Article written by Sophie Turner on July 9, 2021
In 2010, Barbie turned 50 years old. Fashion editorials around the world celebrated the iconic doll’s birthday anniversary, highlighting her cultural impact and evolution. Jana Cruder observed the inundation of Barbie images and statements about her social importance - fodder typically captured and made by men - with one humming thought: They got it wrong.
Inspired to tell the ever-evolving story of Barbie - the emblem for womanhood as defined by the male gaze - from her lived experience as a woman, Cruder felt bound to utilize her skillset as an editorially and commercially trained photographer for her own creative expression. What ensued was an artistic- and self-exploratory journey that has continued to this day, culminating with Cruder’s most recent photography series, HERSTORY.
“From a young age, I was always feeling like this look I have or this item I have isn’t good enough,” Cruder reflects. “I grew up in lower middle-class family in a farming and construction community. I felt like even my Barbies were never good enough. I would play with friends who had hundreds of immaculate dolls and instinctually compare my own to theirs.”
Cruder became interested in questioning the constructs and conditioning that informed her navigation of the world as a woman ever since childhood, and the ways in which such social shaping was shared among her female friends.
“Every girls’ trip my friends and I put together turned into this question: ‘Are we going to meet guys?’ I was really interested in diving into the obsession with women on that goal, that tendency for women to understand themselves in relation to a partner.”
Thus, Cruder’s first expedition into the fine art realm came into being with her 2011 series, What Lies Beneath, following Barbie and her friends’ quest for the perfect husband, Ken. Her 2013 series, Great Expectations, chronicles the disfunction of Barbie and Ken’s relationship behind the façade of its idealism.
Cruder’s latest addition to the Barbie story, HERSTORY, tackles another complex topic and feminine pressure: motherhood.
With a title that inverts the gendered bias implicit in the word “history,” HERSTORY witnesses a woman from the 1970s caught between the expectations of domesticity for a mother and the desire to explore her own individuality––whether that’s through doing drugs or finding ways to make her own money. HERSTORY masterfully captures the omnipresent strain of the patriarchy throughout the lead character’s search for her place in a capitalistic and unjust society, all without ever depicting a male character.
Vibrant colors, an attention to detail, and a technical perfection shared with Cruder’s previous Barbie series work together to create nuanced scenes in which the confrontation between her internal desires and the social structures that define her world are in heated conversation. In an image like “Bottle & No Rocks,” we find the lead character slumped over a kitchen table, baby bottle in hand, seemingly at a defeated standstill. Yet, after close examination, we spy her socks, sporting graphics from the childish cartoon series, The Jetsons. Such a detail tells us that this woman has yet to reach her full maturation, has yet to succumb to the gendered expectations of her position in society, and is still in a phase of growth.
As we continue on with the lead character throughout her odyssey, we watch that development take place as she becomes more politically informed while reading about the Kent State Riots in “Analog Aware,” followed by photos of her protesting such a gross overstepping of power and authority in “Respect” to close out the series.
In so doing, it’s as if HERSTORY captures two pivotal births: that of the lead character’s child, and that of the lead character’s social, activist self. Cruder positions the lead character as a three-dimensional character, a conduit to express real female struggles, while importantly recognizing that they exist in tandem with other social inequities. What’s more, Cruder powerfully emphasizes the lead character’s––women’s––ultimate autonomy as a being capable of advocating for change. While gendered discrimination undoubtedly still exists today (along with countless other forms of oppression), the movement towards equality has been inching in the right direction and Cruder’s hopeful call to action sings loudly.
In HERSTORY, Cruder offers the world a Barbie relatable in her uncertainty, her messiness, her desire for self-growth, and, ultimately, her own discovered power. She tells us all that HERSTORY is a story we can determine and write ourselves.