Exploring Barbie’s Jewish roots


Did you know Barbie dolls are banned in Saudi Arabia, not just because they are Western and sexy, but because they are “Jewish”?

How Jewish is Barbie? She is the invention of a Jewish-American woman, Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel Toys. That Handler’s blonde-haired doll does not seem particularly Jewish is part of the exploration of assimilation and Jewish identity in Tiffany Shlain’s short film The Tribe, showing as part of an exhibit running through April 4 at The Bruno David Gallery in Grand Center.

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The Tribe bills itself as “an award-winning film about the unauthorized, unorthodox history of the Jewish people and the Barbie doll…in about 15 minutes.” And it pretty much delivers.

Although that tidbit about the Saudi Arabian ban is not in this short movie, plenty of other fascinating facts about Barbie and Jewish identity are, such as that Handler’s design for the Barbie doll actually was based on a sexy German doll called Lilli, marketed to adults. Shlain’s unconventional, often funny and always informative film is narrated by actor Peter Coyote.

The film uses humor and playful images to tell its tale, starting with a definition of “tribe” before veering off into a discussion of those who call themselves “members of the tribe.” Shlain’s imaginative graphics and playful language give us a sense of how few members of this tribe there really are in the whole tribe of mankind, how they developed a portable culture, different levels of observance, stereotypes and anti-Semitism, all at a break-neck pace. Interspersed are Barbie facts. For example, the doll was named for the inventor’s daughter and Barbie’s companion Ken is named for Handler’s son. However, Barbie’s full proper name (yes, she has one), Barbara Millicent Roberts, does not seem particularly Jewish, a nod to the trend towards assimilation when the doll debuted on March 9, 1959.

For such a short film, it is amazing what the filmmaker is able to fit into The Tribe . The film’s Web site, www.tribethefilm.com, offers additional educational materials.

The Tribe is being shown in a continuous loop as part of an art display to mark the 50th anniversary of the Barbie doll. The Bruno David Gallery, 3721 Washington Avenue, has the short film paired with the photo exhibit “When is a doll not a doll. . .”

In the companion exhibit, photographer Larry Torno’s close-up shots of various Barbie dolls are presented in the style of haute fashion and celebrity photography. Tongue-in-cheek color photos evoke a sense of paparazzi-pursued celebrities dodging cameras or of fashion photo shoots and red-carpet glamour. Black and white photos have the doll posed in a series of artistic nudes, with dramatic half-shadowed lighting. Barbie doll fan or not, the series of portraits of the iconic doll are certainly thought-provoking commentary on media imagery and plastic icons.

The film The Tribe is certainly a worthy project and worth a trip to the Grand Center area. The major drawback of the installation is that the film is shown on a rather small video screen in a space suitable only for one person.

The Bruno David Gallery features contemporary art and is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information about the gallery and exhibits are available at the gallery website www.brunodavidgallery.com.