A recent exhibition in Italy that includes several burqa-wearing Barbies has unleashed, of course, a wave of scandal, much of which is precisely the sort of ill-informed knee-jerk backlash about Islamic women that makes my skin crawl. Typical is Barbara Kay’s assertion, in the National Post, that these are “travesties of multiculturalism” that “make a mockery of disempowered women who have been stripped of all human dignity, women with no means of challenging their forced depersonalization.” OK, so fierce rhetoric. But let’s unpack a little, shall we?
The Barbies in question are part of a 500-piece exhibition of Eliana Lorena-dressed dolls at the Salone del Cinquecento in Florence, backed by Mattel. These one-off dolls will be displayed, then auctioned off by Sotheby’s on behalf of a charity called Rewrite the Future, which benefits children affected by war. In addition to a few fluorescent burqa-clad Barbies, we find geisha Barbies, shalwar khameez Barbies, chador Barbies, and what can only be described as slutty co-ed Barbies. In short, the collection runs the gamut of cheesy feminine stereotypes, by region. So far, I’d say we’re pretty firmly on standard Barbie territory.
Kay writes plaintively that, with this exhibition, “Barbie has shed her cultural innocence.” It seems to me a thundering irony to accuse the burqa of having suddenly rendered Barbie anti-feminist, given that the doll is based on a German hooker called Lilli and has a—shall we say—fraught history as a model for women’s self-images.