Whimsical, colourful, divisive.
Greta Gerwig’s latest Barbie movie has achieved more than just setting a new opening weekend record for 2023; it shattered the precedent for a film directed by a woman. This pink extravagance has sparked a tidal wave of emotion, inciting both passionate enthusiasm and heated debates. As a result, it has also prompted reflection on the doll’s profound symbolic significance in our culture.
Does Barbie uphold an unattainable ideal for women, wrapped up in a pretty pink bow? Or does it stand as a witty, satirical and feminist feat, paving a way forward for women?
This week, Lazy Women presents a captivating collection of thought-provoking testimonies from our own Lazies, delving into the intricate themes of hyper-femininity, consumerism, and body image.
Join us as we navigate Barbie’s Dream World and share in the comments what you think!
The Contradictions of Being a Barbie Girl
Contemplating Barbie’s role in my life, I haven’t thought directly about her in years. However, the new movie’s marketing is correct: at one point, she was everything. As a small child, I was completely grossed out by the bald heads and nappies of the baby dolls some of my friends adored. Barbie, on the other hand, like the women in my mother’s copies of Vogue, represented adulthood in its most glamorous incarnation. She was sold as the woman who did and had everything, from flawless looks to a perfect house, a limitless wardrobe, boundless confidence and endless possibilities (the career and Ken kind of went over my head in infant school, but were surely in the mix). Before I knew how to tie my own shoelaces, I knew one thing: I couldn’t wait to be her.
Of course, real life is rarely so perfect, something Greta Gerwig’s Barbie addresses in a way that is both insightful and funny. Her writing confronts Barbie’s complicated relationship with the messy experiences of womanhood in a way that manages whiplash turns from feather light and hilarious to touching and emotionally raw. I certainly didn’t walk into the cinema expecting to be left teary-eyed by an extended speech on the contradictions of living as a woman under patriarchy, but here we are. On the strength of the incredible script, eye-popping aesthetics and amazing performances from Margot Robbie, America Ferrera, Ryan Gosling and the rest of the star-studded supporting cast, it’s probably already my favourite film of the year.
That said, Barbie is still an exercise in marketing for Mattel as well as a blockbuster comedy needing to make money in its own right. In light of this, I do feel like there’s one sparkly pink skeleton that doesn’t make it all the way out of the Dreamhouse closet: body image. While cellulite and the way Ferrara’s character is saddened by not looking like Barbie are briefly mentioned, as the plot powers forward into broader messaging about female empowerment, the specifics of this remain subtextual. I bring this up, because while I can only speak for myself, being a Barbie Girl when I was little never made me want to become a doctor or run for political office. It made me want to be one thing: skinny.
While we can point to a lot of things as symptoms of a societal beauty standard that many people have found harmful from a young age, Barbie is less a result of these standards than a creator of them. How many of us entered puberty expecting to fit a mould first encountered with Barbie, only to struggle with our own bodies in a way that depending on the individual can be, quite frankly, brutal. In recent years cosmetic surgery has driven a rhinoplasty trend called the ‘barbie nose’, another sign of the discouragingly narrow beauty ideals the brand is associated with.
While Barbie aims to move the brand away from this, displaying inclusive casting among the supporting cast in Barbieland and touching on it as part of the broader female experience, it would be bad business to fully deal with this specific point of pain. However, in the age of Ozempic abuse, I find it hard to forget about it. Barbie has joyfully celebrated many cool things in resurrecting viewers’ love for their favourite toy – unabashed femininity, positivity and a sense of playfulness and fun. After the film’s gleeful conclusion, I can understand wanting to celebrate Margot Robbies’ version of Barbie as no less than a feminist icon. But Barbara Millicent Roberts has been part of our cultural fabric since the 50s, and her legacy still has the power to harm as well as uplift. Let’s keep her complicated: it’s not all rosy.
Written by Laurel Stone.
Why Barbie is Still Relevant
“Why is Barbie still relevant?” was the most sensible question to be asked after the social phenomenon caused by the first live-action Barbie movie, released on the 21st of August. After being bombarded for the past couple of months by clever marketing schemes and overall general excitement surrounding it, I began wondering why does everybody care so much for this movie directed by Greta Gerwig? Perhaps we can blame nostalgia, or maybe something more?
I believe that the key to Barbie’s massive appeal stands in her brand’s capacity to adapt and create an illusion of progression within her image without being utterly revolutionary. In 1959 Barbie debuted as the first mature-looking doll on the American market, unlike all the other baby dolls popular at that time. Her controversial, commonly attractive appearance captivated girls marking the beginning of a new era in the toy industry. Another innovative aspect about her was the rather progressive narrative pushed by Mattel – Barbie can do anything, offering an example to young girls and have numerous professions, varying from flight attendant, nurse, astronaut, to president, computer engineer and architect in today’s timeline. She became a homeowner in 1962, while also being an independent educated unmarried woman. Ken was introduced in 1961 as her boyfriend, however, the spotlight remained on Barbie.
She definitely faced a fair share of rightful criticism regarding her thin white blonde bimbo-esqe appearance, the pursuit of consumerism and hyper-femininity. For context, the first black Barbie was only introduced in 1967, and in 2019 the Barbie Fashionistas line included a wider variety of complexions. This year, Mattel introduced a Barbie with scoliosis and a Barbie with Down Syndrome. Certainly, the changes came slowly, probably too slowly, but it is notable that the brand is progressing and remaining relevant.
Another substantial part of Barbie is her cinematographic world which was cherished by many children, including myself. The first Barbie animated movie titled “Barbie in the Nutcracker” appeared in 2001, followed by a total of 41 others, a vlogging channel and a series on YouTube. Their obvious purpose was to increase sales since every movie was accompanied by additional dolls. I would argue, however, that the impact of the Barbie movie franchise is much broader than that. The plots emphasize the importance of certain values that Barbie possesses, such as kindness, selflessness, gratitude, braveness, and intelligence, without focusing, as traditionally expected, on romance. In fact, 12 Barbie movies don’t even mention any partner at all, instead placing importance upon friendships and relationships built within the family. Like many other children from all over the world, I have bonded with my sibling, my mother and my friends over these magical movies and I have indirectly learned about the importance of female friendships. It is also salient to mention the uniqueness of a rather “female gaze” perspective present in the Barbie movies, a perspective which encouraged children of all genders to project themselves into the storyline. Despite everything I have previously mentioned, there is some criticism to be brought up regarding the lack of representation in the Barbie universe. The first relevant character who was also a person of colour appeared only in 2006, however, ever since then there have been no non-white protagonists.
That being said, it is fair to say about Barbie that she has a very controversial, multi-faceted persona- equally loved and hated by many. She undeniably played a crucial role in many childhoods and still has much room for improvement.
Written by Carina Pepene.
It’s been impossible to avoid an influx of opinions, reviews and throw-away comments on the movie Barbie before having watched it, and that’s despite be going on day three of its release. I saw it on Sunday night with my sister, a big bowl of salted popcorn and a large glass of wine. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me think and nod my head in agreement.
I woke up to a text this morning from a friend who had heard from a colleague that the Barbie was overhyped. I responded with this:
“Well, it depends on what hype was she looking for. I thought it was a very clever satire of society & patriarchy, and I think mainstream narratives aren’t there yet with stomaching feminist messaging in the mainstream”.
I realised it’s not often for a movie that has got this much attention to be so overtly feminist in its messaging. Before sitting down on the front row of a packed cinema I’d already listened to podcasts documenting the undeniable pitfalls of the Barbie doll. She is so clearly designed for the male gaze, to the extent that her proportions mean in “real life” she wouldn’t be able to stand or have space for functioning organs. There’s no denying Barbie is modelled on white Western beauty standards that have damaged and skewed how so many of us view our bodies. Indeed as I was walking to the cinema my little sister told me proudly that she “hadn’t been damaged by what a doll that she played with as a child looked like”. I spat back some comment about how the Barbie doll was all part of the social messaging seeping into our subconsciousness when we were little. Messaging that told us we should be thin, pretty and perfect. Messages that I now know to be false, shallow and irrelevant. Messages that I still have to dismiss when they pop up in my brain.
But here is the problem. I am talking about a doll and what she symbolizes, instead of talking about the mastermind creation of a brilliant director and producer who has just made more money than any female in her position before. And this is a common preoccupation of narratives around feminism. We can get so caught up in what women (or in this case a doll) should or shouldn’t be that we lose sight of the bigger picture. I can’t help but think back to the climax of the movie; a moving dialogue about the impossible scrutiny women are subject to, and the complexities of trying to be and represent feminism in all of its nuances. If living women are finding it impossible to embody these contradictions, how on earth can a doll?
A quote from the movie that will stick with me for a long time is this; “mothers stand still so that their children can look back and see how far they’ve come”. And maybe that’s what this movie and this Barbie fanfare give us a moment to look back on. We now have all this understanding as to why Barbie in her original form was so damaging. I don’t think the Barbie movie represented today’s intersectional feminist movement – there is no narrative or representation of the nuances of race, disability, gender fluidity and wider social inclusion. However, as I prefaced at the beginning, emerging narratives and reviews evidence that the mainstream isn’t yet ready to stomach “white watered-down feminism” on a mass scale, let alone the beautiful breadth of intersectional feminism. While the younger me wouldn’t have accepted this as an argument, the older me knows that change is slow and that people are at different stages in their feminist journey, and we must make space for all of those stages to build momentum.
So while I don’t think that the Barbie movie was radically feminist, I don’t think that Barbie ever could (or should) have come back to symbolise the little girls who couldn’t see themselves in her when they were younger. The Barbie movie promotes a more palatable form of feminism and hits the easy critiques, but we need the palatable to lie alongside the radical. And now we have a movie promoting mainstream feminist messaging that has already made 155 million USD in the cinemas – we have so much further to go, but look how far we’ve come.
Written by Ellie Sugden.
The Renaissance of Pink
There is a pattern of bad affiliation when it comes to almost anything teenage girls get excited about. The overwhelming societal expectation around how women should be, but when you try to embrace those given aspects you are just basic. This is why my heart fills with joy when I see how big the hype is around the Barbie movie directed by Greta Gerwig. Even though there is a mix of reactions to Barbie itself, this movie might kill two birds with one stone. Push Mattel – the company behind Barbie – to shift its narrative, and also have an impact on modern feminism.
Little girls who “dream dreams of the future”
My mother had a bad taste in her mouth whenever I asked for a Barbie, she was worried it would have a bad influence on my body image. Was that some sort of feminist approach from her? I am not sure. Sadly this wasn’t enough to protect me from the ways society views my and women’s bodies in general. Surely it would have been nice to see some dolls that had chubby faces and diverse features.
The idea of Barbie came when its creator, Ruth Handler noticed that her daughter was playing with paper dolls and the only available plastic dolls at the time were baby dolls. Handler wanted to create something lifelike to inspire little girls. It was a huge success! Dolls made for little girls were not only for simulating motherhood, but actually, they could imagine themselves as everything they wanted to be, later Barbie even had professions where she was occupying jobs outside of patriarchy viewed as traditional jobs for women, such as a doctor, astronaut, etc.
How to give women something other than a tightrope to walk on
In an interview with Margot Robie – producer and lead actress of the movie – and Greta Gerwig, Gerwig had a beautiful statement about the feminism of the movie, she said – ..looking at.. into the thorniness and stepping into what is a negotiation what women need to be, and how to give them something other than a tightrope to walk on is how it feels feminist to me”. – This one sentence came back to me repeatedly ever since I heard it. I think the way we perceive this doll mirrors perfectly how society expects women to be. From its sexualisation to the given roles it has in its own universe. We cannot look over the fact that this is still an ongoing feminist issue, a nonstop wave of expectations of how women should exist.
We need this feminist propaganda.
It is truly refreshing to see that something so over the top and “girly” gets the attention it deserves. I have experienced a shift in myself while the movie was only marketed. I never really wore pink, I successfully convinced myself that it is too “girly and lame” when I was a teenager. That wasn’t really feminist of me, how do we expect women to navigate freely in their own self-discovery when being girly itself is something we shame them for? I have already seen some misogynistic claims that the movie is probably feminist propaganda. You know what? If an over-the-top Barbie movie is what we need to finally shift our perspective then it is finally time to embrace this “feminist propaganda”.
Written and illustrated by Eszter Szabó.