If the Norton Museum of Art’s “Wheels and Heels” exhibition—its look at the iconic Barbie and Hot Wheels toy brands through the ages—wants to teach us anything, it’s that these iconic playthings have changed with the times.
They’ve grown in technical sophistication and thematic density, expanding from matchbook-sized model cars to superhighway systems and from dolls in modest print dresses to fashion-forward women with Dream houses and sports cars and, significantly, professions that aren’t limited to nursing and flight-attending.
Except that Barbie really hasn’t changed. She may be able to don Native American headdresses and Harley jackets now, but she’s still the same impossibly proportioned fantasy object. The world around her may have grown more progressive, but Barbie herself is a permanently unattainable fixture, fundamentally unchanged since her 1959 debut in a zebra-patterned swimsuit. In real life, her dimensions would be roughly 36-18-33, her diet presumably consisting of raw celery and the occasional dressing-less salad.
And by focusing only on the positive aspects of Barbie’s 55-year existence—as an educational primer for young girls on topics ranging from relationships and schooling to ethnic diversity—and not on the doll’s incalculably deleterious impact on the bodies of impressionable women, “Wheels and Heels” does a disservice to the Norton. It’s a hagiographic Mattel commercial masquerading as an evenhanded assessment of the toys’ cultural impact. Little girls will enjoy touring it—the museum was filled with them during a morning visit this week—but the show’s lack of insight into Barbie’s damaging effects is doing them more harm than good.
As for the model cars, which constitute the “Wheels” half of “Wheels and Heels,” I found nothing objectionable in them, and I liked this part of the exhibition the most. If Barbie dolls ostensibly prepared young girls for Life, Matchbox cars and their various accouterments prepared young motorists for life on the road. The earliest examples of these die-cast metal replicas were varied, encompassing a far broader scope of the driving populace than Barbie dolls did the female gender; you’ll see moving vans and oil tankers, London buses and cement trucks, sports cars and the garages to house them.
With the brand’s evolution into sleekly designed automotive futurism, the modern Hot Wheels models continue to look one step ahead of today’s technology—and they seem like they’re in motion even when they’re not. Their makers’ engineering ingenuity is apparent in Mattel’s elaborate, rollercoaster-like tracks and, later, complete highway systems with tollbooths, street lamps and road signs. But the streamlining of its cars as speedy, next-gen fantasy objects for boys led to a decline in technical detail and accuracy, a fact of which the show’s curator reminds us a number of times, his disappointment left unsaid but palpably felt.
Nevertheless, the Hot Wheels portion has some merit—but I can’t get behind the Barbie displays at all. The offensiveness of this “exploration” of the doll is, at first, the stuff of ludicrous amusement: A Babysitter Barbie’s reading material includes a weight-loss book, and it’s safe to assume her makers were not subversive ironists when they gave it to her. When an African-American Barbie is finally introduced in the 1980s, she dons a big Afro, and the phrase “She’s dynamite” is scrawled along the bottom of the box. All the doll is missing is a shoulder-mount boombox blasting some Blaxploitation soundtrack … and we’re supposed to applaud Mattel for its diversity?
I was, in fact, more bothered by the self-congratulatory ethos of the brand’s “We Girls Can Do Anything” campaign, which began in 1985 and which saw Barbie entering the Air Force, playing in the NBA, becoming a sign language interpreter and running for president. Had this campaign launched in, I don’t know, 1961, that might be saying something. But this is a brand that waits until progressive ideas are safely embraced by the mass populace before endowing its avatars with them. And it goes without saying that in all incarnations, Barbie still bears the same unattainable hourglass figure, her “weight” permanently fixed at 110 pounds.
This exhibition needs a counterbalance, a room full of Barbie critics to offer a side of the story that doesn’t feel culled from a Ruth Handler autobiography. There have been enough of these critics in the art world, dating at least to Mark Napier’s “Distorted Barbie” Web art installation in 1996, whose digitally altered Barbies led eventually to an annual “Altered Barbie” art show in San Francisco, which has been running 13 years strong.
In 2012, a Vancouver-based photographer named Dina Goldstein created a series of fantasy-puncturing photographs, using mannequins, that depicted Barbie and Ken’s marriage as a real-life, ill-suited coupling, full of sexual frustration, lovers’ quarrels, an increasing lack of shared passion, and an inevitable extramarital affair (Ken sleeps with another perfect-looking man).
Just one room of work like this would be enough to dispel the notion that the exhibition is an unabashed love letter to a toy that has damaged girls’ self-esteem for more than half a century. Heck, even a simple acknowledgment of the doll’s unintended objectification of women on a wall placard would be a start. At a time when girls—enabled by unethical doctors—are actually destroying their bodies in efforts to resemble “human Barbies,” such perspective isn’t just helpful in reaching some objectivity. It’s necessary. I expected more from the Norton.
“Wheels and Heels: The Big Noise About Little Toys” runs through Oct. 26 at Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Admission costs $12 adults and $5 children. Call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.