Giovanna Riccio is a graduate of the University of Toronto, where she studied Philosophy and English Literature. Her poems and essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and anthologies. Her work has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Slovenian, French and Romanian. She is the author of Vittorio (Lyricalmyrical Press, 2010) and Strong Bread (Quattro Books, 2011). An Italian anthology that includes translations of her poems will be published in Italy this year. Giovanna co-organized the Toronto reading series, Not So Nice Italian Girls, for three years and is now part of the team that organizes Shab-e She’r, Toronto’s most diverse monthly reading series.
Her latest poems confront Barbie, the doll that, depending whom you ask, sits among both the world’s most beloved toys and its most loathed cultural icons. In the interview below, Giovanna tells the BWS Blog more about the project.
BWS: When and how did you start thinking about writing poems from multiple perspectives about Barbie? Was there a particular incident, conversation, work of art (etc.) that it sprung from?
Giovanna: Let me begin by saying that I have a conflicted relationship with dolls. I grew up with few toys and without any dolls. I experienced this as a loaded deprivation and have written about their personal psychological weight in an essay titled “Life’s Hard Play”.
Culturally, I consider fashion dolls as vehicles for transmitting stereotypical images of female beauty and roles. Physically, they affirm (and embody) what Simone de Beauvoir recognized as female essence being relegated to matter; in a patriarchal society, the body as physical beauty is a woman’s social capital–her power. When Barbie turned 50 in 2009, I heard an interview on CBC Radio and the interviewee outlined the history of Barbie’s development at Mattel. At the same time I was reading Randall Maggs’s book Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems, a collection written in multiple voices. The two resonated for me. I am interested in history and enjoy researching any topic I decide to write about, and I began reading both historical books and theoretical essays written about this complex cultural icon. My first poem, “Always Barbie”, comes from my reading and my research on the Mattel website and allows Barbie to introduce herself with her full name and as a malleable narrative and market diva.
BWS: At least some people have found Barbie objectionable for a long time, be it for her unrealistic body or for the arguably superficial themes (glamping, pet care sets, car wash) or stereotypically “female” careers (teacher, nurse, ballerina, etc.) that are sold alongside/instead of sets in which Barbie has an aspirational profession that girls haven’t always been encouraged to pursue (doctor, astronaut, etc.) and a slogan like “I can be anything”. Do you see any trends in our current moment that make engaging with Barbie (and the opposition to Barbie) more urgent than it might have been in the past?
Giovanna: At present, a number of socio-political issues have surfaced that pertain to what Barbie signifies when her history and message are decoded; let me express two important ones here.
A) The rise of radical conservatism in the U. S. (with rumblings in Canada and Europe) facilitates an attack on laws that protect a woman’s right to have control of her body in all contexts. Yet, conservative women like Ivanka Trump call themselves feminist because they are successful in business while promoting a conventional and confining image of female beauty. Engaging with Barbie allows for discussion of the parallel deception/conflict she has always embodied: Barbie touts a conservative, reactionary agenda through her look, yet her careers and lifestyle grant her modernity, independence and freedom. Her beauty, however, and the male-pleasing aesthetic of powerful women like Ivanka Trump serve as a social balm calming the threat to patriarchy and the status-quo. This is feminism reduced to economics.
B) The trending plasticity of the “made-over” female body also demands attention and reflection. As I wrote in my poem on the original Barbie prototype, Barbie (who is a world celebrity in her own right) expresses no “cult of the original”. Her essence is as plastic as the material that shaped decades of victory in the doll wars and gave her a body and identity that can morph into whatever the times and market require. In the human world, witness Barbie’s nature in the rise of reality show celebrities such as Kylie Jenner whose body obviously proclaims the use of invasive and non-invasive surgical procedures and who bears the plastic “rich face” of status and wealth. Follow on social media, the digital plastic surgery provided by Photoshop–the dissemination of the face as a sculpted, blank, wrinkle-free surface. Today, women (and especially young women) are bombarded with representations of female beauty that point to a plastic, unstable body always capable of being manipulated and disseminated. Our Western obsession with youth culture produces an ongoing “girlification” of womanhood. Fashion magazines and other media consent to promulgate and venerate unnatural (also termed inorganic) and unrealistic ideals and many women consent to consuming periodicals whose main content is advertising masquerading as journalism. One positive reaction to the emaciated model critiques is the recent appearance of full-figure models in some fashion magazines.
BWS: Barbie finally did what some thought unthinkable a couple of years ago and released dolls with different, “more realistic” body types and even some with flat feet–meaning that some consumers reported frustration with the inconvenience of having to make sure they bought the correct shoe type, the right-sized clothes, etc. What do you make of the collision between the practical reality of changing a product and the seeming increase in attention to a product’s social responsibility? And does the recent change figure in your work (if so, how)?
Giovanna: So newsworthy was the announcement of Fashionista Barbie(s) parading a variety of body types, skin tones, heights , hair styles and footwear possibilities that it was reported in The New York Times. In the past, Mattel has tried to deal with difference by marketing their “Barbie Dolls of the World” line that reduces race and nation to colour and costume. The Fashionista line is a further movement, but if you look at the faces, there is no escaping the pretty Barbie look and hair on overload. It is questionable whether a corporation whose primary motive is to maximize profit can produce dolls that truly reflect difference; that they must design a prototype makes this self-evident.
For 56 years, Barbie had been 11 inches tall with the same body measurements, but now consumers can buy a Barbie that may reflect their own body types and look but also take home the wrong sized outfit and faulty footwear. I suspect that the allure of Barbie as tall, thin and voluptuous was as much a surface for fantasy and projection as she was a projection of female objectification. In the Middle East, Barbie outsold the competing doll she spawned: the more modest, less glamourous doll named Fulla. My cynicism regarding “the good corporate citizen” opines that this line of dolls was not the product of social responsibility but of market reality. Barbie’s sales have seen a steady decline since 2009, when Mattel claimed that, globally, a Barbie was sold every three seconds. I think this development is consistent with other Barbie changes that I have written poems about which reveal a response to social pressures to keep Barbie “relevant” and selling. I have not written about the Fashionista Barbie(s) yet, but intend to have them manifest in my Plastications section.
BWS: Do you think there might be something about girls/women/the world in general today that’s incompatible with Barbie? And might we ever see a world without Barbie? Do you and your new poems imagine where Barbie will be in ten years? Fifty years? (If not: hazard a guess?)
Giovanna: What great questions! Grist for the poet’s mill. Let’s begin with a travel story: I was in Rome last September, immersed in the Forum’s ancient ruins, surrounded by old stone and imperial majesty when, across the street, at the entrance to a large museum, I spied a hefty, hot-pink banner floating a sizable portrait of a blonde, blue-eyed Barbie. And on exhibit, about 500 Barbie dolls. Inside I met a professor from England who was interviewing Italian girls for an article on “girlhood”.
Whether Barbie’s popularity continues to decline, I cannot foretell; I’m sure Mattel’s marketing and research department is on the job and will not let Barbie go gently into that good night. I see young women in North America as a very mixed group. Some are very politically aware and conscious of female objectification and stereotyping but equally at play are conservative and traditional values. I am astonished at the feminization and sexualization of girls from infancy that I sometimes still observe and note the popularity of “princess merchandise” riding on Disney culture.
As for a world without Barbie, perhaps her manifestation as a toy will pass, but she has left her legacy. While researching my Human Barbie poems, I discovered the Barbification of real women, her echo in our flesh. Barbie collectors proliferate and Barbie fairs take place on a regular basis. A world without Barbie is not really an option: if she passes in her present form, she will appear in human editions and as obsessive nostalgia. Like a totemic mother she will endure as an artifact and as the yielding subject of numerous theses and works of art.
BWS: We look forward to hearing more on the topic in your poems on March 8! Thanks, Giovanna.
Giovanna Riccio visits Brockton Writers Series on International Women’s Day, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Manasi Nene, Casey Plett and a special guest talk, “Breaking the Constraints of Form: There Are Many Ways to Tell a Story” by Teva Harrison!