To Drown, or Not To Drown, Barbie

Yesterday we introduced a project called “Drown the Dolls,” an art exhibition by Daena Title opening in Culver City, Calif., this weekend. Title’s work presents photographs and paintings of Barbie, that constrictive feminine icon, drowning in a backyard pool.

Title’s aim with this project was to free herself, through the symbolic act of drowning Barbie, from the compulsory and impossible patriarchal standard of beauty that Barbie represents.

So far, the project has received mixed reviews and interesting feedback here on the Ms. Blog. Some readers are thrilled with the project; commenter Sayantani16 called it “absolute genius.” Others have shown concern over the violence implicit in the act of drowning, symbolic or otherwise. Heather Lea Soersdal says, “Is no one else a little disturbed by the violence toward female images here? Maybe we should be drowning patriarchal figures instead.”

What do you think? Is “drowning” any woman, even an unrealistic doll, too violent to be feminist? Or does putting Barbie underwater help us put patriarchal pressures in perspective? And is Barbie inherently oppressive, or can little girls play with Barbie without absorbing harmful messages?

Here’s what the artist has to say:

Title is interested in hearing other women’s stories about Barbie and starting a conversation, via YouTube video, about the impact of Barbie on real women’s lives.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Comments

  1. I understand what she's trying to do. I love her enthusiasm and her talent, but it just comes across as violent to me. It doesn't strike me as the destruction of an oppressive symbol.

  2. "And is Barbie inherently oppressive, or can little girls play with Barbie without absorbing harmful messages?"

    I'm going to go with . . . it depends on the child, their personality, and their social surroundings. I played with Barbie as a kid. I liked dressing her up. I grew up in a fairly conservative religious household with strong undertones of sexism (that I didn't fully recognize until I became an adult). I've always been tagged the "black sheep" of my family, for (so far as I can tell) my tendency to speak up and argue when I don't get why something is the way it is. By my mid-20's, I'd come out as atheist and now, as I enter my 30's, my sisters tease me about my "fem-nazi" tendencies (which is irritating, because a) insulting term and b) I'm not *that* strident, I just point out when sexist terminology or attitudes are harmfully prevalent).

    Long story short, I played with Barbie and now I'm an outspoken feminist. I don't recall feeling pressured to "be like Barbie," and I squealed in delight when I saw they had released an anniversary edition of the 1984 Peaches and Cream I wanted so badly. I didn't buy her . . . but I did squeal.

    • Like you, I played with Barbie and had a similar background though a bit more liberal. I literally burned Barbie in my late 20's and felt nothing but freedom. Sometimes an act of violence towards a doll is good for the soul.

      • What motivated you to to burn Barbie? Did you burn just one? There is a group that goes camping in the Nevada desert each year at the end of Summer for a week and burn Barbie dolls and stuff. This was called BURNING MAN. I found it while surfing the web in 1996.

  3. snobographer says:

    Barbie's marketing has gotten way too pink and princessy in recent decades. On the other hand, they've modified her body shape to make it somewhat more realistic while still fitting her clothes. She has more of a waist now, and her bust is smaller, though she's still a hyper-idealized shape. But you could say the same about Ken and GI Joe, for whatever that's worth.

    Oddly, Barbie was less rigidly feminine 30-40 years ago. I think her original Townhouse and Corvette were yellow. And if you look back on her older themes, they were more about careers and adventures. Did you know they had an Astronaut Barbie in 1964? I wish Mattel would go back to that kind of thing and give the sparkly princess stuff a rest.

    So she's a mixed bag.

    As far as the violence, I am a bit uneasy about it. I'm not a fan of the gender binary, but it can be a dodgy proposition to present female-coded objects as things that should be gleefully destroyed. But it's art, and looking at the work does remind me of the darker aspects of my childhood when I played rough with my Barbies and put them in perilous situations.

  4. Sherrill A Quinn says:

    I agree with studious _mom. Really depends on all the other factors involved in how Barbie was perceived. I think many girls, my sisters and all her friends (I was into GI Joe and trucks at the time) loved playing make believe with her. They loved trying on clothes, sharing and exchanging outfits, talking and interacting, laughing, making a mess of the house….

    mmm come to think of it they do the same thing now as grown-ups. They share, gossip, laugh, talk, dress up, exchange clothes, try a million outfits on before choosing the just the right one.

    The only difference is my sisters hair always looked better after washing…Barbie's never looked good again!

    Sherrill A Quinn

  5. ElizabethP says:

    I too understand she wants to drown the feminine stereotype our patriarchal society has placed, but maybe drowning G.I Joe action figures would have been more effective to bash the patriarchy we live in. Drowning or showing any violence towards figures representing (or misrepresenting) women should not be tolerated. Just a thought.

  6. Please,are we not above such trivial pursuits we have come a long way baby…remember!

  7. When I first read about it, the thought that it sounded violent did cross my mind, but especially after watching the video, I really love the idea. The pictures & paintings she made do not look violent; as Julia Louis Dyfus said, it can come across as playing in the pool. If the images had the dolls tied up or being water boarded or something, that would be too much. I like everything she said about "which is the distortion" and rejecting the lesson that girls have to smile in any circumstance, even if they're being abused.
    I think even if we aren't aware of it, we all pick up messages about femininity & what society expects from women & what an ideal woman looks like from Barbies. It's impossible to avoid in our society, but we can become stronger as we grow older and teacher little girls to reject it right away. It is an ongoing battle, though, because society always pushes back- there is always pressure to wear makeup/ shave your legs/ lWhen I first read about it, the thought that it sounded violent did cross my mind, but especially after watching the video, I really love the idea. The pictures & paintings she made do not look violent; as Julia Louis Dyfus said, it can come across as playing in the pool. If the images had the dolls tied up or being water boarded or something, that would be too much. I like everything she said about "which is the distortion" and rejecting the lesson that girls have to smile in any circumstance, even if they're being abused.
    I think even if we aren't aware of it, we all pick up messages about femininity & what society expects from women & what an ideal woman looks like from Barbies. It's impossible to avoid in our society, book like that girl on tv. We need to keep reminding ourselves to love the way we are- make that our ideal.

  8. I agree with Jenn. It comes across as a reflection of the artist, her own issues and something dark that is going on with her. Also, did you consider all the women and men who have had plastic syrgery, probably at the show last nite, hehe, and is she bagging on them? Is it okay to hate attractive, beautiful women? I don't know…the show bothers me in many ways..

  9. While I understand and abhor the obvious submissiveness of the Barbie and the anti-feminist views that she is a symbol of, I don't think that unrealistic standards presented by toys are a singularly feminine experience. Many men have also expressed a feeling of ineptitude that came from playing with their simililarly unrealistic GI Joes and action figures.

  10. Freddie says:

    I’ve had them for over three decades. I saved up my own money and purchased it myself at age twelve. I never asked for it. Upon seeit it, I seet a goal to save up enough to pay for the Malibu Barbie plus tax. I did this independently of my family. This taught me how to make a goal and the joy of accomplishing it. I had GI Joe type dolls. Barbie was exactly what I wanted in a toy. I never had a sister or played with them before with girls. My parents were afraid that I would become less masculine or be attracted to guys. They destroyed it without proof of any change in my behavior. Therefore, I decided that I would have Barbie no matter what the consequences. If their arguments was based on facts evident in my actions, I would have to admit their validity. However, their actions resulted in me becoming an avid buyer and collector of them. I never thought that Barbie had a perfect body. Her body was far better clothed than naked. I never considered any lifeless toy to be a role model for a living human. Ihad GI Joes but never wanted to join the military or try to get their unbelievable muscles. I knew that toys were only for entertainment when not having to preform my responsabilities in the real world. arbie taught me to not judge females on superficial criteria. Barbies taught me that I had to allow my girlfriends and wife more time to get ready to go out to eat or whatever the circumstance. I love my Barbies with open smiles and limited articlation of movement. I love them in Pink, blue, green, or whatever color dress. Never did or do I now expect any female to look like a plastic toy. Every female is better than Barbie because of physical qualities unique to only living humans. Barbie is a beautiful toy but not a standard of beauty for real females. I love my scale model ships and planes. I would never sail or fly in real ones because of my fear of extreme heghts and inability to swim. I can enjoy those toys without fear or danger. I can also enjoy Barbies without gender confusion or unrealistic expectations for living females. Toys can enhance our lives if kept in their proper perspective. We watch unbelievable characters in movies. How many try to emulate them just because of seeing them? You know it is just an escape from the reality of your daily life. Toys allow us to feel young even though our bodies are rapidly aging with time. If you mutilate or throw Barbie away, does it bleed or feel pain or emotion? No! Barbie is what you create for her in your own mind. It is a canvas for the mentality of its owner.

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