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Molly Rosner Headshot

The Violence of Abortion Barbie, Wendy Davis

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A couple weeks ago, Wendy Davis, the Texas gubernatorial candidate known for her 11-hour filibuster supporting women's reproductive rights, arrived at a Los Angeles fundraiser to be greeted by a disturbing and puzzling poster titled "Abortion Barbie Wendy Davis." The image portrays a doll with Wendy Davis's face, and the doll's open torso reveals a fetus doll inside. Next to the adult figure sits a pair of scissors and another baby doll of another (browner) race. The confusing image needs to be considered historically to understand why it is particularly shocking and discomfiting.

Dolls may seem like innocent toys for children, but they have been consistently connected to larger political moments. For example, dolls helped illustrate the injustice of racial segregation in the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case. Psychological tests run by Mamie Clark and Kenneth Clark played an important role in the trial. These tests showed that children internalized America's racial hierarchy when black children selected pink dolls over brown ones by a wide margin, suggesting the detrimental impact of "separate but equal." Dolls have served as tools for instruction for young girls throughout American history, ostensibly preparing children for motherhood and domestic labor. More recently, they have been used for sex education. Culturally, dolls embody everything from a fantasy of ideal womanhood (Barbie, Strawberry Shortcake, Polly Pocket) to terror and evil (Chucky, or the dolls featured in Poltergeist, Twilight Zone, and Saw).

This poster is particularly pernicious because it draws from ideals of passive womanhood and the notion of a threatening, empowered female. The fact that a doll seemed to be the most effective way for this conservative group to criticize Wendy Davis's platform on abortion speaks to a larger context of dolls, race, and women's bodies. Aside from the misleading depiction of abortion - associating crude tools such as scissors with the procedure and showing a full term baby inside the adult doll, just to name two - Wendy Davis herself is depicted as a doll. This diminishes her real, human, adult qualities. Here she is made into a toy to be played with, undressed and displayed. This poster takes an adult political figure and strips her of her clothing, literally exposing "her" insides.

This image also conflates child's play with abortion by taking agency away from the woman and making her a passive victim of the scissors that come with the doll. The image of sharp scissors next to a naked plastic body brings attention to an ignorant construction of abortion that links it explicitly with violence. The fact that this is supposedly an image of a child's toy makes the scissors all the more menacing.

Importantly, there are racial implications in this image that also have an historical context. The brown baby doll next to the white adult figure plays off long-standing fears of interracial relationships. This image simply appeals to the basest traditions of American racist culture and white supremacist fears of "race mixing." The image lumps together supposedly related "moral wrongs" -- interracial sex and abortion. This is not a new tactic. The history of lynching in this country is deeply connected with hyperbolic and racist claims that black men lust after and rape innocent white women. Showing Wendy Davis with a black baby is meant to label her as "fallen woman."

Affiliating Wendy Davis with Barbie attempts to transform a political leader into a vapid and empty-headed doll famous for her over-sexualized body. The pink Barbie-like frame of the poster plays up girlhood and downplays womanhood. Barbie dolls come in boxes that show one particular job or quality (for example, Nurse Barbie or Shopping Barbie). This Barbie's sole role is to have dangerous abortions. The poster removes Davis from the context of her election, her accomplishments in politics, and focuses solely on her body. The image of this fictional toy makes it appear that consumers can "buy" violence towards women, particularly Wendy Davis. Dolls can be dangerous, and this doll image fetishizes and commodifies a woman's body and abortion in a new and horrifying way.