Young girls all over the world have played with Barbie dolls for over sixty years, dipping into over 200 different Barbie personas, many touted as professional role models by their makers, the Mattel Toy Company.
Cat Burglar Barbie, Totally Hair Barbie, Cashier Barbie, Game Show Host Barbie, Pink Diamond Barbie, Noodle Bar Worker Barbie, United States Presidential Candidate Barbie, and the latest and greatest of 2022, Chief Sustainability Officer Barbie and Renewable Energy Engineer Barbie.
The Barbie movie is a mega hit, taking in over two million euros on its release day in Italy, crowning Barbie Italy’s best box office opening in 2023. Although Vietnam, Algeria, Kuwait, and Lebanon have banned the movie (Banned Barbie?) for objectionable content, the Warner Bros-Mattel movie has earned a whopping $1,387,927,000 worldwide so far.
Barbie is so wildly popular in Italy that it jumpstarted a new gelato flavor, Barbie-Bietola (pink dye from beetroot), according to the Italian news agency ANSA. The movie spawned a cheeky spoof on YouTube where Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s face has been swapped out for Barbie’s face using artificial intelligence (no pun intended) to create a brand new artificially intelligent Georgie. The short video is called Ceci n’est pas une AI. Matteo Salvini is AI Ken along with the faces of Ignazio La Russa, Daniela Santanchè, and Guiseppe Conte spliced into their appropriate doppelgangers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn8V0zB3Q1c
In a chilling moment Georgieface-Barbie looks up to the heavens and tells herself, “You have to go to the real world!”
Although pundits dubbed the Barbie movie a “feminist manifesto”, Greta Gerwig, the director and co-writer with Noah Baumbach, brilliantly folded a hilarious riff into the plot about how and why men fight. Ken (Ryan Gosling) and all the other Kens storm the shores of Barbie Land with their weapons of tennis rackets and hobby horses (think Vikings) and proceed to fight amongst themselves, spoofing on how sometimes in war movies (and real life) it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
The movie opens with a déjà vu moment reminiscent of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, only with little girls smashing and trashing their baby dolls. It cuts to a very pink (blinding pink) Barbie Land with perhaps an intentional nod to The Stepford Wives where women cruise through their day looking zombie-happy in perfect outfits.
The so-called inciting incident of the storyline happens when Barbie wakes up one morning to her smelly bad breath and feet that suddenly go flat, triggering an existential crisis about death and stereotypical Barbies. On the advice of Weird Barbie, she travels to the real world to find the “truth about the universe” in the “country” of California.
Tucked inside this farcical and fun comedy is a fundamental challenge to society’s opaque patriarchy and how fossilized sexism is embedded in our culture. In a monologue by Gloria (America Ferrara), she explains how hard it is to be a woman in a society where men disproportionately control social, economic, political and religious power. Several men who hated the movie complained to me that it is an unfair diatribe against men. Complainers? Gloria points out women often fear being labeled complainers. “You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining.”
The movie has been described as a “take down” on the patriarchy, but it shines a spotlight on how men in patriarchal societies often solve their differences by fighting and starting wars. As Ken (Ryan Gosling) puts it, “Everything in the patriarchy exists to elevate and expand the presence of men.” Like the conquistadores Ken is on a power grab to take over Barbie Land by changing the Barbie Land Constitution. “Kenquistadores” fight to take control of Barbie Land, but they wind up fighting amongst themselves because of knee-jerk rivalry and petty jealousies, losing sight of what they are fighting for. The Barbies plot to win without fighting by fooling the men into warring amongst themselves. Not to be missed is a scene where the brainwashed Barbies are kidnapped by savvy Barbies who pry their brainwashed sisters away from their Ken captors using the age-old femme tactic of flattering and distracting Ken.
For decades Barbie has been blamed for her impossible body type that allegedly traps young girls into toxic self-loathing, but Barbie’s figure is not totally to blame. Don’t blame Twiggy either for her 1960’s anorexic body that was held up as the ideal woman. It is the suits behind the desks in fashion houses and advertising that promoted these anorexic body types that women aspired to for decades. The consumer-culture’s aim is to have women never be satisfied with their lives (so keep buying more stuff). Although the Barbie movie has been labeled a comedy, pay close attention to the rat-a-tat nuggets of wisdom often cloaked in a joke, especially how the patriarchy fuels the culture of consumerism. Think of the suits in the boardroom brainstorming what flavor of Barbie to push next on pre-pubescent girls to buy, buy, buy. I often had that impression when I bought my girls the latest and greatest Barbie, the euphoria lasted a few days, and then they moved on to craving the next Barbie.
Somebody behind a desk in the Mattel boardroom in 1963 approved the release of an outfit that came with a booklet entitled How to lose weight – Don’t eat! Followed in 1965 by Slumber Party Barbie, with a pink bathroom scale permanently set at 110 pounds, a weight which would make any 5 foot 9 inch Barbie emulator lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat needed for a woman to menstruate, according a University Central Hospital study in Helsinki, Finland. No wonder the heavy criticism for creating a doll that fosters poor body images and eating disorders.
One survivor of Impossible Barbie Body Culture is my younger daughter Jane, now in her thirties, who admittedly was “obsessed with Barbie”. But like many other women who grew up on Barbie, she landed on her feet as an independent filmmaker who challenged stereotypical bodies in her South by Southwest film “One Eye Small”, which celebrates sensuous Burlesque dancers and their voluptuous bodies with riveting footage of Una Osato performing a mesmerizing dance of womanhood, which can be viewed on Vimeo.
Says Jane, “I remember when I was 12 destroying all my Barbies with some friends, which was another kind of game. We mutilated them and left them in my friend’s apartment building’s elevator. In the middle of the night, we threw the remaining messed up Barbies out the window onto an empty Broadway and screamed. I think this was a cathartic letting go and a rejection of what Barbie symbolizes.”
Another Barbie graduate from New York City, Rosa Perr of Bluestone Babe Tattoos, founded a popular hand-poked tattoo business where she designs symbolic images of empowerment. She has vague memories of playing with Barbie dolls and when asked if Barbie affected her body image, she said, “I am sure it did along with everything else in society. How could it not, this impossible body.” Yet Rosa survived and thrived as an independent businesswoman and artist where “her sensual designs channel divine femininity and self-love. Her tattoos are like a tiny secret tucked away on a limb or rib which spark inspiration, self-possession, and tenderness.”
A veteran Barbie owner from back in the 1960’s, Paula Kowalczuk, made it out of Barbie Land alive to become the co-founder of TargetSmart Communications, a company that performs non-partisan data analysis and identifies voting trends. She fondly remembers, “I did have a Barbie doll that I loved! But the movie seemed more about Ken than Barbie. Why was Ken in the movie at all? The Barbies also just forgive all the Kens for taking over. Why didn’t the Barbies take a harder stand? Why is the message that girls always have to forgive boys’ bad behavior?”
Barbie sparked heated debates all summer long between men and women who either loved it or hated it. This hot potato movie, replete with a classic car chase and dance scenes a la John Travolta will be a tough act to follow if there’s a sequel. What’s next for Barbie now that she joined the human world at the end of the movie? Blockbuster Barbie will spike sales of the doll (Mattel’s ultimate goal), but perhaps the plot backed the company into a corner when they have to decide what the next new persona will be for Barbie. The movie toyed with the idea of Ordinary Barbie who just wants to get through life one good day at a time, but the film’s CEO (Will Ferrell) nixed it as a terrible idea, while his posse of consultants thought it would be great for sales. But will Ordinary Barbie be a dud for a young girl’s self-image?
After Barbiemania calms down in 2024 what will Barbie Consumerland offer up as the next wave of Barbie? Flatfoot Barbie? Tattoo Barbie? Gender Neutral Barbie? AI Barbie? Feminista Barbie? Notenoughclothes Barbie? Pissoffpatriarchy Barbie? Oxymoron Barbie? We shall see, but don’t hold your breath. The suits in the boardroom are now backed into a politically correct corner and the politically correct police are ready to pounce on the next flavor of Barbie.