A mere 17 days after its July 2023 release, Barbie earned a billion dollars — not to mention positive reviews and a broad fan base that kept coming back and bringing friends. Mattel’s advertising may have initially lured viewers to the theater, but the film itself made them return and proselytize.
In a just world — even a not-especially-feminist world — the film’s guiding forces, director Greta Gerwig and star Margot Robbie, would have received Oscar nominations in their respective individual categories for conceiving, directing and acting in this phenomenon. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the Academy recognized Ryan Gosling’s performance as Ken—or as @yosomichael posted on X: “Ken getting nominated and not Barbie is honestly so fitting for a film about a man discovering the power of patriarchy in the Real World.”
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Social media erupted in a Vesuvius of angry memes. The heated conversation — with slurs, accusations and conspiracy theories — continues, and we are now arguably at the backlash-to-the-backlash stage. I have been studying the doll, its accessories and the relationship of these objects to societal change for more than 30 years. What interests me is this: Why did this movie incite such passion? What is it about the Barbie doll that has made it a flashpoint for controversy since its introduction in 1959?
The answers I found seem complicated and sometimes contradictory—since the doll has never held a single meaning to observers. It is a Rorschach ink blot onto which people have projected their own beliefs and prejudices.
Barbie’s admirers were, I think, frustrated by the Academy’s decision to classify its script as “adapted” material. The Academy, they understood, had a precedent for applying that adjective to characters that had previously existed in other forms. But while Barbie’s categorization may have adhered to the letter of the law, many felt it violated the law’s spirit. Barbie is not based on any existing published text.
What Gerwig captured — and, remarkably, was permitted by Mattel to capture — is the ragged, inspiring way that many little girls have played with their Barbie dolls over time. It is as if Gerwig externalized the rich, expansive inner worlds of female children.
To be clear: Mattel did not invent “Barbie Land,” the idealized world of imagination and open-ended possibility. Nor did Gerwig. But she picked up on its existence. Barbie land is a metaphor; it embodies the doll’s slogan in the 1980s: “We girls can do anything.” Barbie Land is as much a state of mind as it is a plastic play set.
Barbie Land is also what vanishes when a little girl leaves childhood, when she must confront the reality of women’s circumscribed role in a patriarchal society.
Barbie Land is a place of sexual innocence, where women can look like, well, Barbie, and not be eyed lasciviously by men. And not just salaciously, but, as Robbie’s Barbie notes when she arrives in the Real World, “with an undertone of violence.”
Barbie Land — and the loss of it — is an experience to which Barbie’s box office numbers suggest many women could relate.
I have watched the crowd watch Barbie several times in theaters, both here and in Europe. Even though the awakening of Robbie’s doll is both broadly caricatured and metaphorical, it seemed to strike a chord. From what I observed, women leave the theater with a sense of having been seen.
Some people have compared Barbie’s plot to one from mythology, where a goddess comes down from some Olympian place and adapts to the imperfect human world. I think its larger lesson — and possibly the lesson gleaned from awards season — is from Daedalus and Icarus: Don’t fly too close to the sun.
That, in a way, is the message of Ruth Handler, Barbie’s inventor, who appears briefly in the movie, portrayed by Rhea Perlman. She co-founded Mattel in 1944 and continued to run the company for two more decades, by which time it was publicly traded and part of the Fortune 500. In the movie, she mutters about “legal” troubles, which are never fully explained.
What happened is this: In the 1970s, when Mattel was accused of financial improprieties, Ruth was kicked out of the company she founded and took the fall.
My mother “was hated because she was a strong, powerful woman,” her son Ken (she named the doll for him) told me in 1993. He believed her male colleagues “resented her deeply and they conspired against her.”
Four male executives — including Seymour Rosenberg and comptroller Yasuo Yoshida — were also charged with crimes: violating federal securities, mail and banking laws by preparing false financial records. But Ruth was the public face of the company. She was abrasive; and she — not they — underwent a brutal high-profile take down.
Are Gerwig and Robbie experiencing a similar take down?
Well, no. The institutions that seem to be withholding trophies all have plausible deniability: The directors branch of the Academy is mostly made up of old men, so of course they couldn’t relate to Barbie. And the invention of a brand-new Golden Globe for commercial achievement was a random coincidence, not a pointed way to honor Barbie without applauding the specific achievements of its director and star.
And far be it from me to weigh in on the widespread perception of conspiracy that has gripped the internet.
Yet the situation reminded me of that scene in the movie where Ken tells a sinister corporate type: “You guys aren’t doing patriarchy very well.”
And the corporate type rejoins: “We’re actually doing patriarchy very well. We’re just better at hiding it.”
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