LOU'S VIEWS: Merits of Barbie exhibit debatable

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Lou Harry

This week, IBJ Style columnist Gabrielle Poshadlo joined me on a trip to the Barbie exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Our reactions differed.

LH: I truly believe I went in to “Barbie: The Fashion Experience” with an open mind. It was my heart, however, that sank when I saw how willfully The Children’s Museum has turned major gallery space into what looks like an FAO Schwartz showroom. With Mattel and Barbie branding everywhere, I had trouble finding merit amongst the pink-itude. Yes, it’s fun for kids to play dress up. But do we really need this esteemed institution pushing such a consume-consume-consume show?

GP: Barbie is a toy that you can buy, so therefore it’s inevitable there should be a certain element of that. But when I was in that space, which is admittedly very pink, I didn’t feel compelled to buy anything. Rather, I was filled with the giddiness that comes with Barbie. The Barbie fantasyland I was standing in is a celebration of how Barbie makes girls feel, which is beautiful. And she’s been making girls feel pretty for generations, making them excited about becoming a woman. There’s nothing wrong with the silliness or the “pinkitude,” because those are big parts of girlhood. I’m 24 years old, and, frankly, I didn’t want to leave.

LH: It’s difficult not to address the consumerism when a prominently displayed quote at the exhibition states “Barbie needs to wear great shoes because every girl needs to wear great shoes.” The two words that really turned my stomach there are “every” and “needs.” There’s nothing here to contradict the idea that one of Barbie’s messages is that we have to buy more and more clothes in order to feel beautiful.

“Barbie: The Fashion Experience” at The Children’s Museum through 2011, features items from the Mattel archive, as well as homemade adaptations. (Photo Courtesy Mattel)

GP: I’ll admit that quote is dumb and the perfect example of why fashion people get a bad rap. But that quote isn’t representative of the thoughtfulness involved in the exhibit. The displays of homemade Barbie clothes made by an Indiana woman’s grandmother show a part of Barbie history that is very human, and widespread. My grandma wouldn’t buy Barbie clothes for my mom because she thought they were too expensive and poorly made. So every outfit my mom played with (outfits later passed down to me) were pieces of a vast rebellion against the consumerism you’re referring to. I think it’s cool to involve that in the exhibit, since the homemade clothes and the implicit mother-daughter bonding are as much a part of the Barbie institution as the little plastic high heels.

LH: I’m not sure how you found the homemade clothes in the midst of all the mass-produced stuff. Honestly: Is there ever a reason for a boxed “Barbie as Heidi Klum” doll to be under glass in a museum? And shouldn’t a thoughtful museum show include something about the alternate views of Barbie? If this were a G.I. Joe exhibition, I would expect something addressing the debate over whether violent toys have an impact on young boys. I didn’t find anything here that looked at how young girls have been affected by this impossible-figure icon.

GP: Let’s not forget the venue, here. The Egypt exhibit across the hall doesn’t mention the country’s political unrest. There are only photos of women in headscarves smiling politely, and a mock-marketplace that looks more like a set from “Aladdin” than an actual desert bazaar. If the Barbie exhibit were at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, I’d expect a video loop of some psychiatrist commenting on how girls are disappointed when they don’t end up with a body like Barbie’s. But this is a place for kids. It’s a place for little girls to play dress up and strut their stuff on the runway, and learn how Barbie is a big deal everywhere, not just in their playroom. For Barbie’s 50th birthday this year, Fashion week had a Barbie runway show, where designers like Betsy Johnson designed Barbie clothing for live models. It solidified the doll’s place in fashion history, which is fascinating.  

 LH: OK, so I shouldn’t expect Children’s Museum shows to always address the downside of a subject. And there’s clearly been more thought put in to the fun factor here than in the lame “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” exhibition that occupies a corner of the basement. Perhaps I’d object less if the show were more temporary. The fact that Barbie is staying put until 2011 makes it feel like a permanent part of the museum. And for a single consumer product to be so dominant in this beloved space feels excessive. Sure, Lego was here first. But that had a shorter stay—and felt more about creativity than about acquiring the right stuff.

GP: I think I’ve been to the Children’s Museum about five times this year, and had the Barbie exhibit been there during those visits, I’m pretty sure I’d have walked through each time. I am that delighted with it. Sure, the dress-up clothes will probably look a little tired by the end of the whole thing, but I think your disappointment in the museum’s choice has a lot to do with your gender. No offense, Lou, but you’re not supposed to be thrilled with writing down your “favorite Barbie memory” while perched on a little pink stool. This exhibit is filled with stuff that girls won’t get sick of. For two years there will be something for little sis to look forward to while she’s being dragged around the Dinosphere for the 20th time.

LH: Can’t argue when the gender card has been played, so let’s end it here. See you in the gift shop (although that would feel redundant).

Readers: Feel free to join our debate, which continues on Lou Harry’s A&E blog. Find it at here.•


This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.



  • huh?
    Why the personal attack and assumptions about my children?
    I was not questioning anyone's right to own or play with Barbie dolls. I have a storage bin full of them in my garage that my daughters and son had great times with. I raised issues about the clear commercialism of the show--and allowed Gabrielle Poshadlo to provide an alternative view to my own. If I were the person you seem to think I am, why would I bother crating a forum that allowed for her views?

    You ask if we woulde see this type of article for a Hot Wheels display. Not sure, but I clearly stated in the piece that I would expect a show on G.I. Joe to put it in some critical context.

    Thanks for reading,
  • Lou Harry's Demons
    I have a basic problem with the underlying premise of Lou Harry's article. Just who is the parent in Lou's house? I'm tired of adults downplaying popular culture because they won't (or can't) control their own children. I owned one of the first Barbie dolls and my grandmother and Mattel provided the clothes. I knew Barbie as a fashion diva, but she didn't rule my world. My parents kept me in check. I received Barbie clothes, house and the official sports car as gifts over the years. My doll also wore my own fashion creations made with safety pins and fabric pieces (and even multi-colored Kleenex tissues) when I was too young to operate the sewing machine. By the time I was old enough to use the machine, I moved on from Barbie. My Barbie fashion creations served me well through life in making doll clothes for my own children, home draperies and even custom pillows. I didn't turn into a card-carrying nut for shoes or a zealot for a closet full of clothes.

    Would we see this type of article for a Hot Wheels display? Would Lou postulate that Mattel turned a generation of boys into turbo-charged engine-mongering men? I think Lou needs to evaluate his own psychological demons and check his sexism at the door. As a nation, we need to re-evaluate our priorities of home and family and review our spending habits, but we certainly don't need the Barbie police to edit the museum's exhibit.

    Why not an article on the reason museums spend hundreds of thousands to rent exhibits instead of developing more "humble" offerings? We'd have more displays during the year and hire a few local people in the display and research departments if museums constructed their own displays.
  • A GI Joe Exhibit?
    I think this is a great idea. Then again, the origin's of "GI Joe" were really with our troops, which led to comics, which led to The Story of GI Joe, which led to toys. But I'm not sure I'd say that the toys and violence were inextricably intertwined. Check out www.gijoemuseum.com
  • pigeon-holing
    Thank you, Lou, for your perspective. I completely agree with you.

    I find Gabrielle's perspective disturbing. In addition to the consumerism that has no place in a museum of discovery for kids that Lou covered so well, I find it difficult to swallow the sexism and gender pigeon-holing of this exhibit. There is so much to say, and I am so deeply offended by it, that I can't do it justice here. Suffice to say that it is quite unacceptable to me that a place where girls should be getting excited about science and learning has a 2-year exhibit that tells them they should be more concerned about high heels and clothes.
  • I like dinosaurs.
    I don't like it when it is assumed that ALL girls prefer barbies and ALL boys prefer dinosaurs. I can tell you that as a child, and as a little sis, I would've much preferred to visit the dinosaur exhibit than a barbie one. To be quite frank, I thought barbies were silly. I thought dinosaurs were AWESOME. But that's just one girl's opinion. And that's okay. Girls and boys are allowed to like, and do like, lots of different things, across gender stereotypes.

    There's a lot more going on here than just the negative undercurrent of mass consumerism--it's the psychologically damaging undercurrent of gender stereotyping and branding.
  • Barbie
    I wasn't much of a "Barbie girl" growing up. My parents bought me 3 in all my childhood and one was to replace the same one that got lost. And while I wasn't that into Barbie's, when I took my 3 and 2 year old girls to the Museum (not intentionally for this exhibit) even I got excited to see the ONE Barbie I ever really loved under glass (Western Barbie, circa 1980). Love her or hate her...she is an icon that any woman or girl living since the 60s identifies with on some level. As someone who minored in Gender Studies, I could debate endlessly on the merits and de-merits of Barbie...but in the end..do I feel this exhibit negatively affected my children? No. And I'd probably take them again..because like me...they weren't too interested in it..ha ha...we passed through and bee-lined for the dinosaurs....
  • Barbie
    Barbie Dolls were a mainstay for young girls in a world dominated by toys made for young boys. Is it really necessary to apply a litmus test to Barbie? Talking about Barbie as an instrument of consumerism when all little girls wanted when playing with Barbie was to have a fun hands on toy that they could decide how to dress? Sometimes I think we look for the downside in things as adults because we forget over time how much fun we had as children.

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