Review: Dirty Barbie and Other Girlhood Tales

Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that the universe is functioning perfectly despite the challenges it presents us with. We need challenges to carve out who we are, and our job is to accept them, allow ourselves to feel the metaphysical love and move on. This is the lesson of Dirty Barbie and Other Girlhood Tales, the adult version of an adolescent girl’s sleepover, brilliantly written and performed by Denise Stewart, who constructed the piece from posts on her blog.

From Dirty Barbie‘s showing at Hamner Theater in April. You can catch Denise Stewart’s one-woman show on Saturday, December 10 and Sunday, December 11 at Live Arts.

Stewart takes the audience on a wild ride through her dysfunctional Southern childhood, touching on subjects ranging from Barbie’s overt sexuality and teenaged temper tantrums to the slow death of her mother from alcohol abuse. She delivers her message as a montage of experiences, pulling heavily from those of her 4-year-old self and her 1994 college self and presenting them with a pleasing mix of poignancy, humor and dance using Barbie as a metaphor for feminine perfection. You know instantly from the first moments—a Barbie strip-tease—that this show is going to be different in a good way.

Stewart is as fearless in her revelations about universal childhood behavior as she is about the dysfunction of living in an alcoholic household. She manages to seamlessly revert to her child-self, directing stories of inexplicable meanness toward a nice girl and dancing to Michael Jackson’s “PYT,” using moves that are apparently present in the choreography of all tween girls of the era. She then morphs back into an older self to tenderly recount the stories of her mother’s love affair with scotch, or act out a hook-up from a college party, with a Ken doll taking on the role of her young lover. The whole thing is raw and exposing, but so brilliantly spiced with hilarity that the audience is able to joyfully take the entire journey with Stewart without turning it into a pity-party. At one point, Stewart projects a child-like line drawing on a screen depicting her mother next to a house-for-sale sign that reads, “for sale, hurry, I want to die,” and the honesty of the message is both humorous and tragic.

It is this sort of light-hearted effect that makes Dirty Barbie stand out. “Mattel is never going to make a manic depressive Barbie,” Stewart says at the end of the play, which is true because Barbie is fake, of course. The take-away being that reality is messy but somehow we get what we need from the life we’re given. Like that adolescent sleepover, Dirty Barbie has laughter, drama and life lessons involved, but it’s all good in the end.