News 09/11/01

New ruling in explicit Barbie case
• Kanab artist and friends launch legal defense fund in support of his naked doll pictures

By Leon D'souza

America's curvy plastic heartthrob can lawfully pose nude, at least for the time being.

Barbie is free to be cast in sexually explicit or controversial artistic representations, much to the chagrin of the world's premier toy maker, Mattel Inc.

In what is turning into a long-drawn-out legal case, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lew ruled Aug. 13 that the free speech rights of Utah artist Tom Forsythe prevailed over toy maker Mattel's trademarks and intellectual property rights. Mattel is appealing the ruling.

Forsythe, of Kanab, was sued by Mattel for his lewd portrayals of the polyvinyl wonder girl, intended as a sharp critique of what Forsythe describes as "the most potent single representation of the ubiquitous beauty myth."

"The ruling doesn't mean it's open season (to exploit products by) Mattel, it means there is a certain amount of breathing room for artists who want to use a commercial symbol that has tremendous cultural meaning, for purposes of artistic expression," Forsythe's attorney Simon Frankel said.

Some Barbie fans are irate and contend that the photographs are distasteful. However, Judge Lew ruled that the photos are allowable under "fair use" laws because they do not constitute commercial use of Barbie or affect Mattel's sales.

In addition, Lew ruled that Forsythe was not violating trademark law with his Barbie art because Mattel was unable to provide sufficient proof that his art created confusion among customers over Barbie's true nature as a child's toy, or that his product constituted a "commercial" rather than "expressive" use of the Barbie doll.

Mattel is thought to be very upset by the ruling. The company said in its statement that it was "disappointed" that Lew "failed to take into consideration that consumers do not view Mr. Forsythe's photographs as art or as parody and that a substantial number are confused into thinking that Mattel sponsors his goods."

The decision comes as a significant legal victory for Forsythe and his team of attorneys.

But now Forsythe has a financial dilemma. With Mattel appealing the ruling, the artist's legal expenses are mounting, despite free legal representation from the American Civil Liberties Union and Howard Rice of San Francisco.

Forsythe's friends have established the Creative Freedom Defense Fund to help raise the more than $100,000 required to pay Forsythe's bills in the ongoing lawsuit.

As part of its larger purpose, the Fund hopes to be able to "raise money for artists who run afoul of corporations that take offense at having their brands used in socially critical ways, and to raise awareness in society of how corporations are silencing expression that they can't control." However, the Fund's immediate objective is "to pay the expenses of Tom Forsythe's successful fight against Mattel."

The Fund is soliciting donations, however, if sympathizers prefer, they may contribute by purchasing selections from the "Food Chain Barbie" series of photographs. The super gloss prints are available in editions of 20. Prices range from $350 to $400.

Forsythe's work has been evaluated in Through the Looking Glass at the Art Center at Fuller Lodge by Scheinbaum & Russek (reps for Eliot Porter's estate), The Barrett House Galleries Photo works by Lisa Dennison, chief curator and deputy director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, The Dishman Competition at Lamar University by James Yood of Northwestern University, This is the Place, Metro Arts, the Park City Art Festival, the Plaza Art Fair, and New Photography at the Millard Sheets Gallery, Los Angeles County Fair.

On his website, Forsythe describes the beginnings of the Food Chain Barbie project.

'The project was initiated to depict how, in more innocent times, products were created with an elegant combination of form and function. Appliances seemed the essence of the technological miracle because they brought the fruits of industrialization into the heart of the modern home."

Forsythe sought a way to illustrate the shift to today's more disposable consumption model.

"It took about two seconds to recognize that Barbie was the best example of crass commercialism that I could come up with. When I added Barbie, a doll with potent representational value to the modern psyche, the photos took on the added dimension that the project needed. A doll idolized in the midst of the rebellious 60s, Barbie, rather than the rebellion, symbolizes the real power of our culture -- the seamless ability to commodify everything. By appealing to our own lack -- who has the build of Barbie? -- The image makers keep us on an ever turning wheel of unsatisfying consumption," he explains.

The Barbies were easy to come by, purchased at the local church-run thrift store for $1.50 each. Most were sold naked.

"I happily used them that way," he said.

According to Forsythe, the main objective of the series was to debunk the damaging beauty myth perpetuated by the plastic icon.

"Barbie is the first rung on a contorted ladder of cultural influences that consistently reinforce the oh so damaging beauty myth. The beauty myth destroys many a woman who can't measure up, men who think they need an impossible woman and the relations between couples who can't help but disappoint each other," he said.

Forsythe believes that the photographs function as "counter-consumerist icons."

"They act as a touchstone when people see them on the wall and remember -- if only for a second -- that looking outside isn't going to bring the happiness they'll enjoy by looking inside," he said.

On The Web:

Reuters: L.A. Judge Rules Artist Can Parody Barbie in Art

Creative Freedom Defense Fund


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