Fashion dolls – the most ubiquitous of which is Mattel’s Barbie – have been the focus of much cultural interest and critique by a wide variety of commentators, from academics, journalists and social theorists to writers, artists and film-makers. Most people tend to be highly polarized in their attitude toward these dolls – Barbie is typically abhorred by critics because of her rampant materialism and physically unattainable gure, roundly scorned because of the effect her plasticphysique may have on impressionable young girls as they grow up in a culture fixated on physical beauty.
At the same time, Barbie is lauded by her fans as being a potentially empowering role model for young girls – in her time she has had many careers, from school teacher to rock star to astronaut, and her most recent consumer incarnation is tending to the offspring of her friends as a pediatrician. Her possessions and achievements far outstrip those of her boyfriend Ken – even in advertisements, when Barbie and Ken go for a drive in one of her many cars, she is always behind the wheel.
A great deal of these attacks on or defenses of Barbie project her supposedly negative/positive effects onto girls and women, yet very little literature exists on how she is played with, what roles she takes, and the storylines and events which commonly befall her. When little girls play with dolls, it is traditionally viewed as an innocuous, passive, feminine act, bereft of the violence their brothers enact in their play with guns and cars. However, in my experience, the play is generally anything but innocuous and passive.
In working on this piece, I interviewed many girls and women and collected the storylines that they played out with these dolls. In these storylines, sex and violence are both explicit and commonplace – Barbie regularly meets a terrible and painful end, either dying at the hands of another doll or the girl playing with her (as well as at the hands of many a sadistic brother or sister); through torturing, fighting or accident she often sustains horrible injuries, which may become complicated because “the doctors think she is lying and won’t treat her”; she may become pregnant “without knowing it” and leave the baby to die on the kitchen table after she gives birth because “she wants to go dancing”;
she will embrace, fondle and sleep with one or more of the other dolls, often at the same time, by force if needs be; she will marry another female doll or an animal if no men are available to her; if she does manage to successfully wed a male, the police may come and “kill him because he is drunk.”
Her extensive wardrobe and long hair are styled to great effect – in addition to her elaborate wedding outfits and chic fashion ensembles, she may be in drag, achieved by simply tying her hair back or donning a trouser suit; she may take the form of a religious icon such as the Virgin Mary; she may have her head pulled off, fingers cut off, limbs removed, or her body emblazoned with ink genitals and nipples.
In short, many girls take Barbie and use her to their own ends – she serves as a safe vehicle for their imagination. She role-plays scenarios and explores ideas and emotions they may not understand or have any direct experience of. Barbie is a blank plastic canvas with a perma-smile onto which little girls can project many different things, from the innocent to the unsettling. In the end, value judgments about Barbie become irrelevant; what is more important is how she functions as a toy, how she is manipulated by the children who play with her, how she is used as a lens through which human experience is viewed.
The libretto of XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!! takes the thesis of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata as a jumping-off point, following three women and their boyfriends through a tragic narrative. The libretto underpins the structure of the opera – the puppeteers manipulate the dolls through the story word-for- word, as if in a play.
The music co-exists with the ow of the libretto and actions of the dolls, whether by making concrete contact with the words of the text, or providing extra-textual layers of meaning. The singers do not function like traditional opera singers – their identity is fluid, and they may portray one or more characters or none at all; they sing, shout, speak, breathe and whisper the text, and they make textless sounds. The musicians also switch modes throughout the piece, vocalizing in addition to playing their instruments, commenting on the narrative as they understand it and making physical gestures. The apparatus of the piece is laid bare in visual terms and musical terms– the dolls, puppeteers, camera operators, singers and musicians are clearly visible on the stage. Each audience member’s understanding of the piece is ultimately a negotiation of the interaction between all the different elements.
—Jennifer Walshe, 2017
Opera for Barbie dolls and ensemble (2003), adapted by Kabinetttheater
Date: March 6, 2018, MC2:, Grenoble
Iannis Xenakis — Psappha
Bernhard Gander — Call me: 0666/666 666 World Premiere
Jennifer Walshe — XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!!
main coordinator: Julia Reichert
puppeteers: Katarina Csanyiova, Tanja Ghetta, Walter Kukla
set & puppet design: Maxe Mackinger, Julia Reichert
costumes: Burgis Paier
video: Nicole Aebersold
light & video technic: Jan Wielander
Andreas Fischer, double bass
Jennifer Walshe, Juliet Fraser, voice
Björn Wilker, percussion
conductor: Brad Lubman