Barbie under the needle
A Barbie doll is less than 30 centimeters tall. That’s quite small. You would think that it’s difficult to fit much into one, but they are LOADED with meaning.
Dr Agnes Nairn from the University of Bath released a study that looked into the torture Barbie often suffers in girls’ hands. She found out that “of all of the products we asked the children to describe as ‘cool’ or ‘not cool’, Barbie aroused the most complex and violent emotions; […] the girls (she) spoke to see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity, and see the torture as a ‘cool’ activity in contrast to other forms of play with the doll.” According to the text, the doll is hated because “it is ‘babyish’, ‘unfashionable’, ‘plastic’, has multiple selves and because she is a feminine icon. […] Disavowing Barbie is a rite of passage and a rejection of their past.”
I started torturing Barbies seriously in 2003, as part of my baccalaureate. By then I was ready to embrace all their significance, to play with them symbolically as well as literally –to confront Barbie’s imposing aspirational message. They are your smarter, sexier friend. They are the woman that’s perfect because she’s made herself perfect. They tell you that you could look good too, if you just put a tiny bit of make up on. They have fetish-like bodies. They can only wear high heels, and always carry a brush as big as their heads. They can’t help but smiling. They make you wonder how can you envy something you don’t even like.
I find these strong but ambivalent feelings exhilarating. Women seem to have similar contradictory sensations about fashion magazines, for instance. We are constantly told to be ourselves, but to fit the right stereotype while doing so. I think that, in a way, I torment Barbies to reject not only my past, but all of womanhood’s past.
By cross-stitching this doll I wanted to explore what femininity is — in all its beauty and pain and labor and tradition and contradiction. Women have fought their way out of the household — and into cosmetic surgery theaters. Beauty is a heavy responsibility, and subjection takes many faces, including really pretty ones. Somehow, we seem to end up obliging the massive machinery we are part of.
I also was interested in linking with a craft so many women before me have (voluntarily or not) engaged with. I wanted to carry that baggage and participate, feel the weight of tradition on my shoulders and carry it forward. The process was very lengthy: a checkered base was drawn on the doll, micro-perforated, and then cross-stitched with a cotton yarn. The pattern I used was from an old design chart for traditional bed-sheets I found in a charity shop. It’s nice to think some grandmas probably have these same flowers in their linen press.
It’s so very exciting to see many contemporary artists that are rescuing, exploring and reclaiming craft techniques — especially, those traditionally associated with the subordination of the female. I find it a natural, organic process of identity building, similar to those carried out by post-colonial or queer communities. I can only clarify by citing the work of Yinka Shonibare, or the evolution of the word ‘Queer’ itself. (See Wikipedia for more on that.) It is necessary now to take inherited, imposed imagery, labels or practices, and in an attempt to redefine oneself re-appropriate them — thrust new meanings upon them, turn them into political statements that run countercurrent to the very starting point of the process. As William Tucker and Tim Scott put it, identity is “given by accumulation of experience and the ability to make conscious choice within this”. (From Harrison, C. and Wood, P. ,ed., Art in theory: 1900-2000, an Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing)
One last reading my Barbie piece might support is the dialectic between the local and handmade versus the global and industrialized. I spent hours and hours hand-stitching an antique drawing on a mass-produced doll made in China. It’s not even a real Barbie doll: it’s a knock-off. We live in such a disposable world, how do we pass our values on? Possessions do talk about who we are and what we think. If we live in a world were nothing lasts and is made so very far away from where we live, how do we establish a connection with such objects? How do these alien products talk about us? Can we infuse them with our own meaning? When we choose to buy a cheap copy of a symbol, what are we buying? Does that fake symbol still work the “magic” of the so-called legitimate symbol?
I’d like to think when people see my Cross Stitch Barbie they feel all these layers to some extent. If the visceral hate and love, repulsion and attraction that I have tried to investigate and express get to them somehow, then my job is done. The wheel can keep on turning.
Born and raised in Spain, Maria Gil Ulldemolins studied at Waterford Kamhlaba UWC (Swaziland), at Central St. Martins (London); and is currently making art in Barcelona. She is fascinated by objects, but is ultimately even more curious about the people that use them. Visit mariagilulldemolins.com for more.