Heartwarming. Funny. Conflicting.

These are some words I would use to describe the experience of watching the new Barbie movie. You can’t have missed the hype – it’s everywhere, from our apps to streetside ads and themed parties organised all around. So much so that my friend told me that every time he sees something pink around the city, he thinks of Barbie. So, I put on my brightest pink dress and went to the cinema to see Barbie and take a nostalgic trip to the world of my favourite childhood toy.

I was definitely a Barbie girl as a child, having inherited a ton of Barbies from my two older sisters. Instead of a dream house, our Barbies lived in a drawer under my bed, where they were piled on top of each other, undressed most of the time. While the lives of our Barbies were not very glamorous, I got introduced to Barbie glam via computer-animated Barbie films and online games at barbie.com. My Barbie experiences were likely very typical for a girl growing up in the early 2000s.

Like millions of others, I had highly anticipated the 2023 Barbie movie ever since hearing about it for the first time. Not only because of its nostalgic value but also for the general hype and the trailers that oozed campy aesthetic and promises of bizarre plot twists. A little disclaimer: I was not disappointed, and my rather high expectations were met with flying colours. I found the film surprisingly touching and was moved not only by my belly laugh but also by the explorations of humanity the movie touched upon. 

I left the theatre deep in my thoughts about the overall complexity of Barbie as a phenomenon.

From controversial origins to a collective identity

Barbie’s origins date back to 1959, when toy company Mattel released the first Barbie doll, brought to life by the company’s co-founder Ruth Handler and inspired by the German doll Bild Lilli. Barbie was a success from the start, despite the immediate controversy she caused by her perceived sexiness – after all, the doll had breasts and was wearing a swimsuit! The original Barbie was a teenage fashion model, and her ever-growing wardrobe available for purchase accelerated her success in the toy market. In the six decades of Barbie, the brand has grown in diversity and mass, expanding outside Mattel and into all kinds of Barbie-themed products, media and the recently coined fashion trend, ‘barbiecore’. Barbie has grown out of her plastic body and into a cultural icon.

Part of Barbie’s cultural magic is in her intergenerational reach. 

Barbie connects us beyond our age since so many people from different generations have had Barbie as a part of their childhood. M.G. Lord, the author of a Barbie biography, states that Barbie embodies the cultural impulses of our society and therefore, not only reflects us, but is us.  Barbie becomes a question of identity, which is a central theme in the movie as well. But how has Barbie become an embodiment of our identity? Is it merely a clever marketing ploy to sell more Barbies by making us identify with them?

The identity work around Barbie is apparent in Mattel’s focus on representation in their Barbie dolls in recent years. In addition to the classic thin and white fashion model Barbie, there are Barbie dolls representing different careers from presidents and astronauts to computer engineers and musicians. Representation is not limited to professions, but Barbie ventures outside white normativity by introducing a Barbie with Down syndrome, Barbies of different skin colours and body types, a hijab-wearing Barbie, and a transgender Barbie inspired by actress and activist Laverne Cox.

Can Barbie represent the diversity of womanhood?

According to Mattel, Barbie is meant to “inspire the limitless potential in every girl”. However, Barbie has received heavy criticism for the kind of womanhood she represents. 

Despite Mattel’s attempts to diversify Barbie’s image, Barbie is collectively imagined as a thin, white, blond woman who is always in dresses and lives a life of privileged luxury. 

Even though Barbie the movie attempts a more diverse and critical reading of Barbie, it does not quite manage to shrug off the air of white feminism, which has often been connected to the director Greta Gerwig’s films. When a movie focuses on feminist topics like Barbie does, breezing over issues like race, class, sexuality and disability really sticks out. 

The diverse selection of Barbies and their visual representation as side characters in the movie is a double-edged sword: it can make children (and adults) with diverse backgrounds and needs feel seen in society but may also present a tokenist solution to a multi-layered problem. Despite its shortcomings, Barbie the movie addresses this key issue of the inspirational Barbie narrative; often the boundaries for girls’ dreams are not caused by them dreaming too small but by structural inequality enforced by the patriarchal and capitalist social system. 

In her thesis, Jennifer Whitney argues that Barbie is constructed as both real and ideal. She elaborates that even though Barbie’s body shape and the femininity she represents are known to be impossible to attain, they have been oddly naturalised and presented as something girls can achieve and should strive towards. Barbie the movie addresses this criticism, but only briefly, before moving on with the plot.

Instead of Barbie’s status as a role model for girls, the sharper feminist edge of the movie comes from the comparison of Barbie Land’s female-led society to our own, in which patriarchal hierarchies rage on.

In Barbie Land, it is all the Kens who are deemed as less important and less influential side characters than their magnetic Barbie counterparts. Barbie twists and turns these gender and power positions, inviting the viewer to laugh at conservative and toxic expressions of masculinity and celebrate female leadership and further down the line, equality. It is not something that movies often invite us to do, which made the experience refreshing.

A consumerist dream

Less fresh in today’s climate (pun intended) is the consumption at the centre of Barbie-induced dreams. Consumption is at the heart of Barbie, her desirable life consisting of a mansion-like dream house, sports car(s), and ever-changing outfits that promote a consumerist lifestyle. Not to mention the Barbie dolls themselves with their endless selection of accessories and spinoffs to shop from. As Mattel has been a partner in the production of the film, it is certain to be a massive financial success for the corporation as well, in addition to a great marketing gimmick for their products.

Just like other most common criticisms Barbie has faced, consumerism was also briefly addressed in the movie. What was left out – perhaps to save the viewers from being too bummed – was the consequences of the consumerist lifestyle we are encouraged to live. The movie soundtrack includes a banger called Barbie World by Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice, sampling Aqua’s 1997 hit Barbie Girl

However, the 90’s hit song’s line “life in plastic – it’s fantastic!” hits differently in 2023 when the world is burning, and plastic waste is suffocating our oceans. 

The post-Barbie-plastic world is less fantastic, and the predicted increase in Barbie doll sales due to the film release might water down the consumerist critique presented in the movie and further aggravate the stage of our Real World.

In the end, my experience of returning to Barbie World only highlighted how Barbie is a complex phenomenon that allows many different readings of the cultural icon. Barbie can be read as a celebration of imagination and all things girly – the precise thing that speaks to me the most – or as forcing stereotypical and oversimplified femininity. A cute and beloved children’s toy or an impossible standard for a girl to live up to.

While I am afraid of the probable peak in consumerism that the Barbie hype might bring about and its consequences for our planet, I couldn’t help but love Barbie. The movie was a touching, unapologetically kitsch and beautiful experience that provoked new thoughts but also spoke to me with its overall magnificence and wittiness. It’s wonderful to see a massive international phenomenon of collective excitement around a concept that is considered inherently girly, even if it’s shadowed by consumerism.

Written by Annaliina Pahkala.
Annaliina is a freshly graduated Master of Arts with an endless fascination for Cultural Studies, girlhood and feminism. Alongside writing, she spends time creating spontaneous dance moves, vegan baking and plotting against the patriarchy. You can see more of her post-university life on Instagram at @annaliinajulia.

Illustrated by Dinara Satbayeva.

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