You may be surprised to learn that Barbie – lollipop-headed cultural icon and instrument of female oppression – has thrown off the shackles of the patriarchy’s archetypal dumb blonde to become a feminist art warrior blasting the hallowed halls of the world’s great art institutions. But it’s true.
Say hello to ArtActivistBarbie (AAB), whose modus operandi is small signs, big questions and a fabulous wardrobe. With her inviting call to arms, “Refuse to be the muse!” this fierce new incarnation of Barbie is helping to challenge art galleries and museums worldwide about their woeful lack of women and other minorities in their collections, and reluctance to consider the female gaze.
Thousands follow her on Twitter, enjoying her playful disruption and creative interventions which ask questions and raise issues about gender and the inequalities in many art collections. So, where did ArtActivistBarbie come from and where did she find those couture creations she carries off with such panache?
I use the arts to explore issues of inequality and social injustice, and research the use of objects and the potential of museums and galleries to be places which can educate for change. In 2018, I decided to do this using the most famous doll in Western culture: Barbie. I took a group of students to my local art gallery, gave them all a Barbie doll and asked them to “hack” the gallery by intervening and posing their doll with commentary on a placard.
By subverting Barbie’s bland stereotype of femininity and employing her idealised beauty and unrealistic figure, we were able to draw attention lightly to serious gender issues in a way that was both humourous and thought provoking.
It was a great success and had a big impact on both my students and gallery visitors. Afterwards I realised I had found the perfect way to engage a wide range of people in gender politics. And so, ArtActivistBarbie was born.
The problem with art
Many famous art galleries and museums, particularly those with historical collections, offer a very singular, male-dominated view of art world. The artworks regarded as historically most important present the world through a male perspective – the “male gaze”.
In the 1980s art activists Guerrilla Girls started to draw attention to this extreme male bias and gender discrimination in the art world, successfully protesting in the US. With smart, cutting messages delivered via large-scale billboard works, the Guerilla Girls sought to name and shame the art world for its unapologetic disregard for women and other minorities in art.
Now, ArtActivistBarbie is in turn revealing the practices of galleries and museums and their displays of male-commissioned, male-produced and male-collected works of art which represent centuries of male power, privilege and domination. It’s important and necessary work because art galleries and museums are trusted and influential places that play a part in shaping our identities, our sense of self and our sense of possibility. It is only right that they demonstrate more balance by reflecting the lives and experience of women, ethnic minorities and other under-represented groups.