Daena Title, Dirty Fighter, 2010. Oil on canvas, 48” x 48”.
Barbie has inspired art from the likes of Andy Warhol and Karl Lagerfeld, both of whom are lauded for their doll-themed works on the Barbie website. Painter Daena Title probably won’t be added to that list anytime soon. In her latest series, “Drown the Dolls,” Barbie is murdered at the hands of anonymous prepubescent girls.
Title spent three years painting Barbie dolls submerged in bright, prismatic swimming pools, but the toy isn’t going for a swim. Barbie wears a tight midriff sweater in Big Doll (2008) and a puffy-sleeved ball gown in You’re Worrying About the Wrong Thing (2009), reminding the viewer that she’s nothing like her swimsuit-clad “tormentors.” The girls’ grinning mouths and bared teeth force the viewer to reflect not only on Barbie’s influence on girls’ body images, but also on how women interact with one another. Is a Barbie doll a friend, frenemy, archrival, or something else entirely?
Daena Title, You’re Worrying About the Wrong Thing, 2009. Oil on canvas, 48” x 60”.
Where did the inspiration come from for the “Drown the Dolls” series?
There was a wildfire here in Los Angeles, and there was this amazing photograph of one of the burnt houses with a dead bunny floating in the backyard pool. It was so eerie, horrible, and deeply moving. I didn’t totally understand the multilayered meaning that this would have for me. I just knew I had to do it. I wanted to do something under water – I loved the idea because it allows you to work realistically, representationally, and also abstractly. When I hit upon the Barbie idea, I was immediately obsessed. When I started painting the series, it took the third painting for me to realize I wasn’t painting a person, but a still life. I thought in my own mind that I was painting a person, a portrait.
Could these paintings have worked with another toy or symbol? What about a brunette Barbie?
I think not. There was just one Barbie when I was growing up. To me, I think of the Barbie that I didn’t play with, but that some of my friends did. A brunette wouldn’t be as loaded as a blonde one. In Mattel’s defense, they’ve made an effort. They’ve given her careers. This is all laudable. What’s so disturbing to me is the sense that yes, you can have a career, but only if you spend enough time to look like her, spend time on your wardrobe, only then is it acceptable. When Barbie first came out, the only dolls around were Babies...Barbie was incredibly cool. She was a teacher, a stewardess. She had a home in Malibu, she had a boyfriend. She was an independent figure that teens and younger girls could look up to. Being a mom wasn’t their only choice in life. So actually, it served a pretty feminist function. But it simultaneously became this yardstick for beauty. That was the other message. Your feet should always be ready for high heels. That’s where your energy should go.
Last year, these paintings sparked some criticism from feminist bloggers who pointed to violence against women in the works. Can you comment on this?
I was shocked by their reactions. I can’t control what people feel when they look at an image. I can only speak to what I felt. I think it’s inarguable that images with girls drowning Barbie dolls are images of empowerment and not violence against women. The image of Barbie as an example of how women are supposed to be in society, a reflection of that ideal of beauty, is extraordinarily suffocating. I see myself as a Barbie if I enact that image fully and take on those societal expectations. Then I feel submerged, that I cannot exist. So that’s what I get from these images. I do want personally to drown the Barbies to stamp out what society expects from little girls. There is a violence you could bring to that, but it’s not against these women, it’s against those who would entrap or suffocate women with this image.
What is the modern Barbie promoting? Having it all? What kind of power does Barbie still wield?
One of the things I learned from this show is that people love Barbie. One reason is because it allows them an enormous opportunity for creative play, which is very empowering. Others say all it teaches is that dressing up and buying accessories is important...Most of the women I spoke to who had Barbies tortured them. I don’t quite know what that was about, these anecdotal stories of people being very antagonistic toward Barbie and her look. If you spend all of your energy trying to look like a Barbie, that’s so much of your energy that isn’t oxygenated. Men spend less energy worrying about all the things women have to worry about to be attractive in this society. So much time on makeup, hair, nails, and accessories. Barbie dolls represent all of this to me...You can’t blame the Barbie doll for everything, but I think it is typical for the American culture. And I’m happy to see it drown.
I read that you’re currently working on “Pageants!” a series of paintings depicting real-life women in the moments after they win beauty pageants. This seems like a natural progression to me, from painting Barbie dolls to real-life Barbies.
Some would say that. Some women have stories and reasons to be peddling on their beauty. And some grew up with Barbie dolls. Each one has a story, and I hope to explore them. It’s not just that they’re Barbie dolls. These are real people with real stories who are trying to get somewhere, and this is what they’re using to do it...Society is allowing them an opportunity to get a reward and be judged for being beautiful, as opposed to what men are judged on, which is accomplishments. I think that’s the issue.
By Grace Duggan for BUST
All photos courtesy Daena Title