Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Plastic Dolls

The painting Plastic Dolls got a lot of attention at the opening of County Fair last Saturday. Visitors are seemingly drawn to the bright colors.  And girls, especially, run up to it yelling "Barbie! Barbie!" to their moms.

Plastic Dolls
This is an easy painting to like, which makes the subject matter easy to ignore. But behind the facade of smiling girls, leopard print, barbie dolls, and paper cut-outs, this painting is actually a critique of our mass-consumer need to prescribe gender roles for children. The girls and the dolls are prettily packaged behind a layer of plexi-glass. The scantily-clad Barbie dolls have a layer of orange spray-paint on them and their faces are drawn back on with markers to resemble smudged makeup . On the t-shirts are slogans such as "I Like 2 Flirt," "Princess," "Party Girl," and "2 Pretty 2 Do Math," taken from actual shirts that JCPenny and other department stores were selling to girls. The Pop Princess Pink Phenomenon. A poison prescribed to little girls that makes them grow up too fast and keeps them focused on the superficial.  Real "girl power" is not about being a diva who demands  luxury and waits around for a prince charming.  Neither has it anything to do with being pretty or skinny. It has more to with the empowerment of girls, a counter discourse of popularly prescribed gender stereotypes, and the ability to be a thoughtful person who affects change.  But commercialism has flipped 'girl power' into a marketing device, packaging superficiality as self-identity.

You'd recognize this cultural ill even if you've not read Cinderella Ate My Daughter or How To Talk To Little Girls. You spot it in toy aisles, for example, where boys and girls have the same building blocks except in different colors. You notice it in department stores, where you can buy makeup kits for girls. You see it on TV with shows like Toddlers & Tiaras and the KardashiansYou watch it on MTV, where the cast of 16 and Pregnant are billed as celebrities. I'm not necessarily saying that pink is bad, or that gender roles are evil. I'm also not suggesting that wanting to be beautiful is wrong. But the failure to recognize the objectification of little girls and the commercialization of childhood is leaving girls with defeatist ideas of self-awareness and identity, creating people who think what they have to offer lies only in how they look.

The sexualization of toys, cartoon characters and clothes has a strong effect on how girls view themselves, because the choices in toys, television, and clothes are very narrow.  Strawberry Shortcake is a prime example of how a cartoon character has been sexualized in the last 30 years. As a child growing up in the 80s, this is the Strawberry Shortcake I remember:
This is the same character in 2006:
and this is her latest reincarnation:
And behold! A matching Halloween costume for your princess:

Zach and I have no children, so it makes me a little anxious to speak this candidly about his new painting and on the subject of how commercial culture pushes this superficial worldview on girls (even though this is not a post about parenting). We have friends with little girls and I am afraid of offending them. But I was once a little girl too so I feel somewhat qualified to speak about this topic. My childhood was not filled with Disney princesses and I was not subjected to girly stereotypes. I shared Leon's toys and wore his hand-me-downs because it didn't matter that they were not pink or made specifically for girls. There were no TV commercials that told me I should be a nurse, a secretary or some other second fiddle in a predominantly male field. My mom was not confined to shopping at Target where all the clothes and toys for girls are all marked with pink. I blame culture for how girls are being defined.

And now that I've written all these things, I am sure that if/when the time comes, our little girl is going to live and breathe pink and glitter and demand to be a sparkly princess cheerleader. She'll want her own diamond tiara and plead with us to live in a beautiful castle. But at least I know we are ready for battle.


Patricia G said...

I am totally shocked by Strawberry Shortcake's transformation. I have no children and am oblivious to what's going on in this area. I do have some friends who raise their kids differently - no TV etc. You'll have sensible kids with attitudes and interests that are beyond all of that stuff, because they'll be your kind of people :)

Mindy said...

Hi Patricia, it's not just Strawberry Shortcake ... Rainbow Brite and My Little Pony have both undergone some pretty unbelievable changes too! If and when we do have kids, we're gonna try really really hard! :)

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