Academic journal article The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education (Online)

Gender, Aesthetics, and Sexuality in Play: Uneasy Lessons from Girls' Dolls, Action Figures, and Television Programs

Academic journal article The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education (Online)

Gender, Aesthetics, and Sexuality in Play: Uneasy Lessons from Girls' Dolls, Action Figures, and Television Programs

Article excerpt

Introduction: Material Culture, Gender, and Play

Art educator Wagner-Ott (2002) suggests in her research that teachers have yet to thoroughly consider students' visual culture of dolls and action figures in the context of gender (p. 246). The pervasive "heterosexual imperatives" that regulate bodies and sexualities (Butler, 1993, p. 2) also surround children's dolls as symbolic bodies. Advertisements and television programming centered on dolls and action figures often poses narrowly gendered and heteronormative models of adulthood to young people. However, play enables children to reconfigure meanings and iconography different from those intended by marketers and/or feared by parents, demonstrating that what is intended may not ultimately designate those messages and images ultimately constructed by young people. Art educators can approach Barbie dolls and other figures from material culture as artifacts of pedagogy, for they are objects that are part of personal histories, narratives, and play that links imagination with learning.

Barbie-play with the doll itself and its accessories and kits can also be conceptualized as a form of craft, for "practices - such as sewing, curio display, baking, and diorama and knickknack making - are fostered in community centers, in national girls clubs such as Girl Scouts or 4-H, and through mass media 'howto' discourses" (Spigel, 2001, p. 319). I have been inspired by this suggestion to explore, for example, how young girls can craftspaces and narratives for Barbies and similar toys in unexpected and potentially liberatory ways. I will also consider the potential of dialogue between contemporary art with dolls and action figures in artistic and political questions of beauty that impact the art curriculum. Works of art that inspire and are inspired by toys will be examined as part of the influence of popular culture on students, artists, and educators. Finally, I will argue that despite stereotypical images and heteronormative models from television, students and teachers may also revise and reconfigure gendered and cultural binaries through unintended juxtapositions of play as performance and artistic production.

Princess (Em)Power(ed): My Own Childhood and Gendered Play

Although Barbie reigned supreme among my female childhood peers, I was not at all interested in her as a young girl. I preferred playing with packages of oozing slime, activity kits relating to monsters and astronauts, and other toys that felt stronger, more colorful, and more active. My one gendered concession to "girls' toys" was She-Ra. In my recollections, She-Ra: The Princess of Power had a magical sword, a flying horse, and some feisty friends. In my eyes, she represented a balance of beauty, brains, and genuine strength. My favorite toy (the only surviving She-Ra artifact I possess) wasn't actually an action figure or doll, but rather a hand-made book my mother authored and illustrated for me. Within this narrative, I traveled to She-Ra's realm to aid her in defeating menacing forces with help from a unicorn friend and my older sister. Looking at my much-loved She-Ra text now, I realize how intensely I valued this representation of She-Ra not only as my first reading experience, but also as my earliest visual icon of femininity and feminist agency.

As the teenage daughter of a psychologist, I would later become privy to more adult readings of She-Ra and her cohort. I remember my mother and her friends sharing how Bow, a somewhat ambiguously or androgynously dressed male character on the She-Ra television show, seemed to be homosexual or bisexual. Similarly, non-heteronormative narratives could be readily imagined for other characters that were ambiguously gendered and/or implicitly attached to others of the same or opposite sex, unlike many connotations of conventional relationships present in other television programming. I recall my own joy at the fact that She-Ra was neither married nor cohabitating with anyone as she enjoyed various adventures. …

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