Margot Robbie as Barbie

Reflections on Barbie Land and the Real World


(“Barbie” movie spoiler alert)
The original Barbie doll
The original Barbie doll

Of all the gifts you ever received on Christmas morning, which one springs to mind? One of my most vivid memories is not of my present but something Santa brought my best friend. “Baby Alive” was a doll that she could “feed” some gel-like substance, and as a bonus, this pseudo food made an encore appearance in the form of baby poop. I reacted with all the disgust and disdain a six-year-old could muster. In hindsight, I may have been a bit extreme, but I was one of many children Ruth Handler envisioned when she created a doll that allowed little girls to picture themselves as anything from athletes to astronauts — or just confident women who loved their lives. As narrator Helen Mirren says in the opening of “Barbie,” the movie, “Since the beginning of time, they had only baby dolls to play with, leaving them nothing to imagine themselves as, except mothers.” Before anyone becomes outraged, this is not an anti-maternity or anti-Baby Alive rant; it’s a combination movie review/pro-Barbie piece that presents the 11.5-inch figure in a realistic, albeit pastel spotlight.

Truthfully, when I heard Barbie was being developed as a live-action movie, I was afraid she would be burned at the stake, with the fire stoked by haters bent on punishing my beloved beauty for crimes against feminist kind. I should have known Mattel would never let that happen, but the earliest (circa 2014) rustlings I heard of this would-be blockbuster indicated it could have been a vicious parody. From the discerning perspective of director Greta Gerwig, the film acknowledges that Barbie didn’t successfully liberate all womankind; in fact, the plot involves a doll coming over from Barbie Land to the real world and discovering not only that patriarchy is real, but also that many girls of today think she’s an outdated, irrelevant twit whose claims to fame are limited to a disproportionately pink wardrobe and a figure unrealistic enough to damage generations of female self-esteem.

Barbie creator Ruth Handler
Barbie creator Ruth Handler

“Barbie” makes fun of corporate missteps such as the 1992 Teen Talk version who infamously proclaimed that math class is tough, and the cast features multiple shapes, sizes, ethnicities and personalities in its varied iterations of Barbie and Ken. Lead actress Margot Robbie’s character is actually called “stereotypical Barbie,” but she refuses to be put back in a box. In fact, the filmmakers go to great lengths to express the positive intentions behind Barbie, even resurrecting the ghost of Handler for a candid conversation with the disillusioned doll. The most poignant voice in the film, however, is that of Gloria, a Mattel employee who’s struggling with both her career and her tween daughter. As a writer, I’ll say America Ferrera, as Gloria, doesn’t deliver a brilliant monologue in the way one might expect; she gives viewers something even better — a no-nonsense, free-flowing commentary almost any woman could offer about everyday life. Here’s a sample: “I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.”

What I know is that adult life hasn’t been all dream jobs, dream houses and fun, but I have achieved some of my dreams because I pictured myself doing just that as I played with Barbie. The movie, with all of its zaniness in storytelling and effects, may be one of the most earnest depictions I’ve seen about what it means to be a woman — yet I’m certain my views are not shared by everyone. Both the Barbie doll and the movie have been controversial. A writer for The New Yorker said, “A single frame of the film packs such profuse and exquisite detail — of costume and settings, gestures and diction — that it’s impossible to enumerate the plethora of inventions and decisions that bring it to life.” The day I read that, I saw several Facebook posts describing some of the same scenes as insulting assaults to the senses and sensibilities. Granted, the latter stated they had seen only trailers.

Regardless of where you stand, by now, you’ve likely heard the term “Barbenheimer.” The internet has been buzzing, and box office receipts have been boosted by the simultaneous release of two films critics predicted would be polarizing for American moviegoers: “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.” Crossover audiences proved the two were not mutually exclusive and perhaps showed that Barbie has meaning beyond pop culture fodder.

Still, “Barbie” stirs questions long debated in society: Should she forever be upheld as an icon of children’s hopes and dreams or doomed to a legacy of perverse commercialism in a misguided world? Can she defeat the widespread notion that conventional physical beauty and a proliferation of pink are all that matter to the woman whose ideals are as artificial as her body? Time will tell, but my answer echoes the 1980s ad campaign: “We girls can do anything.” It may take a few more decades, but we’ll get there — “right, Barbie?”

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