"Normal Barbie" as Digital Visual Activism?

Curator's Note

"Normal Barbie" (also called "average Barbie") has recently created yet another media dialogue about the Mattel doll. "Normal Barbie" is a digital image created by artist Nickolay Lamm (of MyDeals.com) that portrays what Barbie’s body would look like with the measurements (e.g., breast size, waist to hip ratio) of an average nineteen-year-old woman. Her size proportions are based on CDC data.

Lamm explains that he created this image because Barbie is a site of contention for personal and cultural meanings of female beauty. In the accompanying clip (which also shows the digital image), he states: "Barbie’s a very iconic figure…so it would be very fitting to create an average Barbie. And I also wanted to show that average is beautiful and we shouldn’t compare ourselves to unrealistic beauty standards. And I feel Barbie kind of symbolizes that."

Lamm’s views can be interpreted as paralleling feminist critiques of the doll. Along these lines, then, is "Normal Barbie" a symbol of feminist activism? Certainly, it is a form of digital visual activism, as it is a visual act with the intention to stimulate users’ questioning of beauty norms. Through the power of his image, Lamm has cultivated a public dialogue about Barbie’s body in a way that is not just a critique of her thinness. His visual highlights the separation between Barbie’s body and "ours," literally and conceptually placing them side by side instead of in opposition to one another.  

Of note, Lamm’s endorsement of "Normal Barbie" as a positive portrayal of female beauty is situated within mainstream contemporary discourses of body acceptance that ostensibly embrace "average" as beautiful. As I have argued elsewhere, this communication, when used by beauty corporations, perpetuates postfeminist values and self-commodification. So, if Mattel were to produce dolls in Lamm’s rendering, in what ways would this reconfiguration complicate the meanings of his visual activism? And, would a mass produced "Normal Barbie" be a symbol of postfeminism?

Comments

Jackie Davis's picture

Hi Dara, What a unique

Hi Dara,

What a unique example of this week’s theme! “I honestly didn’t expect average Barbie to look as good as she did.” This made me chuckle.

Feminism? Hmm, no offence meant to the artist, but despite the effective shock into recognizing beauty’s norms which ‘normal Barbie’ certainly effects, I find it a bit grating that it is still a man behind this imaging of the ‘normal’ ‘average’ ‘surprisingly attractive!’ female body. To me, at least, this doesn’t negate the effect of Lamm’s statement, but also doesn’t present an entirely acceptable alternative.

What would you say, Dara, about the possibility of girls and women re-self-branding after encountering the ‘normal Barbie’ alternative?

Aaron Dickinson Sachs's picture

Feminism...?

Thank you for the post, Dara, and for your response to it, Jackie.

I agree that there is an interesting tension between Lamm’s rendering of an “average Barbie” as positive portrayal of female beauty and postfeminist discourses used by corporate entities to increase female consumption, often through nurturing body insecurity. What strikes me most is the literal objectification—the turning of his idea of female beauty, no matter how much it represents a corrective of prior unrealistic images, into an object—at work in his art piece. Dara’s question of the way a mass produced “average Barbie” might complicate this as a symbol of feminist critique or postfeminist complicity, recalls for me the early 00s attempt by Adbusters to produce and sell the black dot “brandless” shoe as a form of activism against global shoe companies like Nike (tied in with anti-globalization and anti-sweat shop protests). It seems obvious that there would be something problematic about Mattel selling “average Barbie,” either as a replacement to or companion of original Barbie, but what would happen if Lamm decided to distribute it himself (leaving aside the copyright infringement issues)? Would that be feminist or postfeminist? What if he simply distributed, for free (thereby avoiding the copyright issue) the plans for a 3D printed “average Barbie” so that consumers could print their own? Or if he provided people with instructions for how to make their own 3D printed Barbie with whatever proportions meet the desires of the individual? Would this explode the notion that there is only one acceptable female body type (a presumably feminist stance) or reinforce the neo-liberal individualism undergirding postfeminism by turning the female body into an infinitely malleable and controllable object?

I should probably be careful of how I’m throwing around feminism and postfeminism as simple binaries, as if all projects could neatly fall into one or the other. This is where I disagree somewhat with Jackie’s critique of Lamm for the way his gender “grates” on her and undercuts the message of his project. I admit that I first felt the same way about it, noting his gender and wondering how that implicates the point of his project. But then again, I feel like part of how I understand feminism—and granted, I am a male-identified, self described feminist, so I have a stake in this argument—is as a much messier terrain that includes all those of us working to deconstruct hegemonic notions of gender, dismantle male privilege, and agitate for the end of gender (and other kinds of) discrimination. To negate the stake that a (presumably heterosexual) man like Lamm has in notions of female beauty seems to tie a hand behind the back of feminism. I think Lamm’s “average Barbie” opens up a really productive space for examining the way male desire for female bodies needs to be reimagined and reconfigured as part of feminism rather than excluded from it.

Thank you Tara for your post, and Jackie for your response, both obviously prompted some thoughts on my part.

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