Dollface

So, I’m sitting at work trying to avoid the multitude of final assignments things I could be doing, naturally, and trying to shift in vain to a comfortable position on the terrible metal stools which provide our only source of seating other than the floor here. You just have to expect ass numbness when working a shift especially a seven hour one like I am working tonight.

At any rate, enough about my desensitized rear…

So I was perusing a few sites looking for interesting diversions when I stumbled upon the work of Polish photographer Ilona Szwarc. Szwarc recently produced a series of photographs of American Girls with their American Girl dolls. For those of you who don’t know what American Girl dolls are, they are 18″ dolls with plastic limbs and heads and soft cloth bodies made to resemble and for the nine to eleven-year-old set. There are a series of dolls who portray girls from different time periods in American history and are accompanied by series of books which tell their stories set within a greater American historical context. There are also dolls called “My American Girl” who are made to represent American girls of today (in fact that’s what they were called when I was playing with them in the early to mid 1990s). These dolls come dressed in modern clothing and a variety of extra contemporary outfits and accessories may be purchased for them. The American Girl dolls are not cheap, but many girls in this country have played with them since their introduction in 1986, myself included. The dolls are marketed as a healthier, more positive alternative doll to many of the others on the market today (ahem, Barbie), and are designed to empower girls.

Szwarc was fascinated by this trend in America. She does not see the dolls as positive. She instead sees them as symbols of conformity that reinforce traditional gender roles. She provides this explanation on her website:

“The American Girl Product defines and categorizes American girls- future American women- and that fact raises important questions about who gets represented and how. The branding behind the doll perpetuates domesticity and traditional gender roles. I examine how culture and society conditions gender and how it invents childhood. Gender becomes a performance that is mirrored in the performance of my subjects for the camera”

Wow, that is a lot to read into a bunch of dolls. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it is spot on. I will weigh in with my opinion, though. I grew up playing with American Girl dolls. In my closet, long packed away in a plastic tub, lay three as well as a multitude of outfits and accessories acquired from the American Girl catalogs I used to pour over, by my mother and father’s crafty hands, or from random places I happened to visit. Every year for most of my childhood my grandmother bought me clothes from the catalogs accompanied usually by a matching set for my dolls. I read each issue of American Girl Magazine from cover to cover.I spent hours playing out stories in Mexican ruled Santa Fe, on the home front in Illinois during WWII, and, my favorite, in the streets of Williamsburg, Virginia, on the cusp of the American Revolution. I was drawn to the dolls through a love of history. I read the books for all of the dolls, not just my own, and fostered a love for historical fiction. I spent hours imagining what I would do if I lived in such and such a time with a life like those of the girls in the books. I never took much interest in the create-a-look-alike modern dolls. They had no stories. They didn’t escape mean slaveholders, immigrate from far away countries, or write letters to fathers away at war. They were boring to me.

In many ways I probably have American Girl dolls, as trite as it sounds, to thank for exciting my historical imagination and putting me on the academic and career paths I am on now. So I find it hard to accept Szwarc’s ideas about them entirely. For me, and granted I haven’t played with one of these dolls for many years, the historical dolls are a separate entity from the “My American Girl Dolls.” When I skimmed through that part of the catalog, though, I saw representations of girls doing things I did (hiking, playing with pets, having sleepovers, painting, etc.) and things I did not do (skiing/snowboarding, dancing, playing sports, kayaking, etc.). For fun, I took a look at this section of the website, which was an odd experience just looking at the brand online, and found that nothing much besides the fashions has changed in this respect. There are maybe a few more fashion outfits unassociated with activities now, but for the most part they still imitate activities that both girls and boys in America engage in every day. I don’t exactly, or maybe I just can’t from my nostalgic vantage point, how they condition traditional gender roles. I can see where they reinforce the consumer culture of the U.S., with their ever changing array of products to buy to keep the dolls up to date. Not many of my friends growing up had the dolls, though. It wasn’t really a status symbol then as she seems to suggest it is now. I can’t speak to that as I am not in the world of girl anymore.

I can’t be critical of these dolls. To me, they will always be a symbol of my childhood from which I became the educated feminist freethinker that I am today. Those dolls represented play, imagination, and love and still do in my mind. They will always be a better alternative to the Barbie dolls I also played with as a child but would never let my own hypothetical daughters play with in some distant future or the Bratz dolls who came after my childhood, but are equally disturbing. I think those are more worthy, not to beat a dead horse, subjects for attacks involving the perpetuation of outmoded gender roles, or the cause of negative body image, or the sexual objectification of women. When I compare American Girls to this, I’m way more inclined to give them a break.

All this aside, I still find Szwarc’s images of these girls and their dolls hauntingly beautiful. Them way she poses many of them so captures the idealized view of girlhood, but their vacant stares, which mimic those of their dolls, leave a sense of emptiness. It’s almost as if these girls have been so desensitized by the constant “more more more!” of American consumer culture, that they can’t enjoy the fun marketed to them with the dolls. Some of the images eerily make the girls look much older than they actually are as if, through the lens, Szwarc has captured a fleeting glimpse of the woman the girl will one day become…and it isn’t exactly a happy one.

This would be an example of my previous statement.

I think this is my favorite out of the series.

Maybe I’m truly discovering that I am from a different time. Maybe the demographic has changed and the girlhood I experienced is much removed from those experienced today. I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that I love these images for their aesthetic qualities, which can all be found on her website here. I encourage you to all have a look and decide what you think about their context for yourselves.

And on one final note related to dolls:

One of my cousins posted this picture on Facebook earlier:

First of all let me begin by saying how strongly I support St. Jude’s and the work they do, and I love anything that gives them more money to continue. However, I am torn on this product. Is she supposed to show support for the horrors the children at St. Jude are experiencing. If she is, why don’t they have her in pajamas hooked to bags and machines, going through chemo, really reflecting the experience of cancer. Why is this only represented with a bald head? Why is she in an awful evening gown instead. Why is it Barbie and not one of her younger doll sisters? Perhaps I am too jaded about Barbie to recognize that the good of this outweighs the bogusness. Maybe Barbie, with her ridiculous proportions and unrealistic beauty can teach young girls suffering with cancer or other terminal diseases that they too are still beautiful regardless of their illnesses. I don’t know about this one either, but I thought it was an interesting artifact of our age. It could be worse, it could be a Bratz doll.

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I’m not home today

Today, as I’m sure all of the cheesy green plastic shamrocks and drunk joke posts on Facebook have shown you, is Saint Patrick’s Day. Tonight, in a basement-turned-well-furnished pub in a small town in middle Tennessee, my parents will host their semi-annual St. Patrick’s Day fete. Dear, old friends and new faces alike from all across the state and from states beyond will gather and enjoy good stories, food, and my dad’s homebrew. However, one thing will be missing this year: me. Sadly, my change of schools changed the timing of my spring break as well, and I was unable to attend. This is something that is actually upsetting me much more than I thought it would. I do not celebrate this holiday very enthusiastically as I am no longer Catholic and I feel that America has bastardized the holiday to the point of complete embarrassment.  We, like many families in the South, are Irish-American (among other things since we’ve been over for a long time), and my parents always tried to make sure we celebrated that heritage in an appropriate way, one that never involved a perpetuation of stereotypes but did celebrate one of the cultures from which we came. I’m proud of that, and it is for that that I always loved helping my parents prepare and host our gatherings. To me, they are the be all and end all of St. Patrick’s celebrations, and anything else is nothing in which I would like to participate. I plan not to join my friends who are all going out to local bars and clubs to celebrate tonight, and I will instead make a quiet evening of it, and perhaps make a live appearance in the basement of my childhood via skype. It is will a heavy heart that I wish all of those loved ones gathering tonight a lovely, warm evening filled with fun and laughter. I’m missing you all.

NPR posted this wonderful interview today with Frank Delaney who shared a poem titled “Drowning the Shamrock” calling the holiday as he sees it here in the States. I must say, since I am already sick of seeing the slew of negative stereotypes reinforced across Facebook as I make my morning perusal, I completely agree with him. You can listen to him read it here.

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How I learned that starvation would be a horrible way to go

I watched a very interesting documentary the other night, interesting but very disturbing. It is called The Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy directed by Peter Liechti. Ryan and I had decided to watch something before bed, and I let him peruse Netflix and make the choice, not really paying attention to his choice. The opening scene was of several people pulling up to a wooded area in winter in what I read as a Scandinavian or perhaps Eastern European country. I watched this assuming that with the title and natural setting he had chosen some nature documentary. I further assumed that due to my dwindling level of energy I would crash out pretty quickly.

My assumptions changed, however, when images of a body being removed from the woods accompanied by a woman’s voice narrating the story of a mummified body that had been discovered in the woods by a hunter. The body was found in a makeshift tent of tarps and was estimated to have been dead for 100 days or so. The mummified corpse was recovered clutching a small notebook, which upon further examination turned out to be a written account of this man’s suicide by voluntary starvation. The film becomes an account of these journal entries based on the true story of the mummified man and the novella based on the true story called Until I Am a Mummy by Shimada Masahiko. The viewer is taken through the journey of this man’s slow march to meet death. I won’t give too much more away, but, suffice to say, hearing those entries read aloud in a monotone, cold male voice is nothing short of haunting.

The readings are accompanied with shots of the forest and wetlands, which I assumed were those in which he died. I am not sure, though. These shots are at once beautiful and eerie. There are also strange short sequences of a commuter train and pin ball machines which eventually give way to grainy, distorted dreamlike shots of random people and places meant, by the filmmaker, to represent the dying man’s inner thoughts. In my VERY limited knowledge of film technique, I could only think to describe it as modernist. The soundtrack played against the increasingly strange imagery actually reminded me a lot of Ballet Mechanique.

For me the experience of watching this film was a mix of extreme discomfort and complete fascination. As a viewer, one knows what the ultimate fate of the journal’s author is. However, I found myself and my own survival instinct willing this man to continue living and hoping someone would come upon him and rescue him. In his final days, when his body was truly shutting down its last faculties and his life force was flickering only dimly, I felt myself wishing he would finally die. Watching this was an incredibly moving and as Ryan noted, almost inspirational experience. I have always had a dark fascination with the boundary between life and death and the process in which a human being transforms into a corpse. To have such an intimate view of  this process was darkly beautiful.

I highly recommend this film but only to those with an existential flair and a strong stomach. It is by no means an easy watch but definitely a fascinating one.

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Spring Break

Hello again, everyone! Hey, did you hear that 500 new fairytales were recently released from an archive in Germany? That’s pretty exciting for every lover of the fantastical like me. I just wonder how long it will take for Disney to ruin them ha ha ha.

But anyway, enough of that side note. Spring break is in full swing. I am, as tradition holds, watching Netflix while avoiding the mountain of school work that needs attending to. I’m back home in Tennessee for the week trying to enjoy a little r&r and ma famille. The weather is divine as well, sunny and cool, just as early March should be. We’ve had two fires in the fireplace since I got in Sunday night, and I get to shuffle around the house in sweaters and thick socks. It’s lovely.

It’s actually been a rather eventful past few days. Mom and Dad came down to pick me up in Gainesville on Saturday having dodged then braved storms all the way from Nashville to south Georgia. That night they officially met the lad for the first time. I don’t exactly have a great track record for picking guys that pass muster. I could not have asked for a more different and exponentially better outcome this Saturday past. Both parties enjoyed each other immensely, and we all had a lovely dinner. It was quite adorable because both sides asked the next day what the other thought of them. I was happy to give satisfactory reports all around.

As much as I hate to admit emotional weakness and general gooey-eyedness, I am miss the lad a lot. It’s our first significant amount of time apart since we started up. I’m starting to wonder how we’re going to make it through three months when I leave for Nashville come May. Oh yeah, I’ll be living in Nashville over the summer completing an internship at the Tennessee State Museum working with some photography collections and getting to work on some of the programs done across the state. I’m looking forward to it very much. Although I will be very busy and close to my friends and family again, I will miss Ryan greatly. But what’s that Rochefoucauld quotation, “Absence diminishes small loves and increases great ones, as the wind blows out the candle and fans the bonfire.” I’m banking on that being the case.

Enough of that business, though. I got to spend the entire day yesterday in the studio. I was also on fire. Out of seven plates, only one turned out slightly less than what I wanted. That never happens. I will freely admit I have expended five or six plates just to get one shot perfectly. I have a senior picture shoot with a local student Thursday so I hope the winning streak lasts.

Well, I think I have probably wasted enough time, and I should get onto my Ethics homework. I will leave you with two more things, though. Last Friday Ryan and I spent time listening to and sharing music with each other. The fact that we can do this is very important to me. We both share a love for La Blogothèque‘s Take Away Shows and, because we’re freakishly cute, we both think the Beirut ones are the best. So, as a last bit of gooey-eyedness here they are because they remind me of the lad (and they’re just amazing if you’ve never watched them). Enjoy.

(Okay, no more lovesick puppy nonsense again for a very long while).

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Sundays (in the car) with Irving

My little seasoned traveler just outside of Chattanooga.

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Rainy Day

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How could I not weigh in?

Well, today is Valentine’s Day, a day when, according to Time, people in the United States will spend approximately $126.03 per person on candy, jewelry, flowers, lingerie, stuffed bears that exclaim “I looooooove you!” in tinny voices. I’m not great with math, but considering that there are over 3 million of us, that’s a lot of dough.

Today, I am laid up in bed with a very wicked stomach virus my personal valentine, who is pretty pitiful right now as well, gave me, and I thought that while I rested I would meditate the holiday. We all know what Valentine’s Day has become as evidenced by the first paragraph of this post, but, being the history lover I am, I find the history (or jumble of histories, really) of the holiday much more fascinating and romantic than the swirl of consumerism that consumes our country every mid February. Here, then, is the quick and dirty history of  Valentine’s Day.

Like many holidays on our modern calendar, Valentine’s Day has pagan origins that extend beyond its Catholic ones. Each February 15, Roman’s would celebrate the festival of Lupercalia in honor of the god Faunus and Romulus and Remus. A goat would be sacrificed at the cave where the twins were believed to have been nursed by the wolf Lupa. The goat hide was then removed and cut into strips and dipped in the goat’s blood. Men would take the blood dipped strips around the city gently slapping women in order to ensure fertility for the coming year. If you know your Shakespeare, you’ll recognize this ritual in the first act of Julius Caesar. After the run the young ladies of the city would toss their names into an urn and the young men would fetch them out. Whoever got your name was essentially your new boyfriend or girlfriend for the coming year. It saves time and fuss, I can kind of see the appeal.

As Christianity spread in the Roman empire new origins for the holiday emerged. Many believe the Catholic Church adopted the date for the old festival of Lupercalia for the Feast of Saint Valentine in order to further convert the Roman people to Catholicism. As far as Saint Valentine’s involvement in the story is concerned, there are two major versions of the story. At this point it is also important to note that the Church recognizes multiple St. Valentines. They were all martyred as well. Hey, we’re talking Romans and the Catholic Church here. I didn’t promise it wouldn’t get convoluted. Anyway, one story alleges that a priest named Valentine helped young men marry their sweethearts secretly under the reign of Claudius II who wanted his soldiers minds on vanquishing the foes of the Roman Empire and not on their honeys back home. Valentine was discovered and put to death.

The second story, and perhaps the lesser known of the two, is of a Valentine who helped Christians escape Roman persecution. He, surprise, surprise, was caught as well and locked up himself. Apparently he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, and, as legend goes, sent her the first valentine in the form of a love letter signed “From your Valentine,” before he was also put to death. We know how much the Church loved to celebrate its martyrs with feasts back in the day so thus the Feast of St. Valentine was put in place to celebrate one or both of these guys.

Eventually this day of St. Valentine was moved to February 14th in the Middle Ages (because that’s apparently when scientific minds of the time believed birds started getting it on for the year). While some Medieval lovers chose to exchange tokens around this time, Valentine’s day did not become my widespread in it’s celebration until the seventeenth century. Europeans brought the holiday with them to the New World and there are reports of Valentine’s Day exchanges in the Americas dating to the 1700s. For those, like myself on occasion who bemoan the commercialism of the holiday, well, you have “the mother of the American Valentine,” Esther A. Howland to thank. She is the originator of the original mass-produced Valentine’s Day card. The daughter of a successful stationery store owner from Massachusetts began making her own gaudy, lacey, god awfully ornate versions of the English valentines (oh those Victorians) and pitched them to the American public with overwhelming success. The rest is history…

It’s pretty amazing to contemplate how the holiday has changed over the years. I’ve never been one much for celebrating it. I always looked on in disgust when I was in school at all of the flowers, candy boxes, balloons etc. that my fellow students received during the school day. It was an ostentatious display of over consumption, and to this day the Valentine’s Day aisles that appear pretty much right after the Christmas aisles are dismantled in major chain stores make me wish to vomit. I’ve also been part of that not-so-enthusiastic portion of the population that finds itself without valentines with which to celebrate the day. I know firsthand the desire to just get through the day without taking scissors to teddies’ necks or pins to balloons and wake up with the general haze of puppy love cleared from the air on February 15. However, looking back on the somewhat murky but really kind of romantic and sexy origins of the Day, I think I might have come to a civil truce with it. I think, when you truly love and care about your partner, there is nothing wrong with taking a day out of an otherwise overly jammed and distracted year to tell them and show them how much they mean to you. Yes, this should be done year round, but, let’s face it, sometimes we can get caught up in the insanity of our twenty-first century lifestyles, and we forget to do so. While I prefer the more handmade, thoughtful, original, and private approach, some people really feel that the only way to do it properly is the opposite. That’s cool, if that’s your thing. We all just need to remember, it’s not about what’s in the box, card, or bouquet, but instead it’s about why you’re giving that to your special someone.

Now that I’ve given my treatise on Valentine’s Day, I will finally shut up, and leave you all with something that I feel is essential for a perfect celebration of the day, good love poetry. This one is by my favorite poet Carl Sandburg and is coincidentally the one I’m exchanging with my valentine this year.

“I Love You” by Carl Sandburg

I love you for what you are,
but I love you yet more for what
you are going to be.
I love you not so much for your realities
as for your ideals.
I pray for your desires that they may be great,
rather than for your satisfactions,
which may be so hazardously little.
A satisfied flower is one whose petals are about to fall.
The most beautiful rose is one hardly more than a bud
Where in the pangs and ecstasies of desire
are working for a larger and finer growth.
Not always shall you be what you are now.
You are going forward toward something great.
I am on the way with you and
therefore I love you.

I wish love and happiness to you all today and for the days to come.


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