HerStory: Come on Barbie, let’s go party!

HerStory: Come on Barbie, let’s go party!

Even though Barbie decides that she wants to ‘be a part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is made’, the film’s subversiveness may have boomeranged somewhat

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Friday, July 28, 2023, 10:52 PM IST
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A promotional still from the film | File photo

It is strange that a doll has, over the years, become such a subject of debate and controversy. Now Greta Gerwig’s satirical film, Barbie, has raised those issues all over again. There is a line drawn between those who think the skinny doll with the impossible physical proportions is anti-feminist, and those who believe she inspires girls to dream of achieving whatever they want, because Barbie comes packed as a doctor, astronaut, pilot, lawyer, even president. Every new avatar means that the manufacturer, Mattel, makes more money.

Barbie always has been a marketing triumph, because she wasn’t just a standalone doll — she had to have friends, siblings, a boyfriend called Ken, the latest outfits and fashion accessories, a home with all the trimmings and fittings, vehicles and even pets. Parents had to dash out to buy whatever Mattel was selling, so that their daughters (hardly ever sons!) could have the latest Barbie merchandise. So girls all over the world floated in a bubblegum pink world of collectible dolls, being sold traditional idea of femininity wrapped in token feminism. Boys got to play with guns, sports goods, train sets, planes, superheroes and action figures. If there is a level playing field somewhere, toy makers have little to do with it.

The start of Greta Gerwig’s film is spot on — a Barbie doll in a striped swimming costume and heels (always those vertiginous heels) — lands up amidst a tribe of little girls playing with doll babies and kitchen sets, mimicking their homemaker mommies. They see this gorgeous blonde doll and smash or fling the plastic babies away. That small 29 cm figure was the origin of the most popular doll of all time, which has survived for decades in a world where fads change every year if not every quarter.

Building on the popularity of the Barbie universe, Mattel expanded to a multimedia franchise – video games, animation films, streaming content and branded products like books, apparel, cosmetics and video games. The company has also co-produced the new film that has become a blockbuster. All the while, there has been consistent criticism about the effect the doll has on girls, who may be influenced by a very unrealistic image of beauty, and aspire to a world of affluence and glamour. As a young girl Sasha tells the baffled “Stereotypical Barbie” (played by Margot Robbie), “You’ve set back feminism by 50 years. Every woman feels bad about herself when she sees you. You are a fascist.”

The doll was created when Ruth Handler, whose husband was a co-founder of the Mattel toy company, watched her daughter Barbara play with her dolls and give them adult roles. She realised there was a market for a different kind of doll and found the model she had in mind in the German Bild Lilli doll, which was initially a sex toy for adults. Handler redesigned the doll, called her Barbie, after her daughter, and the toy was launched in March 1959.

According to information on the net, the first Barbie doll was marketed as a Teen-age Fashion Model, with her clothes created by Mattel fashion designer Charlotte Johnson. The first Barbie dolls were manufactured in Japan, with their clothes hand-stitched by Japanese homeworkers. Around 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold during the first year of production. Responding to criticism about a lack of diversity, Mattel introduced Barbie dolls with different skin, hair and eye colour, but the body contours remained more or less the same. (Pregnant Midge with the detachable stomach and Skipper with the inflatable breasts did not last long.)

There was this earworm number Barbie Girl (in 1997) by a now-forgotten group called Aqua with the refrain Come On Barbie Let's Go Party, that went:

“I’m a Barbie girl in a Barbie world

Life in plastic, it’s fantastic”

The rest is too risqué to quote, but there was a lawsuit, with Mattel worried that the song sexualised a doll meant for innocent children and also infringed on their copyright. The judge told them to chill and dismissed the case.

In the Gerwig film, Stereotypical Barbie and her other Barbie friends live in a bright pink world, run by female Barbies. The many Ken dolls just provide company and background hunkiness. The main character Ken (Ryan Gosling) is a bit disgruntled by his secondary role, but he has not discovered patriarchy yet.

When Barbie’s elevated feet suddenly hit the ground, a patch of cellulite appears in her thigh and she has thoughts of death, the ostracised Weird Barbie (her owner played too hard with her doll and defaced her) tells her she must travel to the real world and fix the problems her owner is having, which are manifesting in Barbieland.

So Barbie and Ken go to the real world, where she is objectified by the men around, and Ken finds that in this world, men call the shots. Barbie is shocked that her owner Sasha has rejected her, but her mother Gloria, who works at Mattel, is unhappy and drawing the sketches that are affecting Barbie. Gloria rescues Barbie from Mattel executives who want to put her back in a box and all three return to Barbieland, only to find that Ken, who quickly learnt about patriarchy in the real world, has replicated it in Barbieland. He has taken over with his tribe of Kens, brainwashed the Barbies and turned them subservient. He has turned the place into a man cave, and plans to overturn the constitution.

Gloria gives the brainwashed Barbie a pep talk on what being a woman in the real world is like and cautions them to save their world from that. She tells one of them: "You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard, it’s too contradictory, and nobody gives you a medal and says thank you. And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong but also everything is your fault."

Even though Barbie decides that she wants to “be a part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is made," the film’s subversiveness may have boomeranged somewhat. It has relaunched Barbiecore with more gusto, and terms like ‘bimbo feminism’ and ‘hyperfemininity’ have been added to our vocabulary. It is okay to look and dress like a bimbo and still be a ‘girl boss,’ at least in Barbieland if not the Real World.

In an ideal world, of course, kids could choose what toys they want to play with, girls could race cars and boys could demand kitchen sets, without being labelled tomboy or sissy. But ushering in such a world is beyond Barbie's capability, even if she were to turn into Superwoman.

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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