Lesson: Lauren Kelley: Icon Identity

  • Grade Level: High School 9-12 grade


Written by Education Intern, Ariana Bayer.
In this lesson, students will discuss how popular icons affect perceptions of the norm, and how artist Lauren Kelley appropriates Barbie to communicate alternative narratives. In Kelley’s video, Big Gurl, Kelley transforms iconic American Barbie dolls in stop-action animation, telling three short stories that explore sexual and racial identity. Through sculpture or collage, students transform their own icons of American childhood as a method of telling stories of difference.
Preview Big Gurl, and either choose to screen the film in its entirety or to focus discussion on one of Kelley’s characters.


  • Students will discuss and describe how we identify with popular icons.
  • Students will examine the affect of popular media on our self-perception and image.
  • Students will examine the role of the pop icon in the work of Lauren Kelley.
  • Students will create sculpture or collage telling a visual story of difference.


Popular Culture refers to the Contemporary lifestyle and items that are well known and generally accepted; widespread cultural patterns within a population.
Norm is something standard or typical; a rule that is socially enforced.
Iconography is symbolic representation; conventional meanings attached to an image or images. From Greek eikon (icon, image) + graphein (to write).
*Feminism*is a theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.
Idealism is the practice of forming ideals or living under their influence; something that is idealized. Compare to realism.
Appropriation is the taking exclusive possession of; to take or make use of without authority or right.
Transformation is the changing of a composition or structure; to change the outward form or appearance of; to change in character or condition.


Lauren Kelly’s Big Gurl, on the New Museum website.
Dollar or thrift-store figurines and dolls (Barbie, GI Joe, WWF wrestlers, superheroes), or
Printable images of popular American toy figurines
Modeling clay or papier mâché, Sharpies, X-Acto knives, scissors, cloth or paper scraps, glue, packing tape.

Lesson Strategy

Open Discussion

  • Do popular images affect/determine our perception of what is normal?
  • How does the idea of the norm affect our behavior, our lives and expectations?
  • What strategies can we use to tell a different story?

Motivation and Discussion
Define popular culture. Based on this definition, have students brainstorm a list of 8 to12 popular children’s toy figures. Define iconography. Based on this definition of iconography, determine which of the toys listed were iconographic.

  • Do popular icons affect our perception of what is normal? How?
  • Think back to your own specific toys. How did you play with them? Did anyone in class transform their dolls and toys to play with them?

Provide background
Barbie has been America’s plaything for 50 years. Her accessories and her actual body have been redesigned by Mattel, largely in the face of criticism. People have argued that the toy promotes an unrealistic ideal of the female body, as well as a shallow ideal of womanhood.
African-American Barbie was first introduced in the mid-1960s; as “Colored Francie,” then reintroduced as “Christie” in late 1960s. And today Mattel produces dolls representing a wide range of cultures and ethnicities. Mattel originally produced Francie using the same face mold of Caucasian Barbie. Since then Mattel has released many “face molds”—transforming Barbie’s physical traits to appeal to a wider audience.

  • How has Barbie changed since your childhood? What was her job in the ´80s, ´90s? Today?
  • Do you think Barbie affected your perception of the norm?

Barbie has been transformed in the face of changes in popular culture, but still remains a contested icon today. The artist Lauren Kelley takes the ideal icon of Barbie to tell stories outside the norm.

Look at Lauren Kelley, Big Gurl, 2006. Stop-motion animation and digital video, color, sound 6:55 min.

  • What do you notice about how Kelley transforms her figures? What does she add? What does she remove?
  • Why did Kelley choose Barbie?
  • And why a black Barbie?
  • How do her choices relate to issues of race and gender?
  • How does humor affect how we perceive Kelley’s message?
  • Whose story is she telling?
  • Does changing Barbie’s physicality and story change her message?

25 min. Model activity for students: Choose a figurine or paper image of a childhood icon and take the image or figurine through each of the steps below. Discuss how each choice of addition or subtraction transforms the message of the piece.

Methods/Motivations Discuss how the alterations and transformations relate to changed meaning. What does the icon represent to you, and to popular culture? Review formal elements. How do your transformations of color, scale, contrast, texture, and shape change the iconography? Review possibilities of transformations:

  • Alter the form by replacing an appendage (leg, arm, head, face) with one that addresses your current interpretation of the icon.
  • Add to the existing form in ways that exaggerate or obliterate your current interpretation of the icon.
  • Reduce the form to reveal what you identify as essential to your current interpretation of the icon.

Assemble student’s figurines and ask students to share observations.

  • Note a figure you recognize, both in its pop iconography and your classmates’ interpretations? What makes it successful for you?
  • How do specific transformations of color, scale, contrast, texture, or shape change the message of the icon?
  • How are we redefining meaning through altering the icon?

Extending the Lesson

Related artists and artworks
Kara Walker uses an iconic Victorian style of silhouetted figures in cut paper to address slave history, race, gender, and sexuality.
Martha Rosler’s recent collages uses published printed matter to comment on the contents of media, modes of representation, and their relationship to the consumer.
Ghada Amer uses the feminist practice of embedding hand-embroidered erotic images of women in abstract paintings to address issues of femininity and the Muslim world.
Laurie Simmons draws from imagery of everyday life, including childhood imagery, to construct photographs and films that comment on gender and identity.

Additional Resources

Lesson Plan: Lauren Kelley: Icon Identity