To say that Barbie has become ubiquitous is not an understatement.
We are just below the barbie movie hitting theaters (July 21) and it’s been a non-stop Barbie blitz. Trailers for the film have sparked endless memes, parent company Mattel has partnered with more than 100 brands to market the film, and embracing the film’s aesthetic has seen #Barbiecore trending on social media for months.
It is increasingly clear that the Barbie The movie will probably be a huge hit. Even if the star-studded cast (Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Simu Liu, etc.) and big-name director (Greta Gerwig) are left out, the intense, over-the-top barrage of Barbie over the past six months shows no signs of abating, with most people seeming more amused than fatigued by the pink buildup.
But dark shadows linger over the Barbie brand, and some are puzzled why the world is so willing to look past the doll’s troubled past and view Mattel’s attack through rose-tinted glasses.
Barbie’s problems started early on. The first iterations of the doll’s design in 1959 were inspired by the Bild Lilli doll, a edgy, bulky doll marketed to German men and sold in adult stores. In her origin as a cartoon strip character, Lilli was known to be a gold digger with an oversized bust and was often depicted in sexy clothing, giving forceful responses to drooling men.
And while Mattel’s design team softened Barbie’s face and body, it still ended up with unrealistic proportions: A woman of Barbie’s weight, combined with her hip, waist and bust measurements, couldn’t stand up without tipping over, nor could she menstruate, doctors said.
For this, Barbie has been accused of perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards and promoting gender stereotypes. And while Mattel has, in more recent years, tried to offer more inclusive Barbies – in 2019 the company introduced Creatable World, its first series of gender-neutral Barbies, while three years earlier it released Barbie Fashionistas that came in four body types, seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles – the company has also played squarely into the narrative.
One of its most scandalous moments came quite early in its history when a 1963 “nanny” teen Barbie was sold with a doll-sized diet book entitled How to lose weight: do not eat. In the 1990s, critics were outraged by a talking Barbie that came preloaded with a silly statement: “Math class is hard.”
(the Simpson fans may also remember a 1994 episode about Malibu Stacey, the show’s answer to a Barbie doll, who famously proclaimed “Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl!” when she pulled the cord.)
It’s hard to gauge whether Barbie has affected children’s body image or self-esteem, or if they have internalized any of Barbie’s unrealistic beauty standards. Most studies on the subject have been conducted on small groups of girls and have yielded lukewarm results.
Some researchers claim that Barbie is just one of many influences in the lives of girls who prioritize and encourage rail-thin figures in Western culture. Others criticize these studies, saying that the research done on girls approaching puberty is biased, since it is at this point in a girl’s life that she becomes most critical of her physique anyway.
Even Mattel’s attempts to be more inclusive have failed. In 1997, Mattel released Share-a-Smile Becky, who was Barbie’s first friend to use a wheelchair. It turned out that Becky’s chair wouldn’t fit through the doorway or elevator at the Barbie Dream House, leaving her destined to sleep on the porch.
That same year, a collaborative project between Mattel and Nabisco resulted in a mass recall when attention was drawn to the fact that “Oreo Fun Barbie”, a black doll wearing an Oreo-brand outfit and a bag of cookies, was derogatory to the black community, as “Oreo” has been used as a racial slur.
Still, those who come to Barbie’s defense, including Mattel himself, will point to Barbie’s progressive and feminist career path over the years. Over the years, she’s had hundreds of careers, including “breaking through the plastic ceiling” and traveling to the moon in 1956 (four years before Neil Armstrong), running for president, and holding esteemed jobs as a computer engineer, paleontologist, and rock star.
But once again, Barbie as a working woman has faced her share of setbacks. As recently as 2010, Mattel faced backlash when a companion book included with Computer Engineer Barbie showed the main character infecting her computer with a virus and needing her male co-workers to help solve the problem.
Through a complicated combination of missteps, adults projecting various stereotypes and customs onto Barbie, and an increase in alternatives in the doll market, Mattel was left with plummeting sales and interest in the Barbie brand in the mid-2010s.
“In 2014 and 2015, we hit a low point and it was a time to reflect in the context of ‘Why did Barbie lose relevance?'” Ricard Dickson, Mattel’s president and COO, recently told CNN.
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“She did not reflect the physicality, the appearance, if you will, of the world around us. And so we set a course to truly transform the brand with a playbook to rekindle our purpose.”
Mattel told CNN that it hopes the Barbie movie will give your brand a boost. While sales of the doll increased during the pandemic, they fell again in the first quarter of 2023.
And while it’s too early to tell if the film will boost Mattel’s bottom line, the company is likely watching with glee at the hype surrounding the movie. The internet is awash with anticipation for Friday’s release and the reviews are mostly positive. A movie version of the doll has sold out, and it was announced Wednesday that the film has the most ticket pre-sales since Avatar: The Path of Water.
The film’s stars and director have also painted the film as a wry look at Barbie’s history, the brand’s failings, as well as the rhetoric surrounding the doll since its conception.
Gerwig also pledged to cast a critical lens on patriarchy and establish the Barbie film in a world where women are in charge; for example, Issa Rae plays President Barbie, and Barbie Land has all female Supreme Court justices for her.
“I think in a lot of other hands, a Barbie movie would remain at surface level. But I knew that Greta (Gerwig) was going to have a lot to say, and I knew that she would be up against a Trojan Horse in a lot of…big trouble within a very funny world,” said Margot Robbie, who plays the title role.
Mattel’s strategy over the years to make the Barbie brand more diverse and inclusive will also be reflected in the public through casting choices, Robbie said.
“I hope people leave…I hope they feel good watching it,” he said. “I feel like there’s a kind of relief in this movie and that the message ultimately is: ‘You’re good. You’re good the way you are.’”
No matter how you look at it, Barbie has always been, and will continue to be, a lightning rod. The debates around its moral and social importance will continue, no matter how many new dolls or movies are released in the world.
For some, she will continue to represent everything that is wrong with beauty ideals and capitalism, while others will continue to show her as a conduit for the dreams and aspirations of young children.
Just as real women are watched every day for their bodies, their dreams, how they act and what they accomplish, so will Barbie.
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