If you have an Internet connection, chances are you’re familiar with Dina Goldstein’s work. Remember those images of Disney princesses beset by the trivialities of everyday life (think Snow White as weary housewife or Pocahontas as lonely cat lady)? A couple of years ago Goldstein’s 2009 Fallen Princesses series of photographs was everywhere, from email inboxes and Facebook walls to popular blogs like the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast—and it’s still making the rounds online.
Well, the Vancouver-based photographer has done it again. This time, she is focusing a skewed lens on the iconic Ken and Barbie dolls, in a collection of 10 images titled In the Dollhouse.
“It’s a continuation of my interest in observing my daughters,” the lively Goldstein explains, in conversation at Kitsilano’s Kimoto Gallery, where the series is showing until November 16. Despite being raised in a less conventional environment, her two girls, aged eight and four, have intuitively played out stereotypical gender roles with their dolls.
“I’m not a typical mommy and Daddy’s not a typical daddy,” Goldstein relates. “Daddy gets them ready in the morning every day, because Mommy’s sleeping in because Mommy works late. And yet, when they’re playing dolls, Barbie’s cooking in the kitchen and Ken’s going to work. I don’t know where it gets in.”
Goldstein decided to take a closer look at the iconic dolls, and became convinced that Ken was definitely not a ladies’ man. “He was always really flamboyant over the years,” she insists. “Mattel has totally, I think, emasculated him. It’s like, come on… I started playing with dolls in my head, and started thinking that this marriage [with Barbie] has been imposed on him, and now he’s just breaking free and breaking loose, and finding his authentic self.”
Created over 30 days and shot on a purpose-built set in the former Buschlen Mowatt gallery, In the Dollhouse follows the crumbling marriage of the world’s most famous dolls, depicted by live models. We see Ken reading Barbie’s O magazine, wearing pumps at the breakfast table, shaving his legs, preening in the mirror, dreaming of G.I. Joe, and being caught in a same-sex affair by the hapless Barbie. While Ken joyfully embraces his queerness, Barbie grows increasingly despairing and slowly disintegrates. Eventually, in an homage to Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait With Cropped Hair, she cuts off her golden tresses and tearfully dons Ken’s suit.
“She wants to be closer to him, she wants him to love her, and maybe if she was more masculine, he would,” Goldstein explains. Finally, Barbie goes the way of all Barbies: she literally loses her head.
The photographs are, on the surface, hysterical: the incongruity of the plastic-perfect Barbie and Ken living out a domestic tragedy in their little pink house is undeniably funny. But the images are also layered with social commentary.
“It’s not only about questioning gender roles,” explains Goldstein. “It’s also about marriage, about the difficulty of marriage, about authenticity, about the concept of perfect.”
Despite what Martha Stewart and Gwyneth Paltrow would have you believe, Goldstein, who spent years as a commercial and editorial photographer, insists that “there is no perfect. I think people, especially in western culture, strive for this unattainable perfection in their life. I know, as a photographer, that all this stuff, this perfection, is set up with the right lighting, with the perfect props—the food in food magazines, a lot of it isn’t even real. I know all the tricks. And all of this is spoon-fed to people, but it’s not real.”
In the Dollhouse is at the Kimoto Gallery (1525 West 6th Ave) until November 16.