Barbie: Icon, Movie, Industry

Against the Current No. 230, May/June 2024

Frann Michel

Director: Greta Gerwig
Warner Brothers & Mattel Films, 2023.

THE BARBIE DOLL appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in magic and mystery. It stands with its toes on the ground and heels in the air.

While Mattel has profited massively from worker exploitation, and feminists have long critiqued the messages the toy sends children about gender, the doll’s ubiquity and exaggerated femininity have also made it a popular choice for cultural repurposing and commentary — even as Mattel has sought to turn that critical engagement to its bottom-line advantage.

Barbie occupies this contested nexus of social meanings, offering viewers satirical humor and escapist solace, providing the corporation a financial bonanza, and giving critics and artists a springboard for sometimes radical memes and insights.

Even before last summer’s collective creative outpouring of Barbenheimer memes led us to think about the shared midcentury roots of the bomb and the bombshell, there was the Barbie Liberation Organization (the BLO) swapping voice boxes between Barbies and GI Joes, so that she said, “Vengeance is mine” and he said, “Math class is tough.”

The memes spilled over into Union Organizer Barbie (red shirt, copy of Das Kapital) and Land Back Barbie (tears, tiny U-lock). Portland, Oregon’s Mosquito Fleet displayed a Shelter-in-Place Dream House, with information about the dangers of fossil fuel spills and oil train explosions. The BLO presented Ecowarrior Barbies, modeled on figures like Julia Butterfly Hill and Greta Thunberg.

People will make creative and rebellious use of even the most plasticized elements of corporate mass culture.

But also, vice versa. In the movie’s Barbie Land, the lone figure marked by the off-script creativity so common in children’s play is Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon). With her hair chopped off, her skin decorated by crayons, she’s incessantly doing the splits because someone “played too hard” with her. By August, Mattel had started selling a special-edition Weird Barbie based on the character.

The highest-grossing film of 2023, Barbie capitalizes on such incongruities as have also inspired artists, critics, and fans of the doll. The narrative’s inciting event comes when Stereotypical Barbie (Margaret Robbie) is affected by Mattel employee Gloria (America Ferrera) drawing pictures of alterna-Barbies like Irrepressible-Thoughts-of-Death Barbie.

Monumental Parody

Barbie opens with a parody of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), deflating the pomposity of that classic film with a tongue-in-cheek tale of Barbie’s monumental origin as the first doll that was not a baby doll, and thus invited little girls to play at something other than being mothers.

Like that monolith-in-a-swimsuit winking at those little girls, Barbie is indeed huge. According to one late 1990s estimate, 99% of girls aged 3-10 in the USA played with Barbie.

Barbie is also legion. The original 1959 doll came in two varieties: blonde and brunette. But over the years the Barbie universe has added not only friends and family (Ken, Midge, Stacey), but also Barbies with hundreds of occupations (flight attendant, business executive, veterinarian), Barbies of different colors, and more recently Barbies with different body types (the film includes a fat Barbie and one in a wheelchair, though the latter never accesses the beach).

In addition to those many dolls, clothes and accessories (houses, cars, campers, offices), Mattel has turned out over 400 Barbie storybooks, some 60 video games, nine different television series, and nearly 50 computer-animated movies.

The Mattel corporation has achieved this prodigious market success with the ruthlessness typical of capitalist enterprises, as Rithika Ramamurthy outlined last year in Nonprofit Quarterly (“Barbie and the Problem of Corporate Power”).

The doll has never been manufactured in the United States, and the company has moved production repeatedly in search of the lowest wages, closing factories that managed to unionize, subjecting workers to dangerous conditions, pressuring subcontractors with cost-cutting and speed-ups.

Mattel has faced allegations of using child labor, had to recall toys made with tainted materials, and hired McKinsey to consult on cost-cutting. It has remained profitable with tax avoidance and infusions of venture capital. In 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported the average Mattel worker made $6300 per year.

That hidden abode of production remains hidden in the film, however, as it does for most consumers.

Delusion and Critique

Meanwhile, the classic feminist criticisms of Barbie dolls — for instance, that they present unrealizable body images, and so can worsen dissatisfaction with one’s own body — have been borne out by research.

Mattel has tried to rebut criticism that fashion-model Barbie invites girls to think of themselves as objects by pointing to the various professional Barbies (astronaut Barbie went to space before American women did!).

But a 2014 study suggested that even playing with Doctor Barbies lowered girls’ sense of their future possibilities (“Boys Can Be Anything’: Effect of Barbie Play on Girls’ Career Cognitions,” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research). Indeed, one of the film’s structuring jokes is the Barbie-Land delusion that their role-modeling has ended the problem of sexism in the Real World.

To be sure, Barbie is neither the origin nor the only source of training in the idea that “Men act, women appear” (as John Berger et al. put it in Ways of Seeing, the 1970s British TV series and book of Marxist art history).

And it’s not impossible that the doll can provide a vehicle for working through some of the larger cultural issues Barbie indexes.

Something of that working-through may be part of the not-infrequent queer embrace of Barbie. The hyperbolically-gendered dolls seem to emblematize Judith Butler’s point (in her 1990 book Gender Trouble) that all gender is a copy of a copy, an imitation with no original, parody all the way down.

The campy pleasures of these simulacra, the ambiguities of gender without genitals, no doubt contribute to the enjoyment many adults as well as children take in unlicensed and critical play with Barbie. Queer filmmaker Todd Haynes cast Barbie dolls as the actors in his film Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story (1987), and there are creative anthologies like Mondo Barbie (1993) and The Barbie Chronicles (1999), and poetry collections like Denise Duhamel’s Kinky (1997) and Giovanna Riccio’s Plastic’s Republic (2019).

Pattern Reversals

The film’s humor lies not just in the surreal juxtapositions of a live-action doll world, as when Barbie showers or drinks without any liquid involved, or floats down from the second floor of the Dream House.

There’s also the reversal of heteronormative gender patterns in Barbie Land, where Barbies run everything and “Barbie has a great day every day. But Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.”

There’s the mockery of male ego when the Kens try to take over Barbie Land but are distracted by the irresistible temptation to explain The Godfather or cryptocurrency, or to play guitar at a woman for four hours.

There’s the Legally-Blonde-style puncturing of expectations about dumb blondes every time Barbie comes out with some sophisticated articulation of a moderately complex idea; there’s the refreshing experience of seeing a mainstream big-budget film in which an intelligent tween girl (Ariana Greenblatt as Gloria’s daughter Sasha) gets to be caustic about the planet-killing dangers of capitalism.

But the still-artificial, pastel-and-plastic “Real World” that Stereotypical Barbie visits when she leaves Barbie Land should not be mistaken for the actual real world we live in. Despite the film’s acknowledgement that the Real World has not solved the problem of patriarchy, and passing references to capitalism and fascism, the Mattel offices resemble the cubicles of Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), the board room echoes the war room in Dr. Strangelove (1964) but with a heart-shaped central table, and everyone waves in the slightly mechanical style of Barbie Land.

As in a rather more highbrow 2023 release, Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things, the patriarchy the heroine battles is ultimately fairly benign, embodied in individuals more than institutional or structural forces.

Though Barbie feels an “undertone of violence” in the Real World, it never materializes. Ken gives up the burdens of patriarchy and accepts that he is Kenough, and no one mentions that his individual self-acceptance won’t resolve the problem of his houselessness.

Mattel Makes the Rules

Of course, the pleasurable escapism of the movie has limits, and the limits are set by Mattel. Though director-cowriter Greta Gerwig and producer-star Margaret Robbie reportedly had to fight to include some of the more critical elements that appear in the film, it was Mattel Films they fought. As Weird Barbie quips, “Don’t blame me, blame Mattel, they make the rules.”

For all its validation of a corporate-compatible liberal feminism and the encouragement its success gives Mattel to pursue other live-action films based on less-iconic toys (at least a dozen are in the works), the most dangerous part of Barbie was probably its participation in pandemic normalization and the uptick in Covid cases that came with the mass unmasked return to unventilated theaters.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism (the film is now available to stream at home, and last year’s SAG-AFTRA strike won some modest improvements in streaming residuals for performers).

Certainly there’s enough in the world that we might want to forget for a couple of hours. It’s fun to share those memes and repurpose Barbie culture for our own ends, even if the film’s Barbie-deprecating humor helps inoculate the brand against critique.

Near the end of the film, Barbie wants to return with Gloria to the Real World, but the ghost of Barbie inventor Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman) tells Barbie she cannot in good conscience let her become human without knowing what it means, and so she grants her a vision of humanity.

That vision consists of a montage of home movies and images of the friends and family of the film’s cast and crew. For Barbie, being human happens entirely in a bourgeois private sphere, where there is no sign of war, climate disaster, or any of the other ills of capitalism.

Making Our Own Meaning

When Academy Award (Oscar) nominations were announced, Barbie was nominated in eight categories, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, but not including Robbie for Best Actress in a Lead Role or Gerwig for Best Director. Disappointed fans of the film took to social media to say the failure to recognize these women’s accomplishments echoed elements of the movie’s critiques of patriarchy.

A February 2024 report from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative confirms popular cinema has a gender-representation problem, as the number of top-grossing films with female leads in 2023 fell to its lowest point in 14 years (fewer than one in three, and among performers over 45, one in 10).

People of color as leads gained slightly and representation among Oscar nominees has held more or less steady over the years. But all of these figures still fall short of population demographics, and such metrics of representation bear a complex and indirect relation to other forms of material power.

As Ayah El-Khaldi noted in Middle East Eye, the public conversation around the Oscars so-called “snub” also became an opportunity to use social media “to shine a light on Palestinian women’s plight” in the ongoing Israeli attack on Gaza.

While the Oscar’s brouhaha provided another route for calling attention to the atrocities facing Palestinian women, this is my least favorite form of repurposing Barbie culture. At least we are probably safe from Mattel coming out with a genocide Barbie. No wonder we want to escape.

The only category in which the film won an Academy Award was Music (Original Song) for Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?,” a plaintive reflection on disappointment and uncertainty. Near the end of the film, Barbie explains her desire to return to the Real World and become human as a wish “to be part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that’s made.”

With Barbie, and beyond, people make our own meaning, but we do not make it just as we would wish.

May-June 2024, ATC 230

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