered “vanguard artists the opportunity to develop new forms through experimentation and collaboration with new media--particularly video teleconferencing.”
At Café Barbie, live video streams were set up between The Kitchen and Santa Monica, CA and Paris, but the A/V required for this—which today could have been done by an intern like me—proved technically difficult in 1994. The video interviews were glitchy at best, and Lord had to improvise. Luckily, she had a collection of pre-recorded statements from cultural critic Camille Paglia, supermodel Lauren Hutton, and actress Raquel Welch, which provided rich conversational fodder. Paglia saw playing with Barbies as a philosophical exercise for girls going through puberty to grapple with the expectations of growing into ideals of womanhood; Hutton cut her dolls’ heads off to see how their eyes functioned, but noted how Barbie’s short torso and long legs reminded her of model Nadja Auermann’s figure, considered to be a divine representation of Teutonic beauty; and Welch saw Barbie as a sexually empowered woman who was, importantly, not a mother.
Betty Friedan, whose comments on Barbie appear in Lord’s book, was supposed to partake in Café Barbie as a panelist, but, according to the Barbie Bazaar magazine review of the event, “had apparently changed her mind and decided, no, Barbie was bad after all,” and cancelled her appearance. Lady Bunny, celebrated drag queen, also pulled out of appearing at the last minute. The live panelists who did appear—Holly Brubach, fashion writer for the New York Times, and John Hanhardt, curator at the Whitney Museum—discussed Barbie in relation to her male counterparts. Gary Parks, who reviewed the event for Barbie Bazaar , seemed mesmerized by Brubach’s first encounter with the doll; she would lay a naked Barbie atop a naked, genital-less Ken and leave the room so they could get it on. Though Brubach didn’t understand the mechanics of sex, she assumed the dolls did.
Parks also spent significant space in his review discussing Hanhardt’s “surgically corrected” Barbie, who bellowed “Vengeance is mine!” and G.I. Joe doll, who inquired “Wanna go shopping?” Hanhardt asserted that switching the voice boxes on these talking dolls disrupts and questions the gender stereotypes encoded and perpetrated by Mattel toys. He believed that unless Barbie’s voice and actions were changed, children who played with her would follow the ideas of female gender as explicitly put forth by Mattel’s Barbie story-lines.
It is true that Barbie’s life extends beyond the Mattel universe; whatever Barbie does is observed, analyzed and interpreted by those who play with her. At Café Barbie, each participant’s unique take on the doll pointed to the myriad ways people engage with their Barbie—not just the toy object, but the idea of their Barbie. What did she do: have sex, play dress-up? What did she symbolize: stay a bachelorette forever, try any vocation your heart desires? What was her telos? The answer was different for everyone, and perhaps this is the purpose of Barbie; that she is a site of experimentation for children coming to understand not only how they see themselves, but also how they are seen by the world.
Just as Pygmalion shaped his ideal woman in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, popular culture has molded, twisted, painted, and morphed Barbie to represent women as the idea of the feminine has evolved over time. Every young child who picks up a Barbie has been conditioned in an idiosyncratic way that will result in a new understanding of the toy.
Discovering Café Barbie in The Kitchen Archives has provoked me to reconsider my takeaways from encounters with Barbie. According to my mother, I spent a brief time with Barbie, but shortly after being introduced to her, I eschewed the toy for dress-up, putting on Barbie-inspired outfits and looking at myself in the mirror, trying on different personalities as well as the clothes and postures that accompanied them. My fashion show was an exploration of identity, a Lacanian investigation of self-as-Barbie (or, perhaps, Barbie-as-self), inspired by the Barbie Career Book of which pages I remember flipping through intently. In the text, Barbie told me I could be anything I wanted, from an astronaut to a ballerina, but—and there was a big but—if I wanted to be a feminine astronaut or a feminine ballerina, I would have to possess a model body, platinum blonde hair, and blemish-free white skin. As I looked at myself in the mirror, fitting some, but not all, of these criteria, I was faced with the first of many feminist awakenings; I am female, but I do not—and do not need to—look like Barbie. I only wish I had been able to hear John Hanhardt tell me how important it was to destroy, rethink, and replace the gendered characteristics Barbie presents.
Now there are versions of Barbie with different body types, skin colors, and hair textures, fit for the representation of feminine sought by the “woke” buying–power of the 21st century, but that is part of the reason why I resent Barbie; her version of the feminine will change with the markets, because that’s who she is—a neoliberal fantasy.
If Café Barbie took place today, I imagine the conversation would come to this same conclusion. Paglia’s idea that girls are conditioned into womanhood by playing with a molded version of feminine expectations remains relevant—it just happens to be that feminine expectations now come in more makes and models because our capitalist society sees commercial value in expanding their target audiences. However, the idea that Barbie is a symbol of feminine identity also endures, which means she still can serve as a way to critically examine and deconstruct gender stereotypes and expectations.