Artist Daena Title plays with Barbies. Unlike Barbie's key demographic, she is not a young girl trying on new outfits or setting up yet another date with Ken (Barbie and Ken got back together this Valentine's Day, in case you haven't heard). Title prefers to toss Barbie in a pool and call it art. Images of Barbie drowning and the metaphors this evokes means hours of fun for feminists, art enthusiasts, toy aficionados and more. Upon viewing Title's images, Joan Rivers was even inspired to reminisce about her special relationship with Barbie.
I met with Title at Koplin Del Rio gallery at an exhibit of her work, on view now through Februrary 26.
CS: How would you explain this project to somebody who hadn't seen it yet or didn't know what it was about?
DT: What I did was I took these Barbie dolls into my pool, and then I went under the water with them and photographed them under the water, and then there were reflections on the top of the underwater of the pool. And then that surface works as this faulty mirror, as a sort of funhouse distortion that becomes sort a fracturing and fragmentation of the Barbie doll under the water. But, at the same time, I think what you're looking at is a question about how women are reflected in society and how the Barbie doll is a part of that which bombards us in our society, and I've always been interested in that idea that how women see themselves reflected in society and what that society is trying to tell us by the way we see ourselves in all the images that are around us and the toys that little girls play with.
CS: So you've been dealing with these issues for a long time. But how did the actual Barbie aspect come about?
DT: I don't know if I can honestly answer it. I just know when the idea came to me it was just an immediate obsession and I've painted them now for three years. Does she deserve it? I'm not sure how I came to this but I just know the moment I took those photographs, they meant so much to me. This whole idea of drowning her. That small idea of feminine beauty that the Barbie doll represents. The other thing that it means for me is that those voices that I feel that we're all surrounded in society that affect our self esteem, I wish that I could quiet those voices in my head. I would like to drown those voices. If we could harness the power of all of the energy that we spent worrying about -- let's say, those 3 to 5 pounds on the scale, we could have solved so many problems.
CS: Ironically, Barbie is supposed to be really buoyant, right?
DT: She certainly survived. She's certainly been with us a long time and so she's buoyant in many ways. Many ways.
CS: What does Barbie mean to you?
DT: My experience with Barbie comes with living in LA and just in the people who work for me, in the last 7 years, 2 of them have had breast enhancements. That's a HUGE percentage of women who do not feel good about themselves without this plastic surgery. And that worries me. So, this idea of Barbie, which basically I think it was Steve Martin who explained it as two bowling balls on an ironing board, which is sort of what that image is, I find that offensive. And unattainable and.... sad. I understand it is important to look good. And you feel good when you look good, but that is different from this constant mirror that society holds up to us. I didn't play with the Barbie doll because I personally found it very creepy. That was my personal take. There are girls who love it. But, for me, I just wasn't interested in changing outfits in these, these... I thought it was really odd, actually. Why was I playing with naked teenagers? It didn't make any sense to me. But it evidently is still very powerful for a lot of girls.
CS: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
DT: There was a course in my high school. A women studies course, and they would show you advertisements and go, "Why is this woman smiling as she is doing her laundry? Is she that happy? Does she define herself really by how white her laundry is?" And the whole idea of being corralled into a certain set of beliefs simply because I was a woman hit me when I was quite young, and I have been adamant about it ever since and tormented by it I might say. Just obsessed by these things that haunt me about society narrowing what women can do. There are so many questions. So many nation builders that we have to create for America to gain strength and stay on top as an economic power. Inventors that we would like to create, particularly in science and math. And to have half of our population believe that "math is hard. It's not really for me." It's just not going to help us be a better nation. It's just not. It's just such a waste -- of a mind. So, yes, I'm a feminist. I was shocked when that word started to have a bad connotation. It's so funny about nomenclature. But I'm proud to use that word. So, yes.
CS: What is it about that nomenclature? What do you mean?
DT: Well, I have read that there's a generation of younger women who have benefited from the early feminist movement in the sense, let's say, Title IX, Equal Pay and greater opportunity though I wouldn't say the glass ceiling is gone by any means. And, yet, they don't call themselves feminists because that seems to have taken on, from what I could tell, a negative connotation and a negative... negative imagery, and they don't want to identify themselves with that even though they believe in the tenets of feminism as I see them: equal work for equal pay, equal opportunity. Men and women alike should be whatever they naturally should be or want to be as opposed to living in a little box of what they think is the definition of femininity or masculinity, for that matter.
CS: Do you have any plans for Ken?
DT: Oh. That's interesting. Many people have asked [me], "Why are you drowning Barbies? Why don't you drown Ken?" But, I guess it's because I'm not exposed to the voices that affect Ken. I'm not as interested in drowning the voices in Ken's head. So, no. Nothing for Ken.
CS: Barbie's obviously a known entity and she's certainly trademarked. Have you gotten any feedback back from Mattel, one way or another?
DT: I have not. Mattel has been thankfully quiet on this issue. I think part of it is there is a lot worse happening to Barbie out there than I'm doing. I have to say, they have tried everything they can to make Barbie come into the 21st century. They've given her jobs. They've tried to do everything but the fact is that the main thing that little girls do is -- its all about materialism and outfits that make you look good.
CS: So what toys and games should children play with?
DT: Unfortunately, all I can do is to raise the question. I don't have the answer. Though I do think that exposing your children to things other than dolls would be a good start and encouraging girls in the schools to continue with math and science. I think that's a good idea to think that that's cool and that is hot. That would be a good idea! When I was a kid, the science nerds with their slide rulers in their pockets -- now running Apple. They're the cool dudes. Right? So now what we need is some cool girls.