Will Barbie ever die?

Malaika Francique
Following the gargantuan success of Barbie’s first live-action film, Otamere Guobadia delves into what drives our obsession with the world iconic doll

The feverish run-up to Greta Gerwig’s Mattel-backed Barbie movie undoubtedly eclipsed any other cinematic moment in recent history. When the film’s trailer dropped in May, all the (cyber)world stopped, frozen in its tracks by pop culture’s most famous pink crusader. One scene in particular, where Margot Robbie’s Barbie steps out of her pink pom-pom heel only for her foot to remain perfectly arched in trademark doll fashion, saw the unreleased film hailed as an impending modern classic. 

The film has proved both a financial and critical triumph, all but securing Gerwig’s history-making “auteur” status. And yet in an entertainment industry that seems dominated by blockbuster flop after flop, Barbie’s box-office success feels in some ways unrepeatable; a perfect pastel storm of studio marketing machination, self-provided nostalgia and sentimentality, and an IP with the kind of household recognisability that comes once in a generation. Central to its success is  that this was a film about not just a toy or plaything but, vitally, a doll. 

Whether wood or plastic, satin or straw, the doll has always embodied some ideal – some sorcery, some universe – greater than the sum of its material parts. Dolls, and the stories we tell about them, are an expression of our very human dreams of embodiment; a yearning to witness miracles that breathe a dear, true and meaningful life into our base clay, one of agency and purpose. 

Barbara Millicent Roberts, known mononymously around the world as Barbie since her 1959 debut, was designed as a kind of everywoman – a doll that would help young girls envision, play out and ultimately embody dreams other than motherhood and matrimony. Mattel has had Barbie in over 200 careers, ranging from farmer to UNICEF ambassador. However, many significant feminist critiques have also been levelled at Barbie, and there is undoubtedly a heavy irony that her earliest iterations – white, blonde, blue-eyed – could only provide that expansive representation to a small, more privileged slice of young women. 

Those dolls reified a kind of prized womanhood not just in plastic form, but as an aspirational (and, often argued, unrealistic) standard for the decades to follow: thinness, whiteness, able-bodiedness, beauty as virtue. A “Get Real Barbie” campaign was launched in the 2010s by the South Shore Eating Disorders Collaborative. The factsheet stated that, among other things, “if Barbie were an actual woman, she would be 5’9” tall, have a 39” bust, an 18” waist, 33” hips and a size 3 shoe… At 5’9” tall and weighing 110 lbs, Barbie would have a BMI of 16.24 and fit the weight criteria for anorexia. She likely would not menstruate.” 

The popularity of the doll means that these “ideals” were being incorporated into households across the world, wreaking havoc on the self-esteem and self-worth of young girls in their most formative years. It took over 20 years before the emergence of the first Black Barbie in 1980: “She’s black! She’s beautiful! She’s dynamite!” In subsequent years, Barbie has indeed evolved and diversified her form, body and image, attempting to capture an increasingly dwindling market share that has seen fewer and fewer young people playing with dolls in our digital age. However, “Stereotypical Barbie”, as embodied by Robbie, is the archetype that seemingly endures and centres in public consciousness, the one whose blonde tresses will forever be engraved in cultural discourse. 

My first experience of Barbie – as for many young proto-queer men – was from the alienation of distance. It was anathema that young men, much less young Black men, would play with Barbie dolls. In December of 1999, when I was at the tender and formative age of five, Mattel released Barbie: Super Sports, a snowboarding and rollerblading-focused game my parents bought for us on Playstation. Yet the unsurprising reality of this game (undoubtedly only purchased because I had an older sister) is that it was less about sports and more about dressing up and adornment. The incentive to race was to collect tokens that allowed you to buy Barbie increasingly fabulous and distinctly 1990s sporting fashions.

Still, Barbie and her Dreamhouse provided me a road for the vicarious exploration and subversion of masculine expectation. I gravitated towards Barbie dolls and Pink Rangers, towards some ineffable, unspeakable queerness. It was evidence of a complex relationship to gender and its performance, even at that early stage. There is a painful irony that what felt like truth and liberation to me during playtime was to others a prison of expectation. If these dolls could speak – toys some of us were denied, toys others had thrust upon them – they would tell a tale of yearning across the aisles of gender, to reorient the world around us, our lives, our desires, our bodies, to bring it in alignment with our inner truth: to play and dream in broad and full-throated colour. 

This article is from our 10th print issue, PLAY, which explores play through the lens of liberation. Order your copy now.

Gerwig’s Barbie is an opus that’s equal parts feminist meta-commentary and sentimental, surrealist toy advert. But for some, its feminist politics (in service of Big Toy) have rung hollow. While conservative elements lambasted the film as “anti-man”, many progressive cinemagoers decried the film’s feminist message as too simplistic and platitudinous. It was never going to be a cinematic revolution, but where Gerwig’s Barbie shines is in her now-trademark extolment of the knotty and glorious relations between mothers and daughters; between the tense and strained notions of the perfect and perfected self, and a bold move towards realising the self that soars, finally freed from all expectation.

Dolls are vessels for our dreams – and our nightmares.  As long as there are people, there will be dolls. Barbie, once a nearly relegated relic of a bygone era, has had life breathed into her plastic once again. Gerwig’s successful turn has bought Barbie another decade of cultural relevancy, rescuing her from the precipice of extinction once more. But a decade is not an eternity, and reprieve is not salvation.There can be no doubt that Barbie is the queen of reinvention; a jill of all trades, master of all. However, her ability to curry relevance will rely on whether she can evolve more drastically than she has ever before, and perhaps if Mattel wants to reflect a world on fire? Postapocalyptic Interstellar Exploration Barbie; Water Wars Barbie; Nuclear Fallout Barbie; Barbie’s Hothouse – the Barbie of the future is a figure that must struggle not just against cultural forces but the dooming forces of nature.

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