Barbie is an icon of modern femininity. That’s kind of indisputable. She reflects the way mainstream American culture prefers women to look, from her impossible proportions to her perpetually smiling face. Not only has she inspired artists to create original works, but, she also provides fertile ground for re-imagining existing pieces. The same allure of the “impossible creature” that Carol Peligian talked about in the Forbes reading applies here. Art is full of impossible women whose anatomy has been altered to better conform to an artistic ideal. Barbie always has something of the mythical muse about her.
French artist Jocelyne Grivaud created a series of images, in honor of Barbie’s 50th anniversary in 2009, in which Barbie replaced the subject in famous works of art. Some, like a portrait of Chanel, are an easy fit. Barbie and fashion go hand in hand. Others, like the Mona Lisa, require a little more work on the part of the viewer to unpack. Suddenly, the iconic subtle smile is pink lipsticked and facing you head on. Is the fact that Barbie faces the viewer a subversion of a convention in which female subjects invite the gaze of a male audience, but never confront them directly? Or does Barbie’s beauty queen smile reflect the limited range of expression a woman can perform and still be beautiful? Barbie is always smiling, and there’s nothing knowing or secretive about it. It’s not for her, it’s for you–the viewer, the consumer.
In the recreation of Manet’s Olympia, the tension between the original expression and Barbie’s static one is again an important element in the piece. Grivaud describes Barbie’s smile as innocent, in contrast to the bold expression of the model in the original. Here, Barbie’s smile manages to undo any of the subversion intended from the original piece, itself referring back to Titian’s Venus of Urbino. With her smile, Barbie relinquishes claim to her own sexuality, and the implication of innocence is that Barbie is being sexualized, rather than sexual. Here, using Barbie undoes the work of the original.
Grivaud’s pieces show a pretty clearly the changes in ideals of female beauty over the years, but I think more importantly, they showcase Barbie’s limits as a representation of womanhood, even compared to portraits painted by men in eras before women had access to the same platforms of self-expression they would achieve in later years. Barbie doesn’t allow for nuance. There’s definitely a relationship here between the ‘feminism according to Cosmo” that Rand writes about, and the flat way that Barbie inhabits art. Barbie has the problem of existing in a society where feminism isn’t a dominant discourse, but where “empowerment” is a buzzword for anything having to do with women. She has to appeal to the idea that girls can do anything while still glossing over the fact that, were she real, Barbie wouldn’t have the same earning potential as Ken. So what we get are the contradictions showcased in Girvaud’s art. Barbie can’t hold up these paintings on her own. Barbie, on her own, isn’t supposed to be a complex character with an inner life. Casting her as the subject in a painting causes us to confront that, and when we confront the illusion, it falls apart.