Damn the Torpedoes!

A feminist defense of the Barbies of the Nixon Library

Photo by Jack GouldSometimes—okay, often —you just have to take a break. Cynthia Heimel, in her book But Enough About You: Avoiding Fabulousness, recommends an exhaustion cure wherein you "eat teenage" for two weeks and do nothing but watch TV and read trashy magazines. This is good. But when the weight of your own stench knocks you over, it's time to get out of the house and find your own version of Fluffernutter for the brain.

That's when you head to the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace and peruse for a delightful while "Barbie As First Lady: Gowns and Patriotic Costumes of America's Legendary Leading Lady."

Now, nobody has ever dared to claim I'm not a good feminist. Ever. And, yeah, I've read the e-mail about Barbie's proportions and how she wouldn't be able to walk upright and how bad she is for little girls' self-esteem and body image, ad nauseam. So to speak. Heh.

But I've just never been able to work up an outraged lather. (I reserve that for Barbie's rampant consumerism.) I had plenty of Barbie dolls as a child and didn't develop a negative body image until my mid-20s, when Jennifer Aniston lost the last iota of baby fat and Courtney Cox's huge grinning skull seemed to keep growing like a tumor atop a body far too fragile to hold it up.

It's not Barbie who's doing this to us; we're doing it to ourselves. I have lunch every couple of months with a charming painter in her 60s who depicts the lushest, sexiest fat ladies, so secure and proud in their bearing it makes you wish you weighed 200 pounds. And what do we discuss over our spinach salads? Generally, sex, our children and our weight.

Barbie has been shouldering the blame for this for two decades now. And no group has chased after her more ferociously and single-mindedly than young women artists (oddly, men don't seem to mind her). She has become a positive cliché in group and college shows, where she is shorthand for blithe, unprepossessing expectations about American womanhood.

There's merit in this, of course. Doctor Barbie and Barbie for President were a long time in coming, and they certainly seem like very feeble—and very late —sops to the Ms. crowd, when all she had been doing for the preceding 40 years was furnishing her Dream House (yeah, I had one), tooling around in her pink 'Vette, and shopping with a most extraordinary vigor.

But the Barbies at the Nixon Library aren't saddled with any of this angst. Their beauty-queen smiles are supremely untroubled even when their hair is covered by gray wigs as coarse as Dick Nixon's speech. This is Barbie as first lady, which, of course, is what she was born to be—though the thought of Ken, like George W. Bush, filling any kind of leadership role boggles the puny mortal mind.

There's a mix in the carefree exhibit of clearly homemade gowns and those fashioned with great skill. Whichever the case, the women who created the costumes—designed after the inaugural dresses of almost all of the nation's first ladies—clearly adore Barbie, loading onto her their own stunted hopes and dreams, just as they did to Princess Diana. The dolls are so tenderly loved. You could mock them if you chose, but it would be unkind.

Some of the dolls are unintentionally hilarious. Different models were chosen by different artists to best reflect the mien of the particular first lady they depict. So when you see Florence Harding and wonder how the artist found a doll that looked a thousand years old, you wonder no more when the curator reveals that the face belongs to the Farrah Fawcett-Majors doll popular in the '70s. Poor thing! And Eleanor Roosevelt's big, charming, bucktoothed grin (which made her look so very terrible when she was unhappy)? The corny smile was originally sunny Marie Osmond's. It's perfect, really. Another Eleanor, as well as Sarah Polk, is black. Hillary Clinton looks like Brigitte Bardot. And Rosalynn Carter looks like a mixture of the Pope and Elvis in her gilded brocade robes.

Judith Frank's dolls are extravagant beauties, far surpassing others in an exhibit that feels as sweetly homemade as meat loaf. They are lovely brunettes with intricate braided coifs; even Mary Todd Lincoln is a towering beauty. They all look like Vivien Leigh, resplendent in velvets and lace. Hers are also the most accurate portrayals of the inaugural gowns, with hand-painted replications of the flowered fabrics she couldn't find in stores. They're sumptuous.

And rounding out the collection are such anomalies as Astronaut Barbie —swathed in a very Barbarella hot-pink miniskirt and silver lamé leggings —the Elvis Army doll, and some giant Nancy Reagans that are painted in the most terrifying manner, somewhat like the original. They look like evil jack-in-the-boxes, and you expect them to come after you with a cleaver.

The women who fashioned these dolls don't sit around and fume about the terrible crimes Barbie has perpetrated against womanhood. They're the ones who subscribe to the Barbie newsletter (which ungrateful Mattel served with a cease-and-desist order a year or two back). They're the ones who buy every Barbie that comes down the pike—and lots of Barbies come down the pike. They're the ones who funnel their creative energies into unthreatening endeavors—endeavors snubbed and laughed at by outsiders. Go take a look at some sweet and simple works by the women of Middle America, and take note of the tenderness and the dreams. You grew out of it, which makes you less silly, perhaps, than these women. But does it make you any better?

"Barbie As First Lady: Gowns and Patriotic Costumes of America's Legendary Leading Lady" at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, 18001 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, (714) 993-5075. Through Sept. 4.
 
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