By Michael Miner
New Art Examiner's Toy Story
In New York at this hour a prominent exhibition purports to plumb the cultural history of the Barbie doll. But imagine the doll's manufacturer, which underwrote the show, giving the experts it hired license to say anything about Barbie they might like.
Mattel, Inc.'s tight rein anguished Exhibitions International, the New York-based organizer of "Art, Design, and Barbie: The Evolution of a Cultural Icon," and infuriated Steven Dubin, a curator of the show. Mattel, it goes without saying, insists that it's acted benignly, only fiddling with the show around its edges to enhance its family appeal.
In the beginning Dubin thought he had a free hand. But early last year Mattel began suggesting changes to the essay Exhibitions International had commissioned him to write for the catalog of the show (which opened last month in the World Financial Center). Trims were negotiated, particularly over a passage that began, "The company has been slowly blending a gay sensibility into its product. In 1993 Mattel introduced Earring Magic Ken, replete with pierced ear, faux-leather vest, and lavender mesh shirt."
Last June Dubin was informed that Mattel had rejected the essay altogether. "From what I can piece together," he would write in November's New Art Examiner, "the original defense of my essay was successful. Later, however, it was bumped up the Mattel hierarchy, where it was summarily dismissed."
Dubin's story, "How I Got Screwed by Barbie: A Cautionary Tale," was a signal event in the history of the Chicago-based magazine. It made waves. "It was sort of unusual that something we published was precipitating that kind of discussion in various places," says editor Ann Wiens.
Once Dubin had had his say, other journalists began making inquiries, including Frank Rich of the New York Times. And Dubin's revelation that commerce had prevailed over scholarship convinced the Cranbrook Art Museum in suburban Detroit not to mount the show later this year. "We couldn't in good conscience accept the exhibit at the Cranbrook any longer," director Gregory Wittkopp told me.
Dubin wrote, "I only slowly caught on that Mattel money was backing the enterprise. [But] I was assured, 'Exhibitions International is publishing this catalogue. Mattel is not. We'll back you up 100 percent on anything you want to say and do.' I dropped my defenses immediately."
Live and learn. Dubin went on, "And what was it that stuck in Mattel's corporate craw? In the world o' Barbie, sex, death, and lawsuits don't exist. Or, more accurately, they're not discussed openly, betraying a corporate philosophy based upon an oddly outmoded sense of prudery. As several of Mattel's margin notes on my essay plaintively asked, 'Do we have to mention this?' Was it important, for instance, to point out that children add nipples to Barbie's prominent breasts?"
Dubin described Mattel as a "bully...acting out of great insecurity." As evidence he offered the extraordinary kill fee Mattel paid him for the unpublished essay--twice the original fee. "This additional money paid for the new laptop computer on which I write this essay," he noted gleefully.
Dubin returns to the subject in the January issue of the New Art Examiner. He writes that Mattel publicist Lisa McKendall--author of the plaintive marginalia--read the first piece and called him. "She apologized profusely. Not, however, for censoring me, but, as she so euphemistically put it, because I'd 'felt slighted.' I corrected McKendall, advising her that this was a much more serious matter--Mattel tossed out a year's worth of my work; my original essay remains unpublished--yet she sounded like a hostess who's horrified to learn that one of her guests didn't get a piece of cheesecake, ruining a party experience."
"We never made any secret of the fact we were sponsoring the exhibit," says McKendall. "Our intention was nothing more than to put some existing artworks on display for families to enjoy." Another publicist was more willing to vent annoyance: "A, it was always known that Mattel was the sponsor of the exhibit. B, whatever remuneration he received was coming from Mattel. And C, ask yourself if Mattel actually acted in any different capacity from any other publisher in that it A, commissioned a piece, B, chose not to use the piece, and C, paid an appropriate kill fee."
By dropping an essay--and several pieces of art--that threatened Barbie's wholesome image, Mattel was guarding its interests. By publishing indignant screeds accusing Mattel of censoring him, Dubin--who's written frequently on censorship and is the author of the book Arresting Images: Impolitic Art and Uncivil Actions--was defending his own. Having broken the story, the New Art Examiner looked terrific. Only Exhibitions International has taken a serious beating.
"Oh yeah, it was Mattel sponsored," says David Hanks, head of Exhibitions International, "but our understanding was that we were organizing it. And that's how the credit reads. And in fact it ended up Mattel organized it. So I suggested changing the credit to read 'Organized by Mattel.'"
But the credit wasn't changed. By now Exhibitions International has formally withdrawn from the show, and Hanks hopes fervently his firm won't be mentioned in any way when the show moves to its next venue, the central library in Los Angeles.
Do you think your firm's name has been seriously compromised? I asked him.
"Yes," he said, sounding gloomy and sick of the subject. "I feel I should have stood up and withdrawn it at an earlier stage. I would say that would have been better. In which case the exhibition might have been canceled."
Hanks wishes he'd stood up to Mattel when Dubin's essay was scrubbed. "The essay was a major blow to the catalog. That was the whole historical and cultural context of the exhibition."
What went wrong? I asked.
"I guess there was a communication problem. An understanding of the role of the organization and the role of the sponsor was not spelled out in any contractual agreement. This was probably Mattel's first venture into a museum exhibit, so they were in territory they were not familiar with. And it was our first exhibit where the subject of the exhibit was the sponsor's product.
"So this was sort of on a thin line from the very beginning between a trade show and a museum exhibition. But there's a big difference."
New City's Sneak Attack
Mary Hill accomplished the impossible. She turned reporters at the Tribune into chauvinists. She united this normally malcontented bunch over an issue few actually have much use for: the one-year residency program that shuttles eager young talent in and out, working them to the bone and kissing them off when what they've earned is a real job and a raise.
Three years ago Hill was one of those residents. She felt exploited and didn't keep her feelings a secret. Wanting to cover the CHA, she was instead ordered up to Lake County, and when her year was up she was sent packing. Today she works for the Des Moines Register.
Disgruntled while at the Tribune, Hill remained disgruntled long after leaving it, and several weeks ago she vented on the Internet. Her diatribe was spotted by New City, where, after substantial revisions, it emerged in print last month as "Tribulations," a cover story written by "Clara Hamon" (a name mentioned in passing in The Front Page).
What infuriated Tribune staffers who read the piece was its ad hominem attacks. On an editor "who often would get story ideas out of the National Enquirer." On another editor who "could best be described as a scared little man who wanted to prove to everyone that he wasn't put in his position for his color." And primarily on "the most self-righteous person I had ever met," the editor identified as "Big P." This big boss, who on the occasion of Hamon's farewell interview "looked like a wet weasel," was transparently Ann Marie Lipinski, today the Tribune's managing editor.
"Her face twitched at my every word," wrote Hamon. "And I actually felt sorry for her. This woman, who no doubt had a six-figure salary, a nice house in the 'burbs, and who had just beaten the biological clock by a hair, was a prisoner. There was something irretrievably sad and desperate about her....I was being paroled. She wasn't."
The absurdity of this passage didn't make it easier for Tribune reporters to forgive it. For starters, they point out that far from being a prisoner in the Tower, Lipinski could no doubt get a job at any paper in the country, perhaps even the one in Des Moines, and that in sharp contrast to other Tribune brass she lives in a modest brick house in Ukrainian Village.
But then, according to Tribune loyalists, Hamon's piece is full of nonsense. "The commute [to Lake County] was a grueling two hours one way, or a four-hour train ride." More like 35 minutes, says someone who works there now. "I was told that I should attend cocktail parties, organized from the downtown office, if I ever hoped to get onto the 'regular' staff." Cocktail parties? I can't find anybody at the Tribune who's ever heard of them.
What does Mary Hill say in response? She says the parts of the article that may not be true she may not have written.
"I've written some things online," she told me merrily--she seemed to find the matter hilarious. "And apparently my stuff was appropriated off the Internet. I'm not losing any sleep over it. When you're on the Internet you're public property. There is a lot of material in there that isn't mine."
What stuff is yours? I asked.
"I'd better not say. I'm sure there are dozens of one-years who want to remain anonymous and get back at the Tribune for torturing us. They waste people. That's what they do. They waste people."
Did you ever hear anyone use the phrase "Big P"? I asked Hill.
"No. Not until now. It's hysterical though. I thought it was damn funny."
I ran Hill's explanations past Brian Hieggelke, publisher and editor of New City. "Well, this is kind of an interesting twist," he replied. "I can tell you, we didn't appropriate anything." That said, he acknowledged that the "screed" lifted off the Internet underwent "substantial rewriting and fact checking. The final story was substantially different." But the rewriting was all done by the author, he told me, and "Big P" was the author's phrase.
Fact checking? "By knowing the identity of the author, by checking on certain stories that were done, you can make sure there was an element of truth," Hieggelke said. "This is clearly a personal essay. I think that creates a completely different standard for consideration than a reported story.
"And just as the author was dealt with anonymously, so were the subjects. Insiders know who the subjects were, but they also seem to know who the author was."
Expert at deducing who does what, the Tribune newsroom studied the Hamon piece for clues and quickly came up with the name of Mary Hill. Reporter Bill Recktenwald called her. "I was so angered by the vicious personal attacks," he says. "Had I taken a deep breath a few times maybe I wouldn't have called."
Hill denied being Clara Hamon. "He said, 'I'm glad you didn't have anything to do with this mean-spirited, terrible thing,'" Hill told me, laughing. "He sounded like he was crying. I said, 'Bill, what's the problem? Bill, snap out of it!'"
I'd expected Hill to deny all to me as well. Then I would have told her that if she leveled I'd respect her anonymity--as Hieggelke properly continues to do--and write a column on the subject of unsigned personal attacks. There's no good reason to expose a truly incognito "Clara Hamon" to the world while keeping the secret of "Ed Gold," the witty but pseudonymous author of the Reader's Bob Watch. Anonymity has a long honorable tradition in journalism, and both writers have their reasons for lying low. Even so, I wish "Hamon" hadn't and "Gold" wouldn't.
"Sometimes only under anonymity can people tell the truth," said Hill, who stopped being truly incognito when she freely informed me that "Tribulations" began as something she'd filed under her name on the Internet. But Hieggelke said that even though the "Hamon" piece originated on the Internet, anonymity "was a condition of the author to let us publish the story. . . . It was purely self-protection. It was fear of the Tribune's reach."
Hieggelke offered, "As power in our culture gets more and more concentrated, the attack on anonymity is the ultimate attack of the powerful on the powerless. Look at the tobacco industry."
Ann Marie Lipinski isn't the tobacco industry. "I feel sorry for whoever wrote it," Lipinski said. "I feel sorrier for whoever decided to publish it." But Hieggelke says people who know the Tribune only as a big gray paper in a big gray building have told him the story was wonderful.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jessica Katz.