Burqa Barbie Backlash

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.

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Crushing on Nightwood

Nightwood is a stylish musical trio from Montreal, whose newest album, Carte Marina, is heavily inspired by all things nautical and dreamy. Amber, Jeremy, and Erin will be playing a free show at Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern on January 19, 2010. Here we talk to the girls of Nightwood about the importance of shopping local, band uniforms, and the best-dressed musicians of all time.

You’ve done some interesting alterations to garments in some of your videos. How do you feel these works fit in with your music?

Amber: The videos were fairly simple to make. We’d set up my laptop in a corner with a time-lapse application to record us while we were making stuff. It’s a bit magical to watch them afterward – we’re still pretty new to tailoring and sewing and so it’s like an extra high-five at the end of a project! We enjoy the creative control that comes with almost every aspect of being an independent band: designing album cover artwork, promoting ourselves – the whole bit. So same goes with our clothes! I must admit that a lot of why we ended up tailoring our clothes is that we can’t always afford to buy new ones- we really put almost all of our disposable income into the band and so tailoring, making, or thrifting our wardrobes is practical.

Erin: It would appear we’re somewhat obsessed with process! I tend to keep little NW mementos (set lists, scraps of paper with lyrics or song ideas, recordings of early versions of songs, etc.) and we even time-lapsed the entire making of our record, which Amber set to the song Bright Girls of Summer for the album’s first music video. I’ve found the process of making art to be artful in itself and am grateful for all the documentation!

What role, if any, does feminism play in your wardrobe choices?

Amber: Choosing what to wear so that I can do the things I want to do in my life can be considered feminist, I think. I really appreciate when independent designers add pockets to their creations in case I need carry stuff in them to pull a MacGyver move to get out of a tricky spot. In the past I used to confuse the reasons why I would dress up for a performance, for example, thinking I had to dress myself up to be more easy on the eyes of others. It’s exciting to think of stage clothes as being separate from my regular wardrobe and somehow an extension of the songs we play. I think that when I own that, I’m asserting myself as a human being and artist, and that’s pretty feminist.

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