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For generations of American girls, Barbie first appeared one day in our lives at a birthday party, as a holiday present, or even after a lucky trip to Toys “R” Us.
For a time, for some of us, she became anything and everything that we wanted her to be. A plastic doll had been designed to embody the promise that “girls can do anything.” A 12-inch tall icon of limitless possibilities.
From her inception in 1959 as a white fashion model living in her perfect mod dreamhouse without a kitchen or husband, to her latest, more politically correct reincarnations, in the collectible “inspiring women series,” as Rosa Parks, Helen Keller, Frida Kahlo, and mathematician Katherine Johnson. Mattel’s Barbie doll has evolved with the times—there are now a variety of Barbies that use a wheelchair, as well as a Barbie with Down syndrome.
Barbie has always been controversial.
She was either too sexy or too domestic. Too feminine, but not the right type of feminine. Too skinny, but oh—she had breasts! Depending on what academic experts you consult, she is a product of the patriarchy, but also the harbinger of radical hippie thought.
She is the most popular doll in the world—and the most hated.
When director and writer Greta Gerwig took on making a movie about this American icon, she faced a few options.
Should she tone down the pink? Steer away from the blonde? Or lean into the toymaker Mattel’s efforts to rebrand Barbie as an emblem of enlightened feminist aspirations?
When the indie filmmaker accepted star Margot Robbie’sinvitation to make a movie about Barbie, Mattel warily gave their consent to Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach’s treatment—sales had been dropping rapidly in the past decade. Despite robust rebranding efforts, Barbie’s once infallible popularity was dwindling.
Mattel’s gamble on Gerwig has so far paid off handsomely. As of this writing, the Barbie movie crossed the coveted billion-dollar box office threshold less than a month after its release. According to Warner Brothers, it’s their fastest film to do so.
Even for Gen-Z progressives like myself, who had long ago tossed away their Barbies as an embarrassing reminder of gender roles, Barbie, the movie, once again managed to speak to us. Barbie suddenly seemed … cool?
But how could that be?
The movie is full of pink, pretty clothes, high heels, perfect hair, and the essential brand zeitgeist. There is no denying that this is a Barbie movie. But as both a storyteller and director, Gerwig manages to impose a fantastically new frame on the old doll, by simply ignoring decades of feminist critiques of her “look” and purpose.
Yes, Barbie is a tool for constructing femininity, but—so Gerwig’s movie argues —she was never meant to limit it. The real meaning of Barbie is what we make of femininity, by playing with Barbie in whatever ways we wish.
Despite the movie’s staggering popularity, even among many liberal and left-wing pundits, skeptics remain, and the embrace of some feminists has naturally triggered the Far Right.
Conservative columnists like Ben Shapiro and Joe Rogan have slammed Barbie for being “too woke.” Alt-right political activist Jack Posobiec tweeted that “[The movie] made Barbie a man-hating Woke propaganda fest. They teach Barbie fans about rising up against ‘the patriarchy,’ and Ken is portrayed as beta and borderline retarded. It’s a horrorshow[sic].” Ironically, a similar critique appeared in 1964 in The Nation magazine, warning that the svelte blonde bombshell dolls would beget “a generation of vipers that will cause men to plead for the return of momism”—a reminder that the liberal Left wasn’t always a bastion of enlightened views about women.
On the other hand, in a recent Vulture review of Barbie, leftist author Madeline Leung Coleman characterized the film’s Barbie Land as a “feminist utopia inhabited by anorexia-inducing perma-high-heeled dolls,” and a “universe of two genders.” Writer Allison P. Davis argued that “it’s a stretch to search for a radical or subversive feminist manifesto in the Barbie movie,” continuing, “[Gerwig’s] movies enact a fantasy in which the biggest hurdle is deciding you want to become something.”
For critics like Coleman and Davis, Barbie falls short of what feminism is in 2023, lagging embarrassingly behind by a few decades. For them, the “girls can do anything” theme is too reminiscent of the empty “girlboss” trend of the past decade.
This is not the first time such accusations have been thrown at Barbie. As Mary F. Roger noted in her acidulous 1999 takedown of Barbie in her book Barbie Culture, “Barbie represents […] the sort of selfhood ascendant in the postindustrial societies with their commodity cultures. […] Barbie has no problems and has never exhibited any serious interest in the world’s or her society’s problems. Hers are the politics of impression, the style politics her consumerism both presupposes and promotes.”
When Ruth Handler created Barbie in 1959, she saddled the doll with a cursed life of controversy simply by making her a young woman instead of a baby doll meant to be coddled.
With her red lipstick, monochrome striped swimsuit, and sleek ponytail, Barbie was nobody’s idea of a baby doll. She was not there to teach motherhood: instead, she offered herself as the kind of fashion model one might see in the glossy pages of an adult woman’s magazine.
As the Barbie universe grew in the years that followed, so did Barbie’s aspirational images. Who needed Neil Armstrong when you had astronaut Barbie, released four years before he even stepped foot on the moon? The designers at Mattel figured they could sell her as almost anything, from president to CEO.
But why can’t she proudly sit at the table during seminars on feminist theory?
Even though the doll had been created by a woman, second-wave feminists denounced her thin waist and big breasts as conceding too much to the “male gaze.” Third-wave feminists were hesitant to embrace her overt pink materialism.
But what do we think of her now, in this new “fourth” era of feminism? Hardly a wave but instead a tsunami raging both in the real world and online. How should my generation of women regard her, looking back?
Gerwig takes Barbie and places her carefully back into our own hands—those of us who played with her, perhaps forgot about her, and later rejected her in the name of feminism. We are forced by Gerwig to look closely at Barbie once more. Why did some of us like her so much? Why did we all spend hours upon hours crafting the type of world you see in Barbie Land? Where does she fit in our journey towards womanhood?
The Barbie film suggests she was a malleable tool to explore all of the infinite possibilities of a fantasy womanhood. What do you do with girls like us that, for a fleeting moment, got a chance to imagine life without gender limits?
By the time we grow up, we know that Barbie Land isn’t real.
In Gerwig’s film, Barbie goes on this journey too. And despite all of the awful things Barbie witnesses and feels during her time in Real World California, which is framed as a patriarchal dystopia, she decides to stay.
The ending is puzzling at first—why leave the supposed utopia that is Barbie Land?
What, if anything, can we take from our time with the Barbies?
Gerwig leaves the answer up to us.
We can, if we want, keep sneering at Barbie, or simply forget about her. She is a plastic doll, after all.
Or we can remember the feelings we once felt while immersed in the world of Barbie. For me, Barbie was an invitation to imagine all the things I could do when I grew up. I had no concept of a glass ceiling or a pay gap yet. Just because I had my Barbie wear a pair of pink high heels does not necessarily mean she was a “bad” doll or not “good enough” for me. I’m never going back to my own Barbie Land days—but the Barbie film reminds me of what I learned by playing with her, without the white noise of adult critics.
Honor McConnell is a BA student in history at Eugene Lang College at The New School.