Q&A: Nina Arsenault

Writer/performer, I Was Barbie


In last year’s The Silicone Diaries, Nina Arsenault relived and reflected on her transformation from male to female. Addicted to plastic surgery, Arsenault endured over 60 operations – many performed under horrifically sketchy circumstances – to become the woman she is today.

She developed her new show, I Was Barbie, in parallel with Diaries, and it features the same production team. This time Arsenault recounts the glitzy night she spent portraying Barbie at a high-profile fashion event celebrating the famous doll’s 50th anniversary, showing how fantastic a life in plastic really is.

What was your relationship with Barbie growing up?

All the girls in my neighbourhood had Barbies. Because I was in a boy-body, it was nearly blasphemous to even touch one. I could only stare at them. That’s how I interacted with Barbie, through distant viewing sessions.

What did you learn about Barbie while working on this show?

The power of Barbie as an icon amazed me. She can take people back to childhood feelings or still inspire anger in adults. As a representation, she seems to have all the power of a mystic symbol with the drive of big business behind her.

One of the most common criticisms of Barbie dolls is that they promote a body type that’s unattainable. But you’re living proof that our bodies are malleable. Has plastic surgery made the Barbie body attainable? Is this a good thing?

In the historical evolution of human bodies, there’s never been such a profound wave of transformation. Large sections of the population [are using technology to change themselves]. It doesn’t surprise me that this new technological mutation is tied so intimately to sexual desirability. But ultimately, plastic surgery alone can’t make someone into a living Barbie. It also takes youth and intense dieting. Her image is not, however, “unattainable.” It is attainable, but only through suffering and only for a time.

Would the world be a better place without Barbie?

If Mattel hadn’t invented Barbie, someone else would have. People have been drawn to idealized forms of the female body since prehistory. Even early fertility symbols that emphasized girth and roundness in the female form were abstract and impossible to achieve. The Greeks also loved idealized bodies. I see Barbie as a commodified version of the same impulse – a totem for our times, Aphrodite melted into hollow plastic, mass produced and mass marketed.

Was there a Ken on hand for you to hang out with?

He was just a digital video projection. But then again, aren’t a lot of us?

Your last play featured a hilarious story about getting hit on by Tommy Lee. Do any celebrities turn up in this show?

I was very much taken with encountering Ben Mulroney.

@nowtoronto

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