August 26, 2023

Beyond the Plastic - Barbie's Impact on Art & Culture

Beyond the Plastic - Barbie's Impact on Art & Culture

While monuments, paintings, and literature have often been at the forefront of art’s ever-evolving narrative, the latter half of the 20th century introduced an unexpected icon into the annals of cultural history – a plastic doll named Barbie. 

In 1959, the world met Barbie. Molded from plastic, Ruth Handler's creation reimagined the doll narrative. Pre-Barbie, dolls were mostly infant replicas, offering little space for young minds to envision their futures. Barbie, however, bridged the innocence of childhood with the ambitions of adulthood. She became a window into the aspirational futures of countless young girls, allowing them to visualize dreams, ambitions, and a myriad of roles they might one day hold. 

As time progressed, Barbie, with her infinite avatars and versatile narratives, became more than just a childhood companion. She transitioned into a muse for artists, a subject of sociocultural discourses, and most intriguingly, a canvas upon which the artistic and social chronicles of decades were painted.

Andy Warhol, Barbie, Portrait of BillyBoy, 1986.
Andy Warhol, Barbie, Portrait of BillyBoy, 1986.

Barbie in the House of Art

Over the decades, the discerning world of fine arts came to acknowledge Barbie’s pulsating cultural potency, emphasizing the doll's role as a tool for cultural critique and capacity as a medium of artistic expression. 

In 1994, Nancy Burson, utilizing her unique artistry, depicted the doll with aging effects in "Aged Barbie", challenging the eternal youth that Barbie is often associated with. This was an unconventional juxtaposition to the ever-youthful image the doll had propagated.

Nancy Burson, "Aged Barbie" (1994), Polaroid Spectra, 3 x 5 inches. Image from Hyperallergic
Nancy Burson, "Aged Barbie" (1994), Polaroid Spectra, 3 x 5 inches. Image from Hyperallergic


Tom Forsythe's series, especially his 1997 "Barbie Enchiladas", garnered attention for its subversive commentary, using Barbie dolls in household settings. The work led to a lawsuit with Mattel.

Tom Forsythe, Food Chain Barbie (1999). Image from the University of Iowa Interventionist Collage exhibit

Tom Forsythe, Malted Barbie, from Food Chain Barbie series, 1997

Leonie Bradbury, recognizing Barbie's potential for symbolism, curated a unique Barbie-centric art show at Montserrat College of Art in 2005. The show even spotlighted some of Forsythe's controversial images.

Catherine Théry, "Pas celles que vous croyez", 2015.
Peter Max, "Futuristic Barbie" (oil on canvas, 1994).
David Levinthal, Barbie, 1998.
David Parise, Mermaid Digital Art. Image from David Parise

Art genres beyond painting and photography also witnessed Barbie's pervasive influence. Ghada Amer's installation in 1995, "Barbie Loves Ken, Ken Loves Barbie", showcased the doll in a new light, exploring nuances of gender and body standards. 

Ghada Amer, “Barbie Loves Ken, Ken Loves Barbie” (1995), canvas, thread, and hangers. Image from Hyperallergic

Barbie in Diverse Art Genres

While pop and street art were quick to adopt Barbie, she found resonance in other art genres too. In photography, artists like Mariel Clayton presented Barbie in innovative, often darkly humorous scenes. Such depictions underscored her versatility as both a muse and a medium.

Mariel Claytonn, Psycho Barbies, 2014. Image from SLR Launge

Artists like E.V. Day, through her "Mummified Barbie" series from 2001 to 2023, and Alben, with his 2022 creation "Venus Milo", tapped into the doll's iconic status, drawing parallels between historical artworks and Barbie's contemporary influence.

E.V. Day, Mummified Barbies, 12 x 2 x 2 inches
Alben, Venus Barbie, 2019, Resin and toys (Barbie dolls). Image from Artsy

Innovative artists, including Kandice Odister, utilized Barbie to depict scenes from daily life, especially during the pandemic, as seen in her 2021 pieces "Zooming with Dani (Dani McClain)" and "Voice Over Queen (Torie Wilkins)".

Kandice Odister’s “Zooming with Dani (Dani McClain)” (2021), Image from, Hyperallergic 
Kandice Odister’s “Voice Over Queen (Torie Wilkins)” (2021), Image from Hyperallergic


Barbie's influence wasn't limited to individual art genres. Annette That's "Wave 1" in 2014, composed of countless Barbie dolls, exhibited the potential of using this cultural icon in grand sculptural expressions.

Annette That, "Wave 1", Cottesloe, Western Australia, 2014. Image from DesignBoom

Barbie's influence isn’t confined to the visual arts. She's been the subject of poems, short stories, and novels, signifying her influence across various mediums of expression.

As discourse around identities, be it gender, race, or class, gained prominence, artists and activists alike saw in Barbie a canvas ripe for conveying rich, multi-layered narratives, and  navigating the complex intersectionalities of their era.

Emiliano Paolini and Marianela Perelli, “Barbie, The Plastic Religion”, 2015.

Barbie’s Role in Community and Conversation

Over the decades, Barbie has been at the epicenter of countless community stories and global conversations, shaping and reflecting the zeitgeist of the times. For some, she's the quintessential emblem of femininity and the American Dream; for others, she’s a symbol of unrealistic beauty standards. 

Andy Warhol with Barbie, Portrait of Billy Boy (1986).

Seminars, panels, and even college courses have dissected the cultural implications of Barbie's presence in our society.

The turn of the millennium saw Barbie’s influence growing even more. From fan clubs to online forums, Barbie enthusiasts created spaces dedicated to sharing their collections, stories, and experiences. These platforms often highlight the doll's influence as a tool for connection, bridging the gap between generations and cultures.

Pinkie, Stuart Semple Protests Mattel Trademark with "Barbiest Pink" Paint

Social media platforms became new stages for Barbie-inspired discourses. Discussions about her, from critiques to appreciations, resonated globally, showcasing how deeply rooted she was in our collective psyche.

Sarah Williamson, ArtActivist Barbie.


And with the advent of digital media, Barbie’s stories expanded to podcasts, documentaries, and YouTube videos, which delve into her history, transformations, and societal impact, creating a rich tapestry of narratives that highlight Barbie's multifaceted role in global conversations.

Greta Gerwig’s Cinematic Ode Makes History

On July 21, 2023, Greta Gerwig's film "Barbie" movie was theatrically released in the United States. It made $356m on opening weekend around the world, making it the biggest debut ever for a film directed by a woman.

The cinematic adventure became a cultural dialogue starter. Delving deep into Barbie's impact and her role in mirroring societal values, cementing her status as an enduring cultural icon.

The Enduring Legacy and the Road Ahead

As the world evolves, so does Barbie. Over the years, she's been an astronaut, a president, a doctor, and more, reflecting societal shifts and aspirations. But what makes her truly enduring is her capacity to adapt and represent the ever-changing global community.

In recent years, Mattel has made strides in producing more inclusive and diverse Barbie dolls, showcasing different body types, skin tones, and careers, emphasizing that beauty and potential come in all forms. Mattel also ventured into producing eco-friendly Barbie dolls, acknowledging global concerns around sustainability and environmental consciousness among the younger generation.

Beyond the plastic mold Barbie has become so much more than a toy. She reflects our journey, our aspirations, our critiques, and our evolution. She isn't just an artifact of pop culture but a dynamic participant in shaping it. As Barbie's journey continues to evolve, one thing remains clear: her story is far from over.