Analysis of Gender Identity through Doll and Action Figure Politics in Art Education

By Wagner-Ott, Anna | Studies in Art Education, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Analysis of Gender Identity through Doll and Action Figure Politics in Art Education


Wagner-Ott, Anna, Studies in Art Education


Dolls and action figures have long been an important part of material culture. Though ignored by much of art education, the critical analysis of the characteristics between girls and dolls/action figures provides valuable insights into the continuities and changes of gender identities in American cultures. This article explores how art educators can engage students in a critical dialogue through dolls and action figures in order to uncover the multiplicity of preconceived ideas, attitudes, and values inherent in gendered objects and the resultant impact on gendered identities.

Many art educators support studying gender issues through visual culture. For instance, in 1990 an entire issue of Studies in Art Education was devoted to gender issues in art education. Hagaman (1990) talks about why postmodernists and feminists "have rejected the notion of universal, objective truth and have pursued knowledge and meaning structured in and through relationships among individuals, social structures, and cultural artifacts" (pp. 27-28). Hicks (1990) explores how institutions promoting classical art forms of a dominant culture, can become oppressors by "marginaliz(ing) and disempower(ing) groups, ways of life and social experiences" (p. 37). Hicks shows how art educators can empower students by broadening the topics in the classroom to include "diversity though forms of inclusion of nontraditional, cross cultural, or controversial forms of art... from which students may negotiate their relationships to their visual world" (p. 45). These art educators promote a feminist pedagogy and move many of us to explore issues associated with the silencing of the "hiddenstream artistic expressions of women, children and minority groups" (Sandell, 1991, p. 183).

Other art educators recognize the importance of integrating students' personal experiences with feminist and social analysis as seen above. Freedman (1994), questions the connection between gender identities and visual culture. She looks at how advertisements of the ideal woman perpetuate the social structural cycle of feminine desires in young girls. How girls "dress, the daily rituals through which we attend the body-is a medium of culture" (Bordo, 1993, p. 165). Others, such as Duncum (1987, 1997, 1999, 2001), Wilson (1994) and Jeffers (2002), support popular culture as a valid area of study. Duncum notes that:

It is from popular culture that most people weave their identities and establish their relationships with others and the environment. Mass media images saturate our lives, structuring much of what we know beyond personal experience. (Duncum, 1997, p. 70) Because of the crucial issues associated with many girls' perceptions of their own bodies, and about themselves in relation to the formation of gender identities, I have been looking for ways to introduce these concepts into the elementary classroom. Bolin (1992) discusses how the use of children's material culture within art education (more specifically the use of toys) promotes an understanding of the "significant historical and contemporary questions and inquiry about the material culture that is introduced to students through analyses of these objects" (p. 152). He suggests a process of critiquing from a child's subjective point of view by asking such questions as "[w]hat sorts of gender roles have been delineated through children's toys? How have factors in society affected the design and use of toys by children? How and why has the meaning, finction, and design of children's toys changed over time?" (p. 152). I decided to take Bolin's advice. Through a dialogical intertextual process, I reconsidered my own interaction with everyday objects as it related to children's everyday experiences. At first I chose to research dolls, and later included action figures, because they can tell us about the social practices of gender identities through consumer culture. This discourse reveals how art educators can gain insight into how cultural forms, marketing, and aesthetic productions are generating gender identities. …

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