Author: Morgan O'Donnell

In the Dollhouse: Subversive Barbie (and Gay Ken) by Morgan O’Donnell

Barbie is perhaps the most complex and most discussed children’s toy in American history. The doll’s social and cultural symbolism has been endlessly picked apart since Mattel first introduced Barbie in 1959. Pearson and Mullins write that Mattel has tried to “structure the meaning of Barbie in very distinct ways which reproduce particular versions of domesticity” [1] through her careers and housework, clothing, and accessories in various reproductions of the doll throughout history.

Her relationship status also plays into the image of domesticity she presents. Barbie was originally a young, single professional until Mattel gave into intense consumer demand and created Ken in 1961 as a “subservient male doll” with the sole purpose of being Barbie’s escort [2]. Throughout the Sixties Ken’s wardrobe, career options, and overall role in the Barbie world expanded; simultaneously, Barbie’s domesticity increased and she was placed in more subordinate labor positions while Ken’s activities displayed his influence over and masculine independence from Barbie [3].

In my mind I relate the gender dynamics in Barbie and Ken’s relationship, as analyzed by Pearson and Mullins, to the (utterly disgusting and sexist) phrase “a woman’s place is in the home/kitchen.” One clear function of Barbie is the message she conveys about how society views women, and based on her track record, one could say that a dominant message is that women should beautify themselves, take care of housework, and do other forms of labor in service to men. Photographer Dina Goldstein presented a subversive take on Barbie and Ken’s picture perfect home life with her 2012 photographic series In the Dollhouse

Goldstein employed two actors to portray incredibly doll-like, life-sized versions of Barbie and Ken. The story takes place within the pink walls of the couple’s dollhouse and follows them as Ken, “who has been trapped in an imposed marriage for over three decades,” [4] discovers his gay sexuality, while Barbie’s gradual insecurity over it turns into a mental breakdown that ends with her cutting off all her hair in a last-ditch effort to be what he wants.

In an interview for The Huffington Post in 2013, Goldstein said that she drew inspiration for the project from observing her two daughters role-play with the dolls. She personally sees Barbie as representative of “the concept that Beauty is Power and necessary to attain happiness” and to attract a partner. But when Ken expresses his individuality as a gay man, the value of beauty is stripped away and nothing Barbie is or does can make him stay. [5] I find In the Dollhouse to be a genius subversion of Barbie’s symbolism. Not only does it toy with the longtime allusion to her beloved boyfriend being gay (Earring Magic Ken, anyone?), but it is also a play on the concepts of domesticity and nurturing that have been such a central part of the Barbie myth — and the female myth.

Traditional gender roles place pressure on women to be the ideal homemakers and girlfriends or wives for the sake of the men’s satisfaction and benefit. In Goldstein’s photo series, Barbie does everything right, from keeping up an outer appearance of beauty to cooking dinner for Ken, only to fail and lose him…in the end she is left with nothing but an empty facade of the life she thought she knew, the life she spent trying to satisfy Ken.

To me, this ties in well with the correlation between the Ken doll’s growing roles and Barbie’s limiting roles during the Sixties. With Mattel’s introduction of Ken and his soaring popularity over the years, Barbie, who was once the star of her own show, was reduced to the nurturing, submissive girlfriend in certain scenarios and iterations.

Women bear the physical and emotional labor of creating and maintaining a perfect world in the home and in their relationships, and Goldstein’s Barbie photo series goes where Mattel won’t dare to: it shows the foolish nature of these expectations and the reality that is waiting to be exposed.

  1. Pearson, Marlys, and Paul R. Mullins. “Domesticating Barbie: An Archaeology of Barbie Material Culture and Domestic Ideology.” 228-29. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 3, no. 4 (December 1999).
  2. Ibid, 236.
  3. Ibid, 240.
  4. “In The Dollhouse.” Dina Goldstein.
  5. Rudolph, Christopher. “Dina Goldstein, Photographer, Shares ‘In The Dollhouse,’ Barbie Discovering Ken’s Gay Affair (PHOTOS).” The Huffington Post. May 16, 2013.

Something Lurking Beneath “American Gothic” And S-Town By Morgan O’Donnell

Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is one of the most iconic depictions of American Midwestern life, and more than 80 years after its creation, it still eludes popular agreement on a definitive meaning or interpretation. But something almost everyone can conclude from looking at the painting, and something I picked up on the first time I was introduced to “American Gothic” in my third grade art class, is that it feels hardened.

Certain elements of the image — the  farmer’s weathered face and stern expression, his tight grip of the pitchfork, the woman’s distant eyes and tight lips, and the darkness of the Gothic window on the house — have distinctly ominous undertones to me. They suggest that everything is not as plain or simple as it seems, a sentiment that I immediately connected to S-Town, a podcast from the creators of Serial and This American Life that became a smash hit when it was released in March of 2017.

S-Town (short for Shittown) is hosted by reporter Brian Reed and follows the real story of John B. McLemore, a brilliant, eccentric, cynical clock maker who sends an e-mail to This American Life and asks Reed to investigate a rumored murder in his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama. In following e-mail exchanges and phone calls with Reed, McLemore expresses his intense hatred of Woodstock and the people in it, and he often refers to it as a “shit town.” [1]

But when McLemore commits suicide on June 22, 2015 (in the midst of the podcast’s production and as narrated at the end of the second episode) the narrative shifts to Reed’s exploration of McLemore’s personal life through the Woodstock residents who knew him, his black sheep status in the community, a property dispute and possible buried treasure, and broader questions of small town Southern life.

When “American Gothic” was first shown in 1930, art critics interpreted it as a satirical mocking of the conformity and narrow-mindedness of Midwestern life, and many still see the painting this way. [2] One could strip away the satire attached to the artwork and try to take it as it is, but there is still the feeling of some deeper statement about the couple, or farming, or the poor Midwest (who knows?) beneath the surface that can’t quite be put into words. S-Town, which media critics have equated to the style and tone of the Southern Gothic literary genre [3], evokes a similar sensation. The podcast has far more space and ability to dig deeper into McLemore’s life than the painting does of its subjects’ lives, but just the same, mystery and melancholy linger throughout the listening experience and even after the last episode.

The most important thing I learned from both “American Gothic” and S-Town is how powerful and dangerous it is when we as human beings attach stereotypes or labels based solely on individual experience to the people, objects, and systems we encounter in society. Reed, the podcast’s producer, could have easily let the stereotypes about poor white Southerners that McLemore believed in (as uneducated, narrow minded, dull simpletons, for example) influence his reporting, but he went to find out for himself.

“The vision that John was feeding me of this Shittown or S-Town that he lived in, it had all the trappings of the stereotypes you think of when you think of rural Alabama,” Reed said in an interview with Deep South Magazine. “My knee-jerk was to go against that. It can’t be exactly that. I know it’s more complicated than that.” [4]

Reed uses his conversations with McLemore and just about everyone in Bibb County, Alabama to gain a wide variety of perspectives that helps him construct an accurate portrait of a complicated man’s layered existence in a complicated town. It is up to the listener to determine how to put the puzzle pieces together. I think Wood does the same with “American Gothic.” The painting and the podcast both seem elementary at face value, but they present much more than just the Midwest or a Shittown in the Deep South. They possess a hidden depth that allows for countless interpretations and questions of humanity. Their mysterious undertones spark the audience’s curiosity in a way that can never quite be satisfied; they are gloriously unresolved.


1.”S-Town.” Wikipedia. March 9, 2018.

2. Corn, Wanda M., and Grant Wood. “The Birth of a National Icon: Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”, 255. Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 10 (1983).

3. Romano, Aja. “The New S-Town Podcast, from the Serial Team, Is a Real-life Southern Gothic.” Vox. March 28, 2017.

4. Bass, Erin Z. “Inside “S-Town” Alabama.” Deep South Magazine. March 29, 2017.