By **Rebecca Bates**
I was about to log off Twitter the other night when I saw the second tweet from Ms. Magazine within the last few days about a project by artist Daena Title called “Drowning the Dolls.” I was exhausted, and I would have loved to go to bed because it was 12:55 a.m., but I just needed to vomit this out first. Daena Title is obviously really angry with Barbie because she won’t stop drowning the plastic bitch. That’s her whole shtick. She takes Barbie into her pool, photographs the doll and its reflection on the underside of the water’s surface, and then she paints the photograph.
In the most recent post about this on the Ms. Magazine blog, Stephanie Hallett asks, “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?” I get what Title’s trying to do. By putting Barbie under water and painting her and her distorted reflection, Title questions which image of Barbie is truly “grotesque” (her word, not mine), which is the image of someone trapped or ensnared. So, can “little girls play with Barbie without absorbing harmful messages”? I’m no fool. Sure, a lot of women have body image issues, and if a young girl is already insecure, it’s easy to see how she might misconstrue Barbie as something she needs to emulate. Maybe I just had enough self-esteem as a child (I’ve always naturally been very thin and beautiful) to not give a shit that my doll’s legs would be disproportionately long if she were life-sized. Maybe I’m just being incredibly reductive and hateful of my own sex. But, if I never had an issue with Barbie, if I never rejected the doll’s “grotesque” features (next post will be a Bakhtinian analysis of Barbie as a grotesque body), does that mean I’m stuck in a world that’s—oh, how did Title put it?—a “suffocating, airless void”? I’ve never felt the need to “submerge” who I am to be attractive, and Barbie certainly never made me feel that way. But again, maybe I’ve just been brainwashed by a system of male power. Wasn’t it Althusser who suggested that even if we recognize we are part of an ideological state apparatus, we still can’t ever escape it? God, this is so boring. (If I were more of a jerk I might suggest that Title wouldn’t have to make this kind of art if she were actually pretty.)
Is this project violent in nature? Maybe. After all, isn’t art supposed to make us uncomfortable on some level? How else do we get defamiliarized? But when I say that Title is “obviously really angry with Barbie,” I’m not trying to be cute. I think it’s strange that a middle-aged woman is still obsessing over a toy she claims she only played with once as a preteen. Yes, someone who has nothing better to do might argue in the comments section below that Title is trying to undermine previously accepted patriarchal social mores (dear editors: please don’t ever let me write a phrase that disgustingly obnoxious ever again) by liberating/enlightening/rescuing/warning young girls so that they do not feel that Barbie dolls are some kind of role model, something that represents the female form at its most ideal (something that they can never live up to). But when has anger ever liberated anyone? We don’t get anywhere by throttling throats. One commenter on the Ms. Magazine post wrote, “Maybe we should be drowning patriarchal figures instead.” Is drowning a “patriarchal figure” the answer, though? A friend of mine referred to this project as something akin to voodoo and, in a way, she’s right. How about no one drowns anyone? Taking out our rage on bodies can only perpetuate the bad vibes, man.
Copyright 2011 Rebecca Bates