Will Barbie Change the Doll’s Complicated Feminist Legacy?



BARBIE, Margot Robbie as Barbie, 2023.  Warner Bos. /Courtesy Everett Collection

It’s the summer of Barbiecore fashion, “Barbenheimer” double features, and a worldwide shortage of a specific shade of fluorescent pink. Saying the “Barbie” movie has been hotly anticipated is like saying July in New York is hot — it doesn’t do a modicum of justice to the truly immersive experience that being a Barbie fan this summer has been.

This, however, is the very same Barbie that has been endlessly critiqued for being a symbol of unrealistic, dangerous beauty standards, and there’s actually a significant collection of scholarship that has backed up the idea that the doll hasn’t generally been great for girls’ body image. For example, a 2006 study in Developmental Psychology found that girls between ages 5 and 8 who were exposed to Barbies had lower levels of satisfaction with their bodies than those who were not. A decade later, a similar study in the journal Body Image came to a similar conclusion, and that finding was replicated in yet another 2021 study from the same journal. It’s fairly hard to deny that the original Barbie’s body isn’t realistic; after all, 2014 Medical Daily study found that the original Barbie had a BMI of 16.24, meaning that if she was real and had the doll’s proportions, she’d have to walk on all fours.

As this scholarship and renewed anti-Barbie sentiments reached the public, Mattel faced backlash, and Barbie’s sales began to nosedive. This led the company to launch a truly impressive rehabilitation campaign. First, they fired then-CEO Bryan Stockton in 2015, and a year later, Mattel began releasing Barbies with three different body types: petite, tall, and curvy, prompting Time to release a cover story with the headline, “Now can we stop talking about my body?” In 2018, Mattel built on their new momentum and hired current CEO Ynon Kreiz, who came in with a plan to launch Mattel toy-inspired movies, theme parks, and much more, per Variety. Flash-forward to the summer of 2023, and it seems like Mattel’s Barbie rehabilitation campaign and Kreiz’s vision have reached their zenith with the “Barbie” movie, which premiered on July 21.

“Barbie” has always had a lot going for it; it’s directed by Greta Gerwig, who has built a reputation for making complex feminist masterpieces like “Lady Bird” and “Little Women,” and it boasts a diverse, star-studded cast of Barbies and Kens. “Barbie” is also deeply self-aware about the controversies that have surrounded its central doll since she was created. The Barbie at the center of the story, called “Stereotypical Barbie” and embodied with precision by Margot Robbie, believes that Barbie has made the real world a fantastic place for women until she actually enters reality. There, she’s met by a group of middle schoolers who label her a “fascist” and tell her she symbolizes everything that has held women back.

The film only grows more self-aware from there, and at one point, when Robbie’s Barbie laments that she doesn’t look perfect anymore, a voiceover tells the filmmakers that they shouldn’t have cast Robbie if they wanted to make this point. But does the movie really succeed in ameliorating the harm that “Stereotypical Barbie” and her brand of femininity has and arguably still does cause? After all, the movie has sparked global Barbie fever, and although the actual film does an incredible job of interrogating many of the issues with Barbie, most of the buzz surrounding the film has been fairly uncritical. In some ways, that’s only fair. In a summer full of heat waves and disappointingly little student debt relief, we all deserve to celebrate.

Then again, Barbie interrupts a fabulous party by talking about dying, which doesn’t seem too different from interrupting the summer of “Barbie” celebration by overanalyzing what the movie has to say about women. In that spirit, no matter how many self-aware voiceovers and side comments Gerwig inserts, it’s hard to get past the fact that the movie stars Robbie, a conventionally beautiful white woman. Though the cast is diverse, only Robbie has been dressed in Barbie outfits on the press tours, and casting Robbie’s Barbie as the lead does locate her version of thin, white hyper-femininity as central and default. (Meanwhile, when Amy Schumer was cast as Barbie in a different version of the movie in 2016, vicious, fat-shaming hate tweets ensued.) By worshiping Robbie’s version of Barbie, one could ask: might we accidentally be idealizing a kind of womanhood (read: thin, white, etcetera) that is already extremely idealized at the expense of everyone who can’t live up to that standard?

“Barbie” actually does grapple with this question fairly extensively, and though it doesn’t deliver any clear answers, it comes closest to a resolution when Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler, shows up to deliver a few life lessons near the film’s conclusion. She tells everyone that her Barbie was never meant to look like someone attainable or realistic for most people; that wasn’t the point. Barbie the doll is a fantasy, just like Barbieland. She’s an idea, and, as Handler says, “Ideas live forever.”

Just because the movie is self-aware about “Stereotypical Barbie”‘s flaws doesn’t mean we should stop interrogating whether Barbie is harmful to girls’ self-image, though on the other hand, labeling any form of femininity as “bad” has its own issues. But by highlighting the fact that perfection is only an idea and that it can’t and shouldn’t have to hold up in the real world, “Barbie” definitely makes an important point — one that hasn’t necessarily translated to mainstream discourse about the movie, which has mostly revolved around the film’s ultra-fun, pink, glittery aesthetic.

Of course, celebrating fun, pink, and glitter is an important and valuable part of “Barbie” as well. Traditionally, feminine pursuits and aesthetics have historically been discounted and disavowed as inherently lesser-than, which Ken is thrilled to discover when he enters the real world. (Brilliantly, “Barbie” makes the point that Ken’s desire to live in a patriarchal society mostly comes from the fact that he’s extremely insecure, though the Ken question merits a completely different essay.)

This brings up another side of the critiques that have been leveled at Barbie since she was created — the idea that she promotes a regressive, subservient kind of femininity. In 1972, the National Organization For Women protested Barbie and other dolls in front of New York’s Toy Fair building, handing out pamphlets arguing that Barbie “perpetuated sexual stereotypes by encouraging little girls to see themselves solely as mannequins, Sex objects, or housekeepers,” per The New York Times. Decades later, protesters in Berlin lined up outside a new Barbie Dreamhouse installation in 2013 and protested Barbie for “marketing strategies that allocate a limited gender role to young girls,” per NBC.

It’s true that Barbie has held every professional position in the books, from 1965’s Astronaut Barbie to 1985’s Day-to-Night, executive-coded Barbie. Still, “Stereotypical Barbie” — presumably the one these protests were targeting — has never been able to shake off the bimbo accusations, though “Barbie” itself makes the argument that “Barbie isn’t a bimbo” more than once. Ironically, before “Barbie” came out, the movie was already being labeled a seminal text of “Bimbo feminism” — a kind of feminism that celebrates femininity in and of itself and rejects girlboss feminism, which equates women’s worth with professional success.

Somehow, “Barbie” even manages to interrogate this idea, though again, it doesn’t offer many answers. Robbie’s Barbie finds herself grappling with her place in a world that hates stereotypical Barbies, which prompts America Ferrera‘s character to propose the creation of an “Ordinary Barbie.” Still, Barbie ends the movie by leaving behind her glamorous high-heeled past and entering the real world as a more muted, gynecologist-attending, blazer-wearing version of who she was in Barbieland.

Ultimately, “Barbie”‘s most important point comes during Ferrera’s monologue, which makes the critical argument that Barbie, just like any given woman, is never going to be able to please everyone. Case in point: while Barbie’s body has long been criticized for catering to a male fantasy, men were actually apparently her original critics. According to Time, male competitors laughed Handler out of the room when she first unveiled her doll in the 1950s, unable to imagine anyone would want to play with a doll with breasts. Barbie, like so many women, has always found herself labeled too much or not enough.

Gerwig, as it turns out, set out to address this point from the beginning. “If Barbie has been a symbol of all the ways we’re not enough, the only thing that made sense to me to tackle in the movie was: how could we turn it to be enough?” she said in an interview with The New York Times.

Is Barbie a positive or negative role model for young girls? Should she wear high heels or Birkenstocks — or is it possible to keep both in one’s closet? Everyone has a different idea about how Barbie should be, just like everyone seems to have different ideas about what a woman can and should be. And according to Gerwig’s movie, the only answer that matters is one’s own.



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