As children, many of us turn to our toys to navigate our developing identities. Sometimes, our dolls serve as surrogates; we parent them the way we see our children parenting us, and we identify with them. Photography operates similarly: as teens, we might dog-ear or collect magazine images that appeal to our expanding sense of self. Since so many dolls and photographs in mainstream fashion magazines present a grossly limited definition of femininity, it can be damaging to use them as a means of self-definition.
The work of the photographer Sheila Pree Bright frames this search for identity within a more diverse and rich framework. Having grown up in a military family, she still struggles to identify with a particular place or group of people. In her work on America and contemporary hip-hop culture, her photographic strength lies much in the complex and often ambiguous nature of identity; unlike much commercial photography, her “work is about [...] Changing perceptions about stereotypes.”
Her 2003 series “Plastic Bodies” is a part of “Posing Beauty in African American Culture,” a current show curated by MacArthur fellow Deborah Willis at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. In these images, Bright Photoshops images of individuals of various ethnic backgrounds with Barbie dolls. Challenging European ideals of feminine beauty, the disturbing merger highlights the alien nature of the dolls. Juxtaposed against human flesh, the dolls are grotesquely painted, glossy, disproportionate.
Bright’s series effectively breaks the urge to see oneself within the Barbie doll; the viewer yearns to gaze at and to connect to the human subject, and the Barbie frustratingly obscures our view. The parts of these uncanny portraits that we identify with are the real and familiar parts: the flesh, the human hair. The corporate Mattel stamp is dehumanizing, but the tribal tattoo pictured on one woman’s lower back is a signifier of individuality and selfhood. Each woman Photoshopped with the dolls is unique, but time and again, the dolls are devastatingly monotonous. Take a look at the full images on her website, and let us know what you think in the comments!
Images via Sheila Pree Bright