Forget the Malibu Jeep or the Dreamhouse. The Barbies in Lauren Kelley’s film Big Gurl don’t drive pink Corvettes, they’re not astronauts, doctors, or fashion designers, and when they come home at night—after long hours at an office or fast food kitchen—they certainly don’t snuggle up to a Ken.
For the 2006 film that earned Kelley a fellowship at the Museum of Fine Arts and an award from the New Museum, the Houston-based artist used a combination of stop motion and claymation to give Barbie the makeover, and reality check, she’s been due for 50 years. Kelley’s film updates the dolls with various shades of skin tones—sans the blonde-haired blue-eyed archetype—and embellishes a cast of African-American dolls with add-on lips, noses, hips, and thighs, all haphazardly fashioned in clay.
Though she’s not the first to call out the prejudiced, misogynist messages sent by dolls (her inspirations include the 1940s “doll tests” that examined the psychological effects of blond dolls on black American children, as well as ’70s gender politics) Kelley is the first to do so with clay, especially so poignantly-yet-humorously. A character named Minnie takes a pregnancy test in her office bathroom stall and later dons a ping-pong ball belly; Sheila is hit on in the parking lot of her job at Queens’ Chicken and Biscuits by a driver with a tin foil grill, “Smile, baby, damn, you ain’t gotta look so evil,” he says ; and the bride-to-be, Violet, can’t squeeze into her wedding dress. This is the real world, for Barbie—but one where strength and womanhood are finally de rigeur.
Big Gurl is on view at Moving Image London 2013 at Schroeder Romero.