Common roots: Bawbie, Barbie and the Tilted Ark

There is another hugely resonant aspect to Tilted Arc for me.  Richard Serra has later in life disclosed that he is of Jewish descent.  Brought up in San Francisco, California, in the 1940’s, at the age of 5 years old his mother told him they were Jewish, she having come from a Russian Jewish family of immigrants, but he must never admit this to anyone because Jewish people were hated and even murdered for their identity.  My mother, also a child in the 1940’s in California, was brought up to forget her Jewish inheritance.  I only discovered our history by chance, googling on the internet.  In fact my grandmother’s family was also from San Francisco.

Barbie was a creation of Ruth Handler of the Mattel Company.  Ruth Handler was born in 1916 to Jewish parents who had arrived in the US just 8 years she was born.  They had left Europe fleeing pogroms in Poland.  Handler lived in California with her husband, an art student, and together they set up a business called Mattel making doll’s house furniture among other things.  The inspiration for Barbie came from a trade visit to Germany in the late 1950’s, from an anatomically adult female doll called Lilli, with blond hair, sold as a joke for men.  Lilli was redesigned as the quintessential blond haired, blue eyed, all American girl Barbie and was outstandingly popular from the moment she first hit the market.  Californian filmmaker Tiffany Shlain made a film in 2005 titled “The Tribe: An Unorthodox, Unauthorized History of the Jewish People and the Barbie Doll…In About 15 Minutes.” after noticing that Handler did not mention her Jewish identity in interviews.  Commenting on the fact that Barbie was inspired by Aryan doll from Germany such a short time after the Holocaust, Shlain considers Handler’s sub-concious desire for assimilation as an American was a motivation behind the production of a blond, blue eyed, un-Jewish looking (whatever that may be), doll.

The 1930’s in Europe were horrible with the rise in fascism and spread of hatred as hugely indebted nations searched for one minority group or another to blame for all their problems, be they Jews, gays, gypsies, or anyone ‘different’ to the received version of ‘normal’.   Who would have thought that right across the other side of the world in California this culture of persecution continued.

The phrase ‘You are as sick as your secrets’ has always rung true for me, but where does that leave you if being loud and proud puts your life in danger.  At what point does history become sufficiently distant that it is possible to be detached enough to achieve balance and honesty.  The discovery of my own history has not been entirely comfortable for my family, and yet as a homosexual who is now most definitely Out, I know only too well what it is to be in hiding. 

And as for Museums, as custodians of public and local history, my goodness this is tricky.


One thought on “Common roots: Bawbie, Barbie and the Tilted Ark

  1. Hi Carrie. I unsubscribed from my old email address, but am subscribed via Google Reader and finding it very interesting. I grew up in Montreal, where a large proportion of the English-speaking city is Jewish. I’d say a quarter of my high school class were Jewish. I remember being shocked at finding others who hid their Jewishness — one from Russia, but one who grew up in Canada, and later, another from Britain. It is still common.

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