Catholic and Hindu leaders—two religions that normally appreciate religious statues and images—have decried “Barbie: The Plastic Religion,” a new exhibit by Argentinian artists Pool Paolini and Marianela Perelli, featuring 33 Barbie and Ken dolls dressed as saints, prophets, and deities from world religions. The dolls aren’t arranged in blasphemous poses or otherwise used to offend religious sensibilities, so what exactly about the exhibit is upsetting?
The answer may be that Barbie is herself profane. An editorial backed by the Italian bishops conference objected to depictions of the Virgin Mary, Joan of Arc, and other Catholic saints and virgins, asking “What is the difference between provocation and bad taste?” Commenting on the Barbie dressed as Kali, Times of India noted a long pattern of the West appropriating Hinduism for commercial purposes. Rajan Zed, a Hindu cleric and interfaith leader remarked, “Barbie-fication of Kali is simply improper, wrong and out of place.”
The most outraged group appears to be devotees of Argentinian folk saint Difunta Correa (the deceased Correa), who’s also “Barbie-fied.” According to legend, Correa attempted to cross the San Juan desert with her baby after becoming separated from her husband during the Argentine civil wars. When Correa’s corpse was discovered, her baby was still alive. Miraculously, her body was still able to supply her baby with milk even in death. A spokesperson for a sanctuary commemorating Difunta Correa claimed the saint’s image is copyrighted and threatened to sue. Paolini and Perelli have announced they will not make a Muhammad doll because, they said, Islam expressly forbids images.
Paolini and Perelli have claimed to be surprised by this response since they feared getting sued by Mattel, not religious organizations. As self-described “low brow” artists they seem to simultaneously have warm nostalgic feelings for Barbie and to regard her as an embodiment of a soulless mass culture. Their exhibit, they claim, is meant to humorously demonstrate how mass culture discourages individuality and alienates people from their history, culture, and ideals.
It’s likely this juxtaposition of “lowbrow” and the sacred that is upsetting to critics. Sociologist Emile Durkheim famously defined that sacred as that which is “set apart and forbidden” or as that which can be defiled. For some, the very term “plastic religion” would seem to be an act of contamination, mixing the sacred with the profane.
But perhaps the message of the plastic religion exhibit is that Barbie herself is profane. Maybe by using a generic doll to portray extraordinary beings and individuals, the artists invite us to reflect on our culture and the different role-models we’re offered. If we really wanted our daughters to emulate the loving ferocity of Kali or the pious courage of Joan of Arc, why haven’t these figures been portrayed as Barbies already?