You Can Tell It’s Mattel. It’s Swell!
(by Amanda Campbell)
Nina Arsenault, “boy, girl, man, woman, performance artist, academic, educator, reality TV star, stripper, whore, columnist, nightlife hostess, storyteller, aesthete, art object, cyborg, icon, Barbie” is a fascinating human being and, in her newest work i was BARBIE, currently playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace as part of the 2010 SummerWorks Festival, she is an immediately captivating performing subject. In this one woman show Arsenault speaks about her stint playing Barbie at Canadian Fashion Week for the debut of a new Barbie-inspired fashion line in celebration of the iconic doll’s 50th Birthday.
As Arsenault says at the beginning of the piece, the irony of Mattel considering a transgendered performance artist who has become renowned for her ability to transform herself from a seemingly masculine body into a gorgeous and unique work of art is intense to say the least. She also mentions, of course, how ironically appropriate it seemed to her that an individual who has spent thousands of dollars on plastic surgery and who has significant portions of her body created entirely out of silicone, should be chosen to represent a doll who has been accused of “fucking up the body image” of generations worth of women for the past fifty years. And yet, what is perhaps even more fascinating is that the event during Fashion Week, at least on the surface, swept all satire or paradox under the PMS 219 Barbie Pink carpet.
Arsenault is an extremely intellectual artist, and the programme for i was BARBIE is filled with fascinating academic insights with dramaturg Judith Rudakoff into performing identity, the nature of art, beauty and gender and the way that our media and our society constructs gender norms and the way that corporations like Mattel and artists like Andy Warhol, use iconography to perpetuate certain ideals of femininity, beauty and perfection. Yet, the play itself is more subtle in its analysis of this experience, and allows the audience to choose for themselves how deep they would like to delve into the complex issues of gender and identity that Arsenault is weaving. In the programme she says of her writing of this show that “there are stream of consciousness elements in the writing. It moves from a rampant analysis of the things that are happening around me, to a moment of internal reflection about sensation, about something I’m actually feeling in my body.” To truly inhabit Barbie, Arsenault reflects, it is her job for this evening to be vacant (courtesy of Ativan), to be plastic and to be perfect.
While keeping herself poised as the representation of a doll whose image is nearly as complex as her own, Arsenault manages to paint a vivid picture of this event, which is rich in its detail and yet always accessible even to those who didn’t know that Toronto had its own Fashion Week. She mostly takes the audience into her own mind, her own heart and into her breath, which she strives to keep down in her genitals the way her voice teacher advocates, all the while she simultaneously represses and embraces the very real feelings of fear and insecurity that inevitably rise and subside throughout the evening. Yet, she also inhabits a few other individuals instrumental to her journey to Barbie to hilarious effect, as each one is more extreme in her ability to precisely inhabit the Hollywood culture than the last.
There is so much fascinating intellectual territory crammed into this piece that the feminist in me could write an entire paper delving into the subtext of each moment from the way that Arsenault carries herself, the dainty way she holds her wrists and insists on having her hair cover one of her eyes to her allusions to Ghandi, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Michelle Obama and the pink plastic temple of patriarchy, with Barbie as the highest priestess and, most interesting of all, Arsenault’s ability to simultaneously revel within this world, as even her own body, and certainly her deft mind, both celebrates, subverts and rejects everything that Barbie typically stands for.
Director Brendan Healy largely allows Nina Arsenault to be the focus of this piece, both as the storyteller, but also as a Barbie, a gorgeous, perfectly sculptured representation of the female body clad in a silver sequin dress and incredibly high stiletto shoes. She creates art and is the artwork, although there are also projected photos from the event, with Perez Hilton styled captions, as well as commercials for Barbie inter-spliced throughout as well as a good use of the camera shutter, as Arsenault speaks thoughtfully about the mechanics of modelling as a public figure, and musing what her genuine emotions, a feeling like empathy for example, would look like on camera if it accidentally permeated through her meticulously posed facade.
At the heart of i was BARBIE, is that even though Nina Arsenault, like Barbie, can easily spark a discussion about artificiality, as Judith Rudakoff writes, “is Nina a reproduction, a representation, a reflection or a reinterpretations? Perhaps a regeneration? A reinvention?,” as Barbie can change her clothes and reconfigure her image, just as real woman are able to do in the world of Plastic Surgery and Self-Help gurus, ultimately what is inside, the raw emotions, and the heart remain. And what makes i was BARBIE so beautiful is that it is filled with both.
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