Director Greta Gerwig’s highly anticipated Barbie (2023) officially hit theaters today, July 21. Toy manufacturer Mattel spent an estimated $145 million to make the movie and $100 million to market it, and Barbie could gross as much as $500 million — all while actors and screenwriters continue their prolonged strike for better pay and labor conditions.

Hollywood’s treatment of its workers is contrasted by the optimistic — and very pink — cultural moment surrounding Mattel’s new film, largely spurred by the movie’s extensive marketing campaign: Excited fans are throwing Barbie-themed parties and the Internet is flooded with memes. But long before Gerwig took on Barbie, visual artists were incorporating, critiquing, and reimagining the doll to question gender roles, body expectations, and double standards surrounding female sexuality.

Barbie is forever 19, her molded plastic face protecting her from the forces of gravity and slowing collagen production. In a 1994 work titled “Aged Barbie,” artist Nancy Burson used a so-called “aging machine” — which she helped create — to rack up the years on the doll’s face. She made the Polaroid Spectra photograph on commission for a book titled The Art of Barbie (1994). Burson told Hyperallergic that the image was rejected.

“They were horrified,” the artist said. In an ironic twist, Burson’s age machine actually played nice with Barbie. The doll maintains her expertly executed eyeliner. Her perfectly plucked eyebrows point into two wisely skeptical arches. She has smile lines and crow’s feet as well, universal traces of a life well lived.

In 1999, Mattel sued artist Tom Forsythe over his 78-photograph series showing the doll in and around household appliances, including in a fondue pot and wrapped in tortillas and covered with salsa in a casserole dish for “Barbie Enchiladas” (1997). The case hinged on the question of whether Forsythe’s photographs constituted fair use, as Barbie and her image were being invoked in the service of cultural critique.

“I thought the pictures needed something that really said ‘crass consumerism,’ and to me, that’s Barbie,” Forsythe told the New York Times in 2004. Ultimately, the salsa-slathered Barbies prevailed: The culinary Barbies were unlikely to comprise a “substitute for products in Mattel’s markets or the markets of Mattel’s licensees,” the court ruled, and Mattel was ordered to pay $1.8 million in the artist’s legal fees.

In 2005, curator Leonie Bradbury organized a Barbie show at the Montserrat College of Art in Massachusetts that included a few of Forsythe’s images. “Part of why I was interested in Barbie as art is that until 2001, when the Utah photographer Tom Forsythe won the lawsuit Mattel had brought against him, this type of art work was considered illegal, which to me was an intriguing concept,” Bradbury told Hyperallergic. The case had opened a legal door for artists to use Barbie as a symbol for cultural critique.

Ghada Amer, “Barbie Loves Ken, Ken Loves Barbie” (1995), canvas, thread, and hangers, 59 3/4 x 24 1/4 x 4 1/2 inches and 63 x 24 x 6 inches (© Ghada Amer, courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery)

In her 1995 work “Barbie Loves Ken, Ken Loves Barbie,” artist Ghada Amer printed two suits with the phrases that make up the installation’s title. The outfits are both onesies — garments that should exist without gender, as there are no skirts, heels, or suit jackets to reference traditional women’s and men’s clothing. Still, it is obvious whose onesie is whose. Amer has transferred Barbie’s body proportions onto her costume, making the exaggerated proportions of her body even more startling.

Other artists have physically incorporated the ubiquitous doll into sculptural representations of daily life. In a 2021–2022 show at Cincinnati’s Weston Art Gallery titled The Barbie is Her/Me: A Reflection of Black Women During Quarantine, artist Kandice Odister used Barbies to depict real-life women who had inspired her during the height of the pandemic. The exhibition included a series of stylized portraits and intricate dioramas portraying scenes from daily life. One Barbie sits on a Zoom call; another holds Lysol wipes above two paper bags stuffed with groceries. In “Voice Over Queen (Tori Wilkins)” (2021), a Barbie appears to film a TikTok video, her face illuminated with the timestamped glow of a COVID-era ring light. The show also draws attention to the comparative lack of Black dolls for young children, an idea also explored in a 2021 exhibition by Betye Saar titled Black Doll Blues.

Installation view of Kandice Odister’s exhibition The Barbie is Her/Me: A Reflection of Black Women During Quarantine at the Weston Art Gallery (photo by Tony Walsh, courtesy Weston Art Gallery)
Rachel Harrison, from the series Voyage of the Beagle (2007), 57 pigmented inkjet prints, 16 x 12 inches (image courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali)

In 2007, artist Rachel Harrison presented an exhibition titled Voyage of the Beagle, referencing the name of the ship that sailed Charles Darwin around the world. The 57-photograph series presents a seemingly random selection of images (including mannequins and a bronze statue of Gertrude Stein) that reflect the artist’s own expedition to create a survey of sculpture. One image depicts Barbie wearing a hooded fur coat: It’s a closeup portrait that portrays the doll as if she were a real person. Loose hairs tickle her forehead, and her eyes are dusted in shimmering eyeshadow. Harrison has humanized the doll, but ultimately Barbie is just another form of sculpture, as immovable and enduring as the rest of the artworks exhibited alongside her.

Like Burson with her “Aged Barbie,” artist E.V. Day also explores the notion of the doll’s eternal youth. Since 2001, Day has created a series titled Mummified Barbies that she views as a comment on Western society’s obsession with women who have been exaggerated and sexualized to the point of becoming fantastical. With Barbie’s body covered, Day hopes to draw a comparison between Barbie and the long line of mythologized women before her, all the way back to Venus and Aphrodite. Wrapped in sparkling linen and beeswax, Barbie becomes another relic of antiquity, dehumanized and displayed by contemporary society.

In his sculptural work “Venus Milo” (2022), French artist Alben also drew parallels between Barbie and Venus. The doll and resin piece takes the form of the Ancient Greek “Venus de Milo” (c. 150-125 BCE). The iconic image of Barbie doesn’t feel out of place inside the famous antiquity — the more than 2,000-year-old statue and the 64-year-old plastic doll, it seems, have become equally iconic.

With over one billion dolls sold, the toy lends itself to accumulation in sculpture, as seen on a mass scale in Annette Thas’s two-part Wave series, which were exhibited in Sydney, Australia, in 2014 and 2015. The first sculpture was made with 3,000 dolls; the second with a whopping 6,000, towering ominously over viewers in a way that subverts Barbie’s individual scale.

Annette Thas, “wave 1” (2014), more than 3,000 Barbie dolls, 10 x 8 x 1 1/2 feet (photo courtesy the artist)

No discussion of Barbie art could be complete without Argentinian artists Emiliano Paolini and Marianela Perelli’s series of Barbie and Ken dolls dressed up as religious figures. Their planned 2014 exhibition at POPA Gallery in Buenos Aires was canceled after it elicited backlash from religious figures, but the works found at least one pious fan. Matt Kennedy, director of Gallery 30 South in Pasadena, California, which exhibited the series in 2016 and 2019, says one of the artists’ hand-made “Virgen de Luján” Barbies eventually made its way into Pope Francis’s art collection.

Pool & Marianela, “Barbie: Virgen de Lujan (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception),” plastic, MDF, acrylic in window box, 17 1/2 x 10 1/2 x 4 inches (©️ 2023 Pool y Marianela; image courtesy Gallery 30 South and Pop Sequentialism)

The start of the actors’ strike ended the press tour for the new film, but for now, Hollywood’s striking unions haven’t stated that watching the new film means crossing the picket line. Still, some artists have taken aim at Mattel recently: Stuart Semple launched a pink paint in defiance of the company’s trademark over Barbie’s characteristic pigment. Whether you’re skipping Barbie in protest of its mega-corporation backer or standing in line for the film as we speak, it’s worth remembering the ways in which the 64-year-old doll has cemented unattainable societal expectations into our general consciousness, and how artists have used Barbie to dismantle the very ideas she represents.

Alben, “Venus Milo” (2022), Barbies and resin (image courtesy the artist)

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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  1. Barbie dolls are used to tell the story of Karen Carpenter’s life and bring attention to the disease of Anorexia in an early film, “Superstar”, by Todd Haynes.

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