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Transhumanism and Barbie Doll Fever
Charles says his photo series “celebrates both the camp and empowerment embodied by this iconic doll,” while also aiming to encourage viewers to contemplate transhumanism.
“Many of the Barbie models chosen for the series are trans, an apt metaphor for ‘the parts don’t matter.’ The series features trans model Jari Jones, of Calvin Klein fame, as the joyous ‘Disco Nap Barbie,’ Charles explains.
“It’s always fascinating watching people view the images in galleries and seeing some of them struggle with their attraction to them. Because the models are so attractive, viewers often don’t notice right away that the nipples and belly buttons have been removed. My hope is that they realize it’s the idea itself that they’re attached to more than any physical aspect,” says Charles.
“People at first think they’re attracted to an image of some hot, sweaty sailor, or even a human,” Charles tells PetaPixel about people who have seen “The Doll Series” during its two exhibits in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a bustling community for artists and a popular vacation spot for the LGBT+ community.
“It’s a doll, which they only then see lacks many human characteristics. It wasn’t a hot sailor that attracted them. It was simply the idea of one. Once people realize this, my hope is that they’re able to apply this mental flexibility to other things, particularly trans people,” Charles explains.
This trans allegory was not always a big part of “The Doll Series.” However, after seeing how people engaged with the work, Charles knew it was the photo series’s natural evolution.
“I did an entire collection of Doll images using trans models, which I exhibited during NYC World Pride in 2019. It was such a joyous event for the models, and I was honored to be a part of it,” Charles tells PetaPixel.
In the provocative image “Booty Bump Barbie,” Charles references a corresponding scene from the acclaimed film “The Wolf of Wall Street.” This movie helped jumpstart “Barbie” star Margot Robbie’s acting career.
In the iconic scene, Robbie had to be completely nude. “The image flips the script and imagines Barbie as a #girlboss sex worker filming and directing the scene for her OnlyFans, just as Margot Robbie has flipped the script since ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.’ The model Ashley Ryan in the image is trans, which also likely makes this a more accurate portrayal of the sex worker in the original movie scene,” Charles explains.
“She went from being an object of the male gaze to being in control of the narrative and having more autonomy over her body,” Charles tells PetaPixel. “She transcended it in a way similar to what I aim for with my images. The dolls are clearly in charge of who they are, how they’re played with, and their role in society.”
Charles references several notable Barbie dolls and parts of the overall Barbie lore in The Doll Series.
“‘Daddy Ken’ references Earring Magic Ken, Mattel’s best-selling (and gayest) Ken of all time. The series also features non-binary actor Jesse James Keitel as ‘Astronaut Barbie,’ merging the futuristic fantasy of ‘Star Trek’ with Barbie’s real-world career aspirations. Keitel has starred on ‘Queer as Folk’ and played the non-binary villain Dr. Aspen on an episode of ‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,'” writes Charles.
Lots of Oil and Unusual Posing Among the Numerous Practical Challenges of ‘The Doll Series’
There are some practical concerns with “The Doll Series.” Charles says that getting the “doll” look requires “lots of baby oil” and removing the nipples and belly button in post, along with adding the lines for the movable limbs.
“As for posing, I direct the models to only focus on keeping their wrists stiff and their fingers close together. Surprisingly, the rest of their joints don’t matter too much. Lastly, I instruct them to try to always look straight at wherever their face is pointing. Barbie doesn’t do side-eye.”
Finding all the pink props and items “is a journey,” Charles says.
“I did the series for four years before taking a break at the end of 2019. I had done over 200 doll images and styled almost all of them myself. I took a break because, frankly, I had gotten so sick of looking at pink!”
While it is easy to find pink items, it is not always to find the perfect prop. “I have literally hundreds of pages of mood boards of all pink stuff to keep it all sorted. When I decided to start the series up again in honor of the movie, Barbie-core fever had already hit, and the internet was overflowing with pink options. This made it fun again, but it was still a long process. Sometimes I will spray paint objects pink if I need to, but rarely will I do it in post because it never quite looks as real to me,” Charles explains.
Jumpstarting Conversations and Other Goals for ‘The Doll Series’
Charles hopes that the new photo series captures viewers’ imagination and sparks productive conversations surrounding identity.
“Previously I’ve created images that touched on identity in different ways. I did a series called ‘Pleasure Bots’ in which I explored the internal and personal lives of sex robots that had become sentient. How would they decorate their homes? What errands would they run?” Charles says.
“I also explored it in my ‘Jetsons Series.’ In it, Elroy is questioning his gender identity, so Jane takes him to get a brain scan since studies have shown that CT scans can confirm someone’s true gender identity. I’ll never forget the moment when a couple approached me at my gallery to talk to me about the image where Elroy is getting a brain scan. They were both sexual health advisors and wanted to have it in their offices because it really did represent a utopian future where access to gender-affirming care was universal.”
More From Courtney Charles
Courtney Charles also designs and makes clothing and other artworks alongside photographic projects. “However, photography has always been my driving passion. Its ability to capture moments, convey emotions, and tell stories resonates deeply within me,” Charles says.
“Engaging in resin art during lockdown provided a different avenue for me to channel my artistic energy, all while remaining true to my love of visual storytelling. I was able to use most of the resin art for an image in the Jetsons-inspired editorial series that I published last year,” Charles continues.
Image credits: All images © Courtney Charles