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Archive for March, 2009

Barbie and Me

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Barbie and I both turn 50 this year. Other than our birthdays, gender and skin color (along with one other shared characteristic I will reveal later), this is where our similarities end. Yet Barbie and I have had a very complex and enduring relationship. It started off as unabashed hatred and slowly changed to adoration. In light of our shared semicentennial birthday, I have decided to chronicle our difficult and complicated journey together.

I became aware of Barbie around the age of six. Her atomic breasts are the first thing I remember noticing. They intimidated me. Appearing to me to be roughly the size of a nose cone on a Boeing 747, I remember thinking how alien she was. She represented a sexually active adult roughly the same age of the people who attended my parents’ cocktail parties. While her rock hard, nipple-less breasts were somewhat titillating (pun intended), she represented a future in which I had no interest.

Thankfully, shortly thereafter, Mattel released a Skipper doll. With her flat chest and innocent eyes, this was a doll I could relate to. Problem was, Skipper played second fiddle to Barbie. Barbie was the big woman. The boss doll. Skipper didn’t go on dates with Ken, she didn’t get married, she didn’t work at the Barbie Store. And she didn’t get a Dream House. For all her hard work, Skipper lived in the shadow of Barbie’s formidable breasts. Skipper was powerless. Skipper was inferior. Since I identified with Skipper, I began to feel inferior to Barbie. Which probably fueled my growing contempt for the buxom doll.

My hatred of Barbie culminated one afternoon at my friend Nancy’s house. Nancy had equal disgust for the synthetic brazen hussy. Instead of playing house with the doll, we stripped Barbie naked and stuffed her in an abandoned birdcage in Nancy’s garage. Basically, we created our own Guantanamo and tortured the doll. Short of waterboarding, that Barbie had a very bad day. This is my fondest childhood memory of playing with Barbie. And the last.

After that precious afternoon, I eschewed all contact with Barbie. My attachments to all life-like dolls (not that she was very life-like) was limited. Basically, I hated them. I had no interest in pretending to be a mother. Consequently, as an adult, I have chosen not to procreate. Considering the fate of Caged Barbie, this was probably a good move on my part. Instead, I preferred to play with troll dolls. For reasons I probably need to take up with my therapist, I related more to the malformed, hideous, and less human-like creatures. I didn’t reconnect with Barbie until my early twenties. As before, the contact was fueled by a deep-seated loathing.

When I went punk in 1982, I indulged in punk art, a punk haircut, punk music, punk clothing and a totally punk attitude. Part of this attitude was to reject the societal construct. To this end, Barbie helped me tremendously. Well, parts of her.

During my punk years, Barbie came to represent to me the imprisonment of women. The perfect icon for all that was wrong with the stereotypical women’s role. I blamed Barbie for the oppression of women and the reason the Equal Rights Amendment didn’t get ratified. Barbie was the enemy. And what better way to show my contempt than to attack this heinous symbol of female subjugation and servitude.

My first punk sculpture was Barbie Massacre: a bloody killing scene representing all my anger and feelings of powerlessness at the hands of The Man. After a trip to the local thrift store for materials, I took He-Man and set him up on a plastic tray I’d pulled out of a defunct refrigerator. I chopped up several Barbies: decapitating them, severing limbs and torsos. After gluing He-Man to the plastic tray, I glued Barbie’s various body parts beneath him, then added liberal amounts of stage blood. Voila! Art in Action. Fought the dominant paradigm, worried my new roommate and added a bit of pizzazz to our living room. Three worthy causes all in one shot.

After Barbie Massacre, however, I realized I wasn’t reaching the audience I needed with my grand show of contempt. So I made a collection of jewelry with mutilated Barbie parts. I made earrings out of her severed feet, pins out of her decapitated head and dismembered arms and wore them proudly around the neighborhood. Gilroy has never been the same.

As my punk rage at society became slowly replaced by the realization I needed to actually grow up and take care of myself, I created the last Barbie piece of my punk years: Barbies Under Glass. A twisted combo of nude, de-limbed Barbies tied up with wires with a scattering of miniature skulls for posterity—all stuffed into my grandmother’s bell jar. Received many compliments (and culled many people from my herd) with that artwork.

However, as time passed, a strange thing happened to my pathological hatred of all things Barbie. Somehow, through all this contact with the plastic icon, I ended up falling in love with her. Barbie now reminds me of all those fun, formative, angsty punk years.

As my attitude changed, I began to feel a deeper kinship with the doll. After all, we were born in the same year. I still have Barbies Under Glass displayed in my house. I decided to pay homage to my favorite plastic girl. I also wanted to achieve my dream of looking like an action figure naked (clearly another topic to discuss with my therapist). The only way I could attain these goals without radical plastic surgery was to get the Mattel logo tattooed on my butt. (Costs three beers to see it.) And thus my love/hate relationship with the beloved icon came full circle.

So, Happy Birthday, Barbie. And I mean that. From the bottom of my bottom.

©2009, Janet Periat

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