Aaaargh! Not another Barbie!

Aaaargh! Not another Barbie!

As most of you will no doubt know, Barbie is a doll, loved by many generations of little girls. (There was also Ken, but he’s not really part of this blog).

Barbie is an icon, and she has also become an element in quite a few IBDP student final art exhibitions. The proportions of the figure, the hair, the eyes and the smile are often used to represent the unattainable ideal, the pressure in this case on females  to become something unreal and unrealistic, to become the adorable but unattainable  ideal.

Students, usually female, include Barbie shrines in their exhibitions usually when they want to make a statement about feminism, or society, or the pressure they feel.
Sometimes the Barbies are crucified, or skewered, or wrapped in wire; sometimes they are positioned inside dismantled television sets or old computer monitors; sometimes they are clothed in feathers and blood.

Each time I encounter the Barbie I am struck by the contradiction: so new and original for the student, so old and somewhat predictable for me.
How to square that circle?
Well – if you are an art teacher (reading this blog) you can offer some insights to your students.

If one of them wants to incorporate Barbies into her art, remind the student of some of the wording in the visual arts guide, and discuss the meaning originality – what does original mean?

The Theory of Knowledge questions at the start of the guide include the question “Is it important for artworks to be original? Why?”

Later on, in the Studio Work section, is reference to “the development of original approaches, the discovery of creative solutions and the acquisition of technical skills.”

As part of the process of developing original approaches, Barbie may be weaned out of the piece…But if you like her (you know you do) you might be interested in a Guardian podcast from the 2009 Cambridge Festival of Ideas which discusses female stereotypes (Barbie and Ken Audio (37min 46sec), 26 Oct 2009)


Barbie info


  • Rhonda Laurie
    May 5, 2010

    I’m a little confused. If the idea to use a Barbie in the creation of the artwork is original to the student and one that they consider a creative solution to what they are trying to convey, doesn’t that count as originality? I know that using Barbies may seem so cliché as the image is so common, but I think that if the student has really investigated and come up with their own ideas of how to get their point across using the dolls, it has to be valid, regardless of how many times the assessor has seen it before. If the students are not aware of how others have utilized Barbies in their work (outright copying the ideas of others) I don’t think it would be right to consider the artwork as less original simply because of the media they chose to use to convey their message. I think the important point here is the originality of the student’s work. If their DW’s contain valid evidence of their investigation and processes that support their creation of their images and their manipulation of the media, then their artwork must be a valid response to the question in the TOK guide.

  • triplea_av
    May 7, 2010

    Hi Rhonda,
    Sorry to have confused you!
    First of all, one of the aims of my Blog is to throw out a few provocative ideas, to generate discussion, and to some extent I am playing devil’s advocate – instigating exactly the kind of response that you have provided. So thanks.

    Having said that, if a student thinks using Barbie is original, then I still suggest that the student has not really done much research. It may be personally ‘valid’ but its hardly original.

    If the student knows that Barbie is a cliché and still uses the doll, then that might be a little more interesting, and interviews do indeed often provide a greater context and show a degree of understanding that was not immediately obvious – which is one of the purposes of the interview, of course.

    Finally – yes, its perfectly possible that the work is ‘a valid response to the ToK guide’.
    However, in the blog posting I was talking about visual arts students showing evidence in their final exhibition of investigation, and whether work containing a Barbie can be a successful part of an IBDP exhibition, which is assessed according to a variety of visual arts assessment descriptors.

    Thanks again for the comment!

  • Greg Morgan
    May 9, 2010

    The tortured Barbie is as perennial as the shrieking face in teenage artwork. It can require delicacy and tact to encourage students (particularly younger ones) to improve upon clichéd ideas such as the infamous ‘half head half skull/android’. The more prolific, well read and divergent students do usually move beyond these familiar expressions of angst. Having said that, there were at least 3 (quite nice) screaming portraits amongst my students’ IB exhibitions this year – and Francis Bacon did pretty well out of that one still image with the distressed nanny from Battleship Potemkin!

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