Analysis of gender identity through doll and action figure politics in art education

Analysis of gender identity through doll and action figure politics in art education

Wagner-Ott, Anna

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. Very few art educators have introduced gendered toy objects (those used predominately by girls) to explore issues of gender identities. Cultural-studies scholars, such as Lord (1994), Rand (1995), DuCille (1994, 1999), Luke (1996), Brady (1997), Steinburg (1997), and Gilman (1998), argue about the detrimental effect Barbie, fashion, baby and toddler dolls have on girls in relation to gender identification. Luke provides a contextual analysis of the display spaces in the Toys ‘R’ Us stores and argues that the store merchandises toys through constructed separate spaces for boys and girls. This, in turn, promotes “a very explicit pedagogy of gendered identity” (Luke, 1996, p. 173). While cultural theorists explore the political, social, and racial dynamics of Barbie and dolls, no one has included the voices of girls to find answers to the following questions: How do girls “read” dolls and action figures? Do girls interpret a range of meanings and usages? Do girls comprehend the shifting societal discourse discouraging or promoting the integration of dolls into their personal lives? Do girls understand the marketing strategies used to sell dolls and action figures in toy stores, catalogues, and television commercials?

Unraveling the content from the perspective of students may provide art educators with a better understanding of the faceted issues regarding gender identities through doll and action figure terminology; physical properties between dolls and action figures; advertising and marketing strategies of toy companies, and an analysis of intercultural perspectives. By listening to the multi-faceted surfaces of the students’ stories, and then deconstructing the underlying themes that emerge from these conversations we may come to understand why dolls and action figures affect speech patterns, clothes, behaviors, and the formation of gendered identities (Wagner-Ott, 2000). As Kellner (1991) suggests, by moving away from critically analyzing “high” culture to focusing our understanding on the social and cultural meanings of media images of popular culture we will “empower our students to become more autonomous agents, able to emancipate themselves from contemporary forms of domination” (p. 63). The Descriptor “Dolls” Manufacturers who make toys “make gender.” They produce images to be used by specific audiences and to be played with in specific ways. When using the descriptor “doll,” I am referring to contemporary manufactured dolls and their accessories that are specifically designed by toy companies primarily for female consumers. At Christmas time, the Sears Wish Book landed on household doorsteps across the country. The edited pages of Collectible Dolls and Accessories of the Twenties and Thirties from Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalogs (Adams, 1986) show “Good Dolls,” “Sunshine and Baby Dimples Dolls,” “Fairy Princess Dolls,” “American Girl Dolls,” to name just a few. These dolls, with washable wigs, costumes, and accessories in many styles, demonstrate definite physical attributes and social fashions. Also included are accessories for miniature households, such as cradles, dollhouses, and doll buggies. These household and clothing accessories for the baby and toddler dolls may have taught girls how to “beautify” themselves, how to take care of baby dolls, and how to play house (de Beauvoir, 1957; Windass, 1989; Luke, 1996).

Barbie, a registered trademark of Mattel, Inc., was introduced in 1956. Originally, she had five movable body parts, large pointed breasts, a skinny waist, wore high heels and a black-and-white striped bathing suit. She was fashioned after the German Lillie doll, “a lascivious plaything for adult men… marketed as a sort of three-dimensional pinup” (Lord, 1994, pp. 7-8). Handler, the creator of Barbie, noticed that her own daughter loved to dress and undress paper dolls; therefore, Barbie was finally designed with this notion in mind-to become a manikin for displaying a plethora of fashionable clothing and accessories (Lord, 1994). Girls could buy “Cool Shopping Barbie,” “Pizza Barbie,” or “Happy Holiday Barbie” in glittering sequined evening gowns. Through Barbie, girls often play-out the rituals of consumerism and dating games. The Story of Barbie (Westenhouser, 1994) includes 25 chapters on the history of Barbie. Faces, footwear, hairstyles, eyelashes, ethnic creations, makeup, and fashion elegance and sensations of the ’80s and ’90s are the subject matter. Barbie’s life revolves around owning a dream house, a fashion shop, and buying elegant day and evening attire befitting a runway model. Few messages encourage becoming an astronaut, accountant, truck driver, engineer, or computer programmer. Today, Barbie is the number one teenage idol in North America. Walking down the aisle of a Toys R’ Us or FAO Schwartz store, one can see Barbie’s “pink” neon colored boxes and clothing accessories jumping out at the consumer. Beside the Barbie section other fashion, toddler, and baby dolls are located. These “Interactive Dolls” and “Fashion Activity Dolls,” as categorized on the October 8, 2001 Toys ‘R’ Us web site, include: “The Little Mermaids,” “Diva Starz Dolls,” “Amazing Maddie,” “Kinder-Garden Fruit Babies,” and “Betty Spaghetty.” “Britney Spears,” “Christina Aguilera,” and “Destiny’s Child” represent the fashion activity doll category.

The Descriptor “Action Figures” Action figures are a relatively new phenomenon. Marshall (1997) describes how Hasbro Toys, Inc, developed a new toy concept for boys in 1963. By that time Barbie had achieved such blockbuster sales to girls that Hasbro wanted to compete in this new enticing “doll” market. The idea of engineering a doll for boys did not go over well with the marketing team at Hasbro. The only woman on the team, Janet Downing, recognized that if the doll became a soldier and was referred to as GI Joe, then boys might buy this doll (Marshall). Obviously, the descriptor “doll” was still problematic for male consumers.

Hasbro developed a poseable toy soldier. The influence came from the TV show The Lieutenant, and the figure was named GI Joe. Marshall (1997) states, “It would be a kind of butch version of Barbie with the same realism and attention to detail, but applied to the toy soldier concept” (p. 5). “American’s Movable Fighting Man in Action” (Holland, 1997, p. 210), GI Joe, an articulated action figure was first marketed as a soldier with a plethora of military outfits and accessories. Later, the soldier concept shifted because of the negative reactions towards the Vietnam War. GI Joe was promoting aggressive play scenarios through war games (Goldstein, 1994; Goodenough-Pitcher & Schulz, 1983; Wegener-Spohring, 1994). Consequently, GI Joe, the soldier, became part of the “Man of Action” and the “Adventure Team.” A variety of characters such as a space cadet, secret agent, FBI agent, test pilot, sea diver and jungle explorer were introduced. With the success of GI Joe during the 1970s, other toy companies such as Mego developed action figure animal monsters and space creatures patterned after film classics such as James Bond, Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. Today, action figures are still based on films such as Star Wars and television programs such as the Power Rangers and Pokemon. Digimon Digivice(R) battle friends, Spawn, Spiderman,(R) X-Man,, Transformer Mega Figures,(R) Beast Wars Transmetals, Batman, Gundam Wing mobile suit fantasy action figures, to name only a few, are marketed mainly to boys.

From 1985-87 Mattel marketed She-Ra(R) Princess of Power action figures like Futterine, Frosta, Glimmer, Peekablue, Perfunna, and Sweetbee. Because of limited sales, the She-Ra line was cancelled after 2 years. Other TV characters, from Buy the Vampire Stayer and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, have been marketed as action figures and predominately targeted to girls. Toy manufacturers, such as Playmates, create female action figures such as Star Trek’s Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine. ToyBiz Company came out with an action figure based on the TV series Xena: the Warrior Princess. The TV series is targeted to male and female audiences raging in age from 18-34 (Dyer, 2001). Because of the adult content associated with Xena, these female action figures are marketed primarily to doll collectors and not to young girls. I visited 20 major toy stores in five different cities in the USA and Canada from 1999-2001 and found no female superhero type action figures on the shelves where Barbie dolls, fashion dolls, baby dolls, and toddler dolls are found. For every 50-60 male action figures made and marketed to boys, there is only one female (Nelson, 1997). These fantasy superhero female characters are found in the action figure sections of the aisles where one sees mainly boys congregating.

The Gender Debate Since the latter half of the 1800s, historians have investigated the history of dolls, doll development, descriptions, and uses (Tosa, 1989; King, 1977, 1978; Fox, 1988; Coleman, Coleman, & Coleman, 1965, 1968). Many authors provide collectors with compilations of source materials for dating dolls by focusing on detailed descriptions of the dolls’ changing hairstyles, fashions, and identifying marks. Very few historians, however, while writing or researching the history and usage of manufactured dolls, have deconstructed the multiple interrelationships between girls and their dolls. Historically, doll fanciers were influenced by dominant social ideologies and they tended to give favorable reviews of dolls (Bateman, 1966; Fox, 1988). Many had not yet become acquainted with feminist and cultural studies issues that focus on the problematic implications of doll usages within a girl’s or a boy’s environment

During the latter part of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, many women, facing injustices in a broad spectrum of situations, questioned and evaluated the complex political and social relationships between women and men. For example, Elizabeth Blackwell, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Virginia Woolf, and Simone De Beauvoir explored how and why the power structures in our society, organized through practices of patriarchy, reproduction, production, sexuality, and socialization, oppressed women by marginalizing them. These women built on the ideas of past theorists and “illuminate[d] the ways to diminish the exploitation, abuse, and oppression of women and to promote varied forms of female flourishing” (Friedman, 1995, p. 22). By researching women’s personal experiences in relation to social constructions of gender, feminists have tried to uncover the reasons for disadvantaged positions of women vis-a-vis men.

During the ’50s, discussions of gender politics arose in relation to whether dolls were good or bad for young girls. De Beauvoir (1957) debated the “nature or nurture” controversy relating to the natural instincts of the “doll mother” (Lemos, 1919, 1949) versus dolls perpetuating gender roles. De Beauvoir emphatically claimed that since the middle of the 1800s, manufacturing industries had been manipulating parents and girls via dolls in order to help girls adjust and learn about their future roles as wives and mothers. Dolls, as de Beauvoir suggested, indoctrinated young girls to become caring, maternal, and passive. A boy, by contrast, after a certain age, no longer receives loving kisses and security from his mother. He, therefore, has to learn how to separate himself from his mother and then is forced to move into the public arena as a “little man.” Boys mirror the father and are pushed into the world (de Beauvoir, 1957). Many authors warn the public of the dangers of gender stereotyping through dolls because these objects may be used to construct socially specific “feminine” and “masculine” roles (Attfield, 1996; Hendershot, 1996). By the end of the 20th century, cultural studies scholars had drawn attention to the negative effects Barbie may have on girls in relation to gender definitions. A content analysis of Barbie and Ken compared to Action Man (GI Joe is called “Action Man” in England) is presented by Attfield (1996) to show how different body constructions may contribute to different gender definitions. When Barbie’s body was originally constructed, it was to be sold as a manikin. Girls would buy outfits for Barbie to role-play fashion models or scenes from adult lives (Lord, 1994, pp 29-30). Because Barbie was originally created to role-play fashion scenarios, the designers saw no need to consider constructing more than five movable body parts; the neck, top of the arms, and the top of the legs.

The designers of GI Joe, on the other hand, used the artist’s movable wooden manikin as the basis for the body of GI Joe, who when compared to Barbie, had 21 complex body movements at the elbow, knees, and ankles. It is this difference in movement possibilities between Barbie and the action figures that became problematic: certain types of body movement, as Attfield (1996) believes, promote gender-specific sites of play and actions whereby “[b]ody movement is a gender-specific feature less visible than shape and attire, but one which reveals attitudes to gender identity” (p. 82). If playing with dolls promotes indoor, dressing and undressing activities, then the conditioning for young girls may be focusing on these indoor sites. What actions do boys perform when playing with GI Joe? Advertisers use words such as “tough,” “active,” “strategic,” power over,” etc. in the promotion of GI Joe. GI Joe may become an explorer, outdoorsman, sportsman or an army man, etc. These massproduced images, Attfield believes, “can tell us much about the creation and significance of self-image in the context of group identities” (1996, p. 81). Barbie perpetuates the “cliche of ‘feminine’ as passive and ‘masculine’ as active… [being] literally embodied in the designing of the toys” (p.85). Attfield continues the argument by saying that “[t]oys cannot fully determine actions or thought, they are themselves the focus of play-a dynamic activity used to rehearse, interpret and try out new meanings as well as products of complex social relations” (p. 88). Attfield limits her scope to the “masculine” and “feminine” play sites of GI Joe and Barbie. An attempt to construct textual meanings and understandings from the points of view of girls in relation to “Gymnastic Barbie” or other female action figures inspired by cartoon characters or movies such as Star Trek or Star Wars has also been omitted from the discourse.

Because dolls and action figures are emotionally close to children’s lives, they can become the source for discovering and analyzing how popular everyday objects help construct “students’ sense of identity, politics and culture” (Giroux & Simon, 1989, p. 3). The research indicates that children, from the age of 2 years, prefer sex-typed play and sextyped toys (Lever, 1976). The social constructions of masculine and feminine, the distinctions between sex and gender, and the differences between the social roles of girls and boys easily become topics for discussion. Fleming (1996) explores the merchandising of action figures and dolls in relation to the construction of cultural “patterns of meanings” (p. 102). From the late ’70s, toy companies, like Kenner, came out with Star Wars action figures in the form of predominately white male heroes and a mixed bag of aliens. Their roles and role scenarios have “carefully developed identities” (p. 104).

Moving to Pluralistic Ways of Understanding Gender The “old” ways of thinking about the social and historical development of dolls, as these images pertain to gender, have been under close scrutiny. During the 1980s, a shift in focus occurred away from long established ideas to the study of gender. For example, Fraser and Nicholson (1990) point out that the notion of “`gender,’ the social organization of the relationship between men and women, has shifted focus from the differences between men and women to a multitude of points of views” (p. 3), and “differences between women” (Garber, 1990, p.17). Nevertheless, the social construction of “masculine” and “feminine” has been primarily defined as a bi/polar arrangement between “masculine” and “feminine” sites. As Garber asserts:

We are either male or female. Gender, on the other hand, is learned through socialization. Feminine and masculine traits are associated with gender, e.g. boys learn, through social expectations and modeling, to assert themselves and not to cry, while girls learn to express their emotions and to nurture others… Feminine is a term assigned to women that connotes socially determined qualities of women such as delicacy and gentleness. (1992, p. 211)

Relating gender only to the social constructions of “masculine” and “feminine” traits has shifted directions further because women of color, immigrant women, poor working class women, and lesbian women were questioning whether middle-class, white heterosexual women could share common interests and needs. Consequently, women experiencing racial, social and sexual inequalities were raising important questions regarding the word “women” and “gender” (Lorde, 1984; Butler, 1990). Awareness of differentiation, acceptance of gender differences, and the celebration of multiple voices and individual characteristics were applauded. By the mid-1990s, the focus of gender shifted to the “multiple intersecting differences [and]… deconstructing every construction of women” (Fraser, 1996, pp. 198-199 & p. 204). Thus, women within subcultures reevaluate definitions as they become aware of the problems with previous definitions. As Garvey (1989) suggests, no absolute truths exist, “rather than ‘discovering’ reality, ‘revealing’ truth, or ‘uncovering’ the facts, feminist poststructuralism would, instead, be concerned with disrupting and displacing dominant (oppressive) knowledge” (p.463). Hodder (1994) indicates that “[m]any areas of experience are hidden from language, particularly subordinate experiences” (p. 395). Thus, bringing diversity and differences to the forefront through multiple discourses over power constructions relating to how one group dominates or controls another group and how these differences become sites of contestations (Bordo, 1989) are issues to consider in art education. Teachers can unravel the complex ever-changing interpretations dealing with coding and political practices of dolls and action figures and how play practices affect the lives of students. Doing so will help art educators understand the impact that gendered objects have on students’ personal and creative lives. Deconstructing media images such as play objects that may be objectifying girls and boys by promoting differences in human socialization can help our students understand anxieties about sites of gender. Through these discussions, we can uncover the political power struggles of various minority groups. By linking societal discourses with students’ conversations we gain insight into the multiple relationships children construct with dolls and action figures.

Is a Doll More than Just a Doll? Rand (1995), Steinberg (1997), Mitchell and Reid-Walsh (1997) add to the discourse on gender by deconstructing the American icon, Barbie. These authors present a content analysis of Barbie that unravels the multiple textural layers between the child and Barbie on the themes of race, class, ethnicity, and heterosexuality. Marxists, feminists, and other social activists are making society aware of the dangers of the powerful hegemonic marketing strategy that Mattel uses to win over young girls to buy Barbie. Barbie, as Rand (1995) suggests, is a “battle field of cultural politics” (p. 14), and is a “great tool for discussing the difficulties as well as the subversive potential of cultural subversion” (p.1). The perpetuation of white, heterosexual, middle-class values of the fashion-conscious Barbie icon has submerged homosexual, racial, class, and ethnic identity themes.

Brady (1997) raises concerns over the “American Girl” doll collection and over issues associated with the “narrow range of identities” promoted by images of popular culture” (p. 224). Often issues of gender identity, race, class, and heterosexism are hidden under the sensuous colors, frills, and glittering fashion statements that have become associated with dolls. Brady argues that: When history and politics are disguised in the image of nostalgia, innocence, and simplicity there is more at stake than the danger of simple deception… As critical educators we should provide students with the opportunity to read and understand history in all its complexity and narrative form so as to provide the opportunity for students to problematize the past and become active agents so as to challenge the present and create a more democratic future while recognizing the various constraints social groups face in their struggle for self-determination and social justice. (p. 224) As an African American, DuCille (1994) warns of the potential detriments of white dolls and Barbie only promoting white, middle-class values and “image.” As a child, DuCille did “not take note of [the Black] absence among the rubber-skin pinkness of Betsy Wetsy, and bald-headed whiteness of Tiny Tears and the blue-eyed blondness of Patty Play Pal… I neither noticed or cared that the doll I played with did not look like me” (DuCille, p. 48). DuCille confides that she did not want to accept her “black other.” Therefore, she avoided playing with dolls that reminded her of her blackness. DuCille asks the following question: “What does it mean, then, when little girls are given dolls to play with that in no way resemble them” (p. 48)? The answer to this question is found through a personal “adult” analysis of how the dominant vision of 11 whiteness” in dolls perpetuates a “common” identity to which many girls aspire. White Barbie connects and dictates “white” values and “standards” of good taste (DuCille, 1999).

The color of dolls is clearly a central issue. Hobson and Hobson (1992), interested in “racial identity and development and [the] self-esteem of Black] children” (p. xvii), point to the research done on raising Black children in a race-conscious society. White dolls have been role models for Black children, and subsequently the needs of white children are pushed onto Black children. Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark interviewed children in the 1930s and the 1940s on doll color preferences. The conclusion was that 67% of African American children preferred white dolls. “In effect, the children were rejecting the Black dolls with which they might have been expected to identify” (Hobson & Hobson, p. xix). In a replicated 1986 study, Hobson and Hobson also found that 65% of Black children chose white dolls. Further, 76% said that the Black dolls looked bad to them” (p. xix). The depressing news is that, after forty years, Black children still see themselves as “not as good, as pretty, or as nice as Whites… We don’t like being Black. We wish we could be like them” (Hobson & Hobson, p. xix).

White and Black Barbie dolls, DuCille believes, do not promote racial and cultural tolerance and awareness, Dipping white Barbie into black, brown, or honey-colored dye and putting on stereotypical African costumes, like Shani wears, for example, still promotes “bountiful hair, lavish and exotic clothes, and other external signs of beauty, wealth, and success” (DuCille, 1999, p. 133). “Dolls in particular invite children to replicate them, to imagine themselves in their dolls’ images” (DuCille, 1994, p. 48). Therefore, from a cultural study of dolls, we can learn about the “economic base of our society-what [dolls] suggest about gender and race in our world” (DuCille, 1994, p. 66).

Sandell (1991) and Garber (1992) call on art educators to include classroom discussions on gender inequality issues. Garber is critical of art educators who only support the “canonical examples of art stripped bare of their cultural contexts. Art curricula must include views of culture and history that are inclusive rather than simple history of so-called great men” (p. 222). Furthermore, the “exclusive valuing of mainstream art in our society reinforces the invisibility of the hidden-stream artistic expressions of women, children, and minority groups” (Sandell, 1991, p. 183). Art educators interested in gender identity issues, social perspectives and popular culture encourage their colleagues to use images from mass media as starting points to critically analyze how the production, reproduction and representation of images in mass media are promoted (Sandell, 1991; Garber, 1992; Wilson 1994; Duncum, 1987, 1999; Freedman, 2000). Cultural studies and feminist scholars are considering the multiple issues associated with gender identity and socialization by decontextualizing the images of dolls and, more recently, action figures. In the next section, I explore how art educators could bring the dialogue on gender identity issues and the politics of dolls and action figures into their classrooms. Listening to Our Students’ Voices Teachers have written many articles promoting traditional ways of using dolls as teaching tools in School Arts, published from the 1900s to the 1950s. Their beliefs and attitudes towards dolls were one-dimensional. Lemos, (1919, reprinted in 1949), devotes an entire School Arts editorial to dolls. He gives a brief survey of the history of dolls in many countries and explains how children can learn about the historical, social, and religious rituals of other cultures through studying their dolls and fashions. For example, students could learn about American Indian fabric designs through copying these designs and then printing the images on fabric. Once the intricate fabric designs are completed, these yards of cotton, linen or silk fabric can be cut and sewn into American Indian costumes. Throughout School Arts one can see similar lessons where dolls and their ethnic costumes of different countries, such as Germany, Austria, and Japan, have been used to teach the elements of design and costume construction predominately to girls. Not one of the articles on dolls in School Arts gives the reader any indication of the contemporary or historical questions surrounding visual culture studies, nor do they raise questions in relation to the narrow thinking processes when only girls are using, designing, and making fashion outfits for dolls.

Through classroom critiques, girls and boys can help teachers understand the gender roles of dolls as well as the relationships students have with dolls. Only by “paying closer attention to the social practices of consuming culture can we get a better understanding of how the tinsel and glitter can produce meaning, in a different but no less significant kind of way than the great deep works of modernism” (McRobbie, 1994, p.4). Should art educators also expand their curriculums from studying only “high” art to including everyday objects of childhood? The crucial issue for me, as an art educator, is to bring the dialogue on gender issues into the classroom. After a safe space has been created, students are encouraged to look critically at dolls and action figures and advertisements, and then analyze the historical and cultural issues such as the absence of dolls of color as role models. White European and American manufactured doll images still enjoy a dominant position in toy catalogues and television advertisements. For example, in 1968, Christie, a Black friend for Barbie, came on the market for the first time. It was not until 1979 that Mattel designed a Black Barbie that was marketed through their ethnic line of dolls. The privileged visual positions of white dolls at the expense of Black dolls in catalogues and TV advertisements should become a topic for discussion in the classroom. Teachers could bring in actual Black dolls and white dolls and ask the students to “read” these dolls. They can ask questions such as, “What do you see going on in these dolls?” “How are they dressed?” “How are they similar or different?” “If someone had never seen these dolls before, how would you describe the dolls?” Then, with their students, teachers can examine toy catalogues and map the images by focusing on preconceived ideas, attitudes, and values resulting from “reading” these dolls as multi-dimensional texts. Educators could catalogue some of their uses by responding to such questions as, “What ranges of possibilities have existed when advertising white dolls compared to Black and Ethnic dolls?”

We could be asking further questions of our students: What are the observable and hidden privileged and oppressed struggles within society relating to white and Black dolls? Are there similar issues associated with white and Black action figures? What has been left out of the doll discourse in relation to the dominance of one group, white dolls, oppressing another group, Black dolls? Art educators could shift perspectives, as suggested by Garber (1995) in her article, “Teaching in the Context of Culture: A Study in the Borderlands,” by including dolls from “minority” cultures and by discussing the political power struggles of dominant white dolls in relation to issues of stereotyping, generalizing, homogenizing, and exoticizing cultures. Or, as Congdon (1989) suggests, “look at the expansion of art criticism formats as well so that they, too, can reflect a culturally pluralistic approach to teaching” (p. 182). Shift focus, and build on the students’ knowledge by asking the “African American, Asian, and Native American” (p. 178) child to reflect on personal associations and perceptions towards dolls and action figures.

Fleming’s (1996) discourse explores the multifaceted issues associated with how dolls and action figures may promote gendered identities. Art educators can ask students to do contextual critiques on the differences between dolls, male action figures, and female action figures. How have girls and boys approached dolls in relation to male and female action figures? Would boys and girls coming from different economic backgrounds read dolls and action figures in the same way? Would boys’ and girls’ stories connect in any way? Then, we can do the same questioning format using visual examples from television commercials and toy catalogues. It is difficult for girls and boys to learn about issues of “self’ in relation to gender identities unless they talk to each other. The social and action playing lives of boys and girls are different and separated (Goodenough Pitcher, & Schultz, 1983). The existence of sex differences is apparent, as seen in many of the articles on artistic preferences towards styles of art (Chalmers, 1977; Wilson, Hurwitz, & Wilson, 1987) and thematic drawing preferences (Feinburg, 1977; Majewski, 1979; Flannery & Watson, 1995; Moss, 1996; Tuman, 1999). If boys and girls play in different ways and play apart, then is it possible for female and male students to learn about each other’s “self’ in relation to gender identities? We can begin the dialogue with girls sharing action figure and doll stories through girl-only groups, and boys sharing their stories in boy-only groups. Each group could sit around a table conversing in what Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule (1986) call “real talk”:

Really talking” requires careful listening; it implies a mutually shared agreement that together you are creating the optimum setting so that half-baked or emergent ideas can grow. “Real talk” reaches deep into the experiences of each participant; it also draws on the analytical abilities of each. Conversation, as constructivists describe it, includes discourse, and exploration, talking and listening, questions, argument, speculation. (pp. 44-46) Then, after the small group discussions, boys and girls, together, could open a dialogue to share issues and understandings.

Condusion Flax (1990) reminds us that “[p]ostmodern discourses are all deconstructive in that they seek to distance us from and make us skeptical about beliefs concerning truth, knowledge, power, the self, and language that are often taken for granted within and serve as legitimization for contemporary Western culture” (p. 41). Current postmodern thinking is to “understand and (re)constitute the self, gender, knowledge, social relations, and culture without resorting to linear, teleological, hierarchical, holistic, or binary ways of thinking and being” (Flax, p. 39). This reaction to the postmodern creates new ways of intertextual thinking in relation to female images. Through postmodernism, art educators are beginning to deconstruct “forms of gender-race-based subjectivity in aesthetic productions and experiences, and their refusal to be limited to standard canonization” (Huyssen, 1992, p. 53). Thus, researching gender differences only within the domains of “masculine” and “feminine,” or within the social constructions of gender into “public” and “private” spaces, could promote an oversimplification of the conflict between issues of boys’ “public” spaces and girls’ “private” spaces. The questions may need to move beyond “universal” sex differences between girls and boys and focus on the interconnecting societal power structures surrounding issues of race, class, sexual preferences, ableism, etc. through children’s everyday experiences. Duncum (1999) is calling for an “art education of everyday aesthetic” and suggests mapping “shopping malls, theme parks and television” (p. 295) through students’ voices so that teachers can learn about the implications of the cultural meanings inherent in these visual spaces. Freedman (2000), Duncum (2001, 2002), and more recently Sullivan (2002), support a deeper form of critiquing the elementary students’ lived world through visual culture. This process can liberate students from merely analyzing formal elements of artworks through, for instance, a Feldman (1970) criticism model. They will gain a deeper understanding of the political, social and cultural issues that affect their lives. Art educators interested in visual culture and an issues-based approach often support the use of adult contemporary artworks as central to classroom instruction. The contemporary themes coming out of the artworks can generate conversations into the deeper meanings of “personal,” “political” and 11 cultural” issues affecting students’ lives (Gaudelus & Speirs (2002). I agree. All forms of contemporary art works should be included in our curriculum. On the other hand, I also call on art educators to consider play objects such as dolls and action figures. By using a chronological and cultural base, and by analyzing both the continuities and changes of American cultures through dolls and action figures, we can discover the preconceived ideas, attitudes, and values embedded in everyday objects.

I suggest we validate our students’ voices, and reconstruct our knowledge of dolls and action figures through digging deeper beneath the surface into issues-based dialogues about the often hidden political implications of power relationships inherent in racism, sexism, and class elitism. Such political issues “shape the structure of classrooms, creating a lived reality of insider versus outsider that is predetermined, often in place before any class discussion begins” (hooks, 1994, p.83). Students and teachers often are not aware of the interplay between the eye and the ear; between language and symbols used to perpetuate racism, sexism and class elitism. We can engage in classroom discourse at a deeper level and critique objects from children’s lives using a variety of critiquing processes rather than just doing a formal descriptive analysis. Unraveling the often hidden meanings of dolls and action figures we may gain an understanding of the faceted issues regarding gender identities. By reading the doll and action figure “texts” in relation to histories, the “masculine” and “feminine” through body politics, symbolism, sex-typed play restrictions, gender identification, sexual, race and class stereotyping etc., art education will provide students and teachers with new awareness about play objects and other objects in students’ lives. Teachers may find that the everyday objects “are more influential in structuring thought, feelings and actions than the fine arts precisely because they are the everyday” (Duncum, 1999). As Duncum further argues, “It is because they are so ordinary that they are so significant” (p. 299).

1 Hobson and Hobson (1992), “made a conscious decision to use the term “Black’ instead of”African American” because it covers all groups of Blacks, including Caribbean” (p. xxii).


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Anna Wagner-Ott

California State University, Sacramento

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to the author at California State University, Sacramento, Department of Art, Kadema Hall 191, 6000 J Street, Sacramento CA 95819– 6061. Email:

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