BY Sam Moore in Opinion | 14 AUG 23

Life in Plastic: Reshaping the Legacy of Barbie Through Art

From Greer Lankton to Cindy Sherman, Sam Moore looks at works that have subverted the doll’s sexless femininity

BY Sam Moore in Opinion | 14 AUG 23

In the beginning, there was The Doll. So posits the opening scene of Greta Gerwig’s bright pink, existential comedy, Barbie (2023), which shows young girls play contentedly with baby dolls – as if all that’s available is a trial run of motherhood – until an enormous Barbie (Margot Robbie) appears before them like the monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In an echo of that film’s monkeys smashing up bones, the children then destroy their baby dolls as a new possible future opens up. Of course, this monumental Barbie is the image of perfection – not a hair out of place, her outfit on point, her smile picture-perfect. It’s the perfection that these dolls represent, and the pressure placed on real women to embody it, which Gerwig’s film takes aim at. While it does so with family-friendly messages of inclusivity and understanding, it comes in the wake of a tradition in visual art that has been complicating the figure of the doll for decades.


In Gerwig’s Barbie, the gradual disintegration of the perfect life of Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie makes the other dolls recoil in horror. Her morning routine is no longer idyllic – the shower too cold, her descent from the Dream House no longer graceful – and, as her posture and poise become all too human, the other Barbies are horrified by the idea she has flat feet. Decades earlier, however, American photographer Laurie Simmons had already challenged the ideals that the doll – still so often a feminine, domesticated figure – represented. In ‘Interiors’, a series of photographs from the 1970s of dolls and dollhouses, Simmons exposes how hollow the notion of perfection is. In New Kitchen/Aerial View/Seated (1979), a wife, in a red dress, sits at a kitchen table laden with food. But there’s nobody opposite Simmons’s domestic goddess, lending an emptiness to this scene of supposed perfection, while the stains on the tiled floor give the sense of a mask slipping away. The same is true of First Bathroom/Woman Kneeling (1978), in which the same doll, in the same dress, is on her knees cleaning a bathtub in a house that already looks pristine, seemingly for no-one. Throughout the images in ‘Interiors’, we only ever see the labour of a housewife, whose solitude makes us wonder who or what this pursuit of impossible perfection is for.

Laurie Simmons, Pushing Lipstick (Full Shadow), 1979, from the series ‘Early Color Interiors’, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and Amanda Wilkinson Gallery

As feminist ideas evolved, so too did the use of the doll as a symbol to be challenged and subverted. Barbie’s physically perfect yet sexless body became a complex site of political art. This idea takes on a strange, monstrous dimension in the work of artists like Greer Lankton and Cindy Sherman, both of whom sexualize dolls in ways that create unsettling contrasts with the impossible perfection of their bodies. In Sissy’s Bedroom (1985), for instance, Lankton not only photographs her doll in a grungy domestic setting – surrounded by posters of punk bands and silver screen idols – but also gives it a face that’s worlds away from the uniformity of Barbie along with genitalia. Sherman’s work from the 1990s manipulates dolls in a similar way: crashing them into an approximation of human sexuality. Untitled #261 (1992), for instance, shows a doll with its limbs manipulated into a pose that might be agony or ecstasy, with genitals and breasts on the body, and a face that we read as male. Work like this not only challenges the expectation that dolls should present a sexless femininity but also, in a crude way, shows the fragility of the relationship between dolls and the gender binary – Lankton’s work provides an example of what it means for trans artists to respond to Barbie and what she represents, opening the door for different bodies and identities.

Greer Lankton, It's All About ME, not you (detail), 1996, installation. Courtesy: The Mattress Factory Museum, Pittsburgh

In 1980, Mattel released the first non-white dolls to bear the name of Barbie. Prior to that, since the doll’s 1959 debut, she had always been white; any dolls of colour had been Barbie’s friends. But more contemporary responses to the iconic toy have challenged the idea that corporate inclusivity is a victory for feminism. In her ‘Plastic Bodies’ series (2003), Sheila Pree Bright combined the faces of real women with those of dolls, showing that Barbie’s impossible perfection is no more attainable simply because it’s being sold to a wider public.

Sheila Pree Bright, Untitled  #10, 2003, from the series ‘Plastic Bodies’, archival pigment print. Courtesy: the artist

Grappling with similar concepts, Gerwig’s film has been praised for the diversity of its cast – which features actors of colour and trans actors all playing versions of Barbie – although it also shows the limits of any feminism that tries to affect change while being overseen by giant, corporate entities. If anything, Gerwig’s Barbie underscores that, while the doll may have waned as a cultural phenomenon within the visual arts, it has evolved into something else: a term to be reclaimed. Rooted in late-20th-century ball culture, the use of the term ‘doll’ within the trans community feels accentuated in the wake of Barbie’s release, with trans people coming together, all dolled up in pink, to celebrate Gerwig’s film. While all facets of the doll have evolved – in a constant push-and-pull with changing definitions of feminism – Barbie herself remains little changed: a monolith casting a shadow from which we’re still trying to make our way free.

Main image: Greta Gerwig, Barbie, 2023, film still. Courtesy: © 2023 Warner Bros

Sam Moore is a writer and editor. They are one of the co-curators of TISSUE, a trans reading series based in London.