Local Artist Gives Barbie A Modern-Day Makeover

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In her new exhibit, Barbie Falls on Hard Times, Kari Gunter-Seymour’s photographs feature the beloved children’s toy in a variety of situations that one would not associate with the doll, such as crying over cookie dough or lying passed out next to a pile of beer cans.

The Athens County native was a child when Mattel, Inc. debuted the toy and "lived vicariously" through it, dressing the doll in clothes made by her mother.

"I grew up in the '60s when Barbie dolls were introduced to America and I had to have one," she said. "I was a chubby kid and did not realize how much pressure that perfect Barbie body was putting on me and society as a whole. Like many American women, I've spent a good deal of my life striving for the perfect body. I decided that I should come to terms with my 'Barbie body phobia' and do a photo essay on how Barbie would look if she truly had to deal with some of the issues that women face every day."

Despite placing the doll in unusual, occasionally shocking, settings, Gunter-Seymour thinks her photographs send a positive, female-friendly message.

"I think Barbie represents the kind of woman that our culture imposes on us and it’s an unrealistic expectation on women of all generations," she said. "I call it my low-key protest to the imposition that culture puts on us to be tall and thin and graceful and beautiful every moment of our lives."

Gunter-Seymour drew inspiration for the series from photographers Cindy Sherman and Vivian Maier. Maier’s black and white photographs were especially influential.

"The way (Maier) captured peoples’ environments and their expressions on their faces, I think probably that had more of an influence on me than one would expect," said Gunter-Seymour. "There was incredible use of light and environment. I’d like to think that’s what I’m doing with these photographs of Barbie."

The project ended up taking a year to shoot. Every time Gunter-Seymour came up with a new idea for a photo, she had to decide on how the surrounding environment would look in the picture.

A local consignment shop donated five Barbies for the project. Gunter-Seymour also picked out clothes and accessories from consignment shops and Wal-Mart, which required an eye for detail. She had to consider not only what she liked, but also what would look good on film.

Gunter-Seymour says the tone of her show is whimsical and considers her photos to be avant-garde. The purpose of the show is to make fun of Barbie, but not in a malicious way.

"I’m not trying to be evil to Barbie or any woman," she said. "What I’m trying to say is we all have times when things don’t go the way we like and we can’t be perfect every second."

Gunter-Seymour hopes that both women and men will be able to relate to the message of the show. She purposely does not name her photographs so that viewers will come up with their own interpretation of the action in the shots.

"I have 16 photographs that I felt very strongly depicted situations in which hopefully everyone who attends will say 'Oh my God, I have been there.'"

Barbie Falls on Hard Times will be displayed from now through Feb. 24 in the Ohio University Women’s Center, located on the fourth floor of Baker University Center.

Kari Gunter-Seymour appeared on the Feb. 8 edition of WOUB's Newswatch.