The highly anticipated live-action film starring Margot Robbie is an attempt to redeem the problematic toy. But it’s really just an expensive ad campaign for an outdated doll.
By Sonali Kolhatkar
A few months ago, my two sons, aged 10 and 15, told me they were excited to see the new Barbie film. I was surprised. They are not interested in dolls, and, in spite of Barbie being the top-selling doll in the world, they were not very familiar with the iconic toy until they saw an online trailer of the live-action feature film starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. Although I had played with a much-loved Barbie doll as a child, I had grown up to hate everything the doll stood for: dangerously unattainable beauty standards, the deliberate vapidity of femininity and feminism, and the centering of whiteness.
But, the clever marketing of the new film has people of all demographics eager to see it: “If you love Barbie, this movie is for you. If you hate the Barbie, this movie is for you,” proclaimed the trailer. There should have been an addendum: “If you’re indifferent because you have no idea who or what Barbie is, this movie is also for you.” Because, ultimately the film is a giant commercial for an outdated toy. Its interminably long marketing campaign helped generate breathless anticipation for months.
Launched in 1959 and conceived by Ruth Handler, one of the co-founders of Mattel, Barbie was modeled on a German doll named Bild Lilli, marketed to adult men as a sort of gag gift. According to Brennan Kilbane, writing in Allure, “Bild Lilli was a single-panel comic character in a German tabloid—a sweet, ditzy, curvy figment of the male imagination, frequently losing her clothes and enjoying the company of men. Each punch line hinged on Bild Lilli’s hotness, her horniness, or her lack of common sense. When a police officer informed Bild Lilli that the two-piece swimsuit she was wearing was in violation of decency laws, she responded earnestly, ‘Which piece do you want me to take off?’”
Handler wanted to market an “adult” doll to little girls because the prevalent dolls of her time were either baby dolls or else they had, in her words, “flat chests, big bellies, and squatty legs—they were built like overweight 6- or 8-year-olds.” Apparently, Handler, who appears in the film as a wise elderly grandmother played by Rhea Perlman, felt that a doll with impossibly frail wrists and a thin waist was a more suitable aspiration.
Vox’s Constance Grady put it best, saying, “The plastic body little girls are given to practice being grown-up with is the same as the plastic body grown men hang from the rearview mirrors of their cars as a dirty joke,” referring to the Bild Lilli dolls. This point is especially disturbing when, as Grady also pointed out, the first commercial for the doll featured a girl singing “Someday I’m gonna be exactly like you… Barbie, beautiful Barbie, I’ll make believe that I am you.”
The doll has always been tone-deaf. A few years after it was launched, just as second-wave feminism was gaining ground, Mattel released Slumber Party Barbie, who “came with pink pajamas, a pink scale set at 110 lbs, and a diet book on how to lose weight, with only one instruction: DON’T EAT!”
Since then, the doll’s history has been marked by a constant tug-of-war as it has attempted to market misogyny to a world whose women are tired of being trodden upon. The film is a similar mess of contradictions, and as Andi Zeisler wrote in a New York Times op-ed, it is “one that acknowledges and embraces that weirdness under the vigilant gaze of a corporate chaperone.” Zeisler admitted how she didn’t realize that “the film’s narrative would essentially serve as a Mattel redemption arc,” turning her as a viewer into, “an unwitting Barbie P.R. booster.”
Now, just as Mattel managed to reinvent a male fantasy as a girl’s toy, the new Barbie movie is reinventing the doll as a universally beloved character in our imagination. Forget product placement—the insidious insertion of branded products into films and television shows as a sly form of advertising—the Barbie movie is one giant advertisement, the inaugural creation of Mattel Films. Rather than creating new characters to tell a story and then milking the profits from the resulting merchandise—as is the traditional marketing ploy popularized by films such as Toy Story—Mattel has followed in the footsteps of companies such as Lego and its popular 2015 Lego Movie.
There has been little mention of this as problematic within the slew of glowing reviews of the film. Is this to be the future of film? Indeed, filmmaker J.J. Abrams is working on a new Hot Wheels film.
Audiences are supposed to overlook the ethical conundrums presented by the Barbie film in part because the film’s creator, Greta Gerwig, apparently identifies as a feminist. But, she’s hardly a critic of the doll and its regressive representation. According to the film’s costume designer Jacqueline Durran, “Greta really liked… [the outfits in the film that had an ’80s aesthetic because] they chimed with the date of the Barbies that she used to play with… She was a great Barbie fan.”
Additionally, because the film validates the various criticisms leveled at the doll over the years, audiences are expected to embrace this bizarre brand-turned-film as entertainment. “The role comes with a lot of baggage. But with that comes a lot of exciting ways to attack it,” said Robbie, who was one of the iniators of the project and who stars as the main (white/blond) Barbie protagonist (there many other Barbies in supporting roles) in the film. But the film doesn't truly attack Barbie’s baggage. The opening scene of the film, showcased in its first trailer, was a nod to the deeply problematic original Barbie, with Robbie appearing in the same black-and-white striped bathing suit worn by the first version of the dolls to hit store shelves in 1959.
In spite of the film’s clever marketing as a universal project, it does not challenge Barbie’s main function as a dress-up doll. Durran told British Vogue, “Barbie really is interlinked with fashion, because how you play with her is by dressing her,” and that aspect remains central in the film.
Audiences are being encouraged to wear the doll’s signature Pepto-Bismol pink to theaters—the same color associated with gender stereotyping of girls from birth into adulthood. It’s not enough anymore for little girls to aspire to Barbie’s standards; “Barbie will certainly strike a chord with adult women—even more so than with young girls,” explained a Harper’s Bazaar shopping guide for what to wear to the film.
One “trend expert” explained the push to wear pink to People Magazine, saying, “[w]ith many nostalgic for simpler, sunnier, and more carefree times, it only makes sense that this ’80s-inspired, unapologetically pink aesthetic is taking center stage as the ‘it’ style of the summer.”
So effective is the film’s branding campaign that there is now a massive social media fashion trend called #Barbiecore on TikTok garnering hundreds of millions of views for posts created by young women influencers heavily caking their faces with makeup to look like the doll, wearing pink tulle, batting fake eyelashes, and pursing plump glittery lips coyly. Their posts are tagged with the recognizable Barbie logo, fulfilling Mattel’s wildest marketing dreams while setting women back decades. This is apparently the new face of feminism.
The criticism that the film is a blow to feminism is not overblown. The Barbie movie has popularized the horrific-sounding label of “bimbo feminism” (really!). “Instead of abandoning femininity to succeed in a patriarchal society, bimbo feminism embraces femininity while supporting women’s advancement,” wrote Harriet Fletcher in the Conversation. In other words, women are supposed to attain career success while also shaping themselves to fit the male gaze.
There persists a belief that Barbie is indeed a feminist icon in spite of Mattel steering clear of embracing the f-word. Robbie Brenner, head of Mattel Films, has decided that his company’s film is “the ultimate female-empowerment movie.” This disturbing state of discourse on feminism is the direct result of relying on corporate America to define women’s rights and status. While America Ferrera’s character as a real-life woman struggling with the pressures of patriarchy is the film’s most refreshing and powerful aspect, she remains relegated to a supporting role.
Even the ridiculous right-wing backlash to the film, casting it as “anti-man,” is being touted as a measure of the film’s feminism. If it’s pissing off the misogynist incels, surely it’s on the feminist track, claim the film’s defenders. “[I]t’s not a Barbie doll that threatens women’s rights, opportunities, and safety—it’s the patriarchy,” wrote Fletcher in the Conversation. Really, though, both are true, just to different extents.
When I was about 8 or 9, my immigrant parents bought me a Barbie doll. They were proud to be able to (barely) afford a pricey Western toy for their daughter. My Barbie was blonde and blue-eyed, and I happily played with her for years, well before I ever met a blond, blue-eyed person in real life. My doll set the standard for feminine beauty—one that was out of reach of a brown-skinned, dark-haired kid like me whose body type was chubby in contrast to my Barbie, but typical for my age and size. In 2016, Mattel attempted to diversify the doll’s body types. But “curvy” Barbie was still thinner than most real-life women.
Defenders of the film also point to its racially diverse casting and its embrace of varying body types. After all, Issa Rae plays a Black Barbie, Simu Liu is cast as an Asian Ken, and Nicola Coughlan is a gorgeous plus-size version of the doll. But, as Kilbane explained in Allure, “The Barbieverse distinguishes between two Barbies. There’s Barbie ‘the icon,’ or ‘brand,’ who can be blonde and short, or Black and svelte, or Frida Kahlo and white. There’s Barbie ‘the character,’ who is exactly who you’re thinking of, and will be played by Margot Robbie.”
Unlike Disney’s recent reboot of The Little Mermaid, which actually dared to reimagine the central character as a young Black woman played by Halle Bailey, Barbie—the “real” Barbie—will remain white, blonde, skinny, and conventionally pretty, the ultimate aspiration. The rest of us are part of the supporting cast, as per usual.
Even though Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz said, “It’s not about making movies so that we can go and sell more toys,” that’s a misleading claim. Toy company executives are hoping that the movie renews interest in dolls to the tune of billions of dollars. It is an attempt to redeem Barbie and its problematic history so that people will go out and buy the doll. Ultimately the clearest description of the film—enjoyable and thought-provoking as it is—is that it is a $145 million ad campaign for a toy that should have faded away years ago.
Author: Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute