When sacred beliefs meet pop culture, someone’s bound to get offended, especially when the particular pop culture piece is so intricately tied with consumerism and globalization. That’s the issue at hand regarding an art show exhibit in Argentina which displays Barbie and Ken dolls dressed as various sacred figures from numerous religious traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism.
These are arguably sacrilegious icons, and the article quotes some Catholic leaders who express why. As a Protestant who has never held a faith tradition that had particularly strong views or associations with iconography, I have the advantage of emotional distance when looking at things like this.
However, I won’t dive into the major bombshells that this topic would naturally bring up because I’m frankly not interested in giving a set opinion about how much a Christian should or shouldn’t revere icons, especially since these Argentinian Catholics sort of have a point.
Now, I specify their nationality because Catholicism in South American countries like Argentina is deeply connected to liberation theology in South America (plus it’s where the current Pope is from and he’s generally all about liberation theology). Liberation theology in South America has a history of pushing back against economic and cultural influences of the United States. So it makes sense to me that some religious groups would loathe this marrying of something liberative with a symbol of the U.S. economic empire. With that in mind, I can definitely understand the concern about children not knowing what they’re praying to anymore.
At the same time, if we’re going to make that tie between U.S. economic practices in Latin America and oppressive labor conditions/oppressive systems in general, then we also have to acknowledge Christianity’s role in influencing and working with these systems. Miguel de La Torre explains the role of Christendom in colonialism in his cheekily titled book Liberation Theology for Armchair Theologians. This book is a great introduction to the roots of liberation theology and does a good job of explaining what liberation theology is and isn’t. Of course, the irony of the title isn’t lost on the author (the armchair theologians part is there because there’s a whole book series about various church topics for armchair theologians).
Christianity–or a form of it–had a cozy role in the colonization of Latin America and certainly because of this colonization, Christianity became an important religion in the region. So on one hand, it erased or absorbed the previous traditions that people had, sometimes violently. On the other hand, it was Catholic theologians in South America whose theologies were the first to actually be called “liberation theology.” These theologies aligned the Church with the poor and the marginalized, and inspired resistance against systems that created and maintained poverty.
What I’m getting at here is this tension between Christianity being a tool of oppression and it being a tool of resisting oppression. We typically don’t face that tension until we see Barbie dressed as the Virgin Mary. These dolls are a reminder of a religious narrative that came with colonization. It’s a bit more complex than people simply not being able to handle an art display.
Christian figures were not the only ones represented in this project either, but I can’t really speak to those other than noting the general criticism of attaching Americanism to already repressed or misunderstood religious practices.
These holy barbie dolls raise many more questions. Does replacing the real figures with children’s toys cheapen the message of the religion, or is the problem with the fact that they’re toys a reflection of a low regard for children’s play and fantasy? If Christianity or any other religion is to have any liberative elements, can it ever be separated from conquering forces? How do these dolls upset the line between high art and pop art?
Arriving at these questions is one reason why I think there’s always some value in confronting sacrilegious or potentially offensive icons rather than immediately dismissing them without further thought. You can still reject them in the end, but even in that case the icon has technically done its job of directing you to contemplate God.