Can the New Barbie Movie Break Out of the Doll’s Dark Past?
I never liked Barbie. I was a young girl growing up in Puerto Rico, and Barbie was so blonde, blue-eyed, and oddly misshapen — I didn’t get her. So, when this Barbie-mania began, I was less than interested until I saw the trailer and its official tagline — “She’s everything.”
After that, I was hooked.
The movie, directed by indie-actress Greta Gerwig, will be released in late July. Yes, the same Gerwig that directed and wrote Lady Bird, Frances Ha, and Mistress America. So, one expects a Barbie with a twist.
We know very little of the plot, but we do know the premise, and it is this: Barbie has guts.
Barbie Land expells her for being a less-than-perfect-looking doll (to live in Barbie Land, one must be perfect in a perfect place). So she gets in her Barbie Mobile and sets off for the Human World to find true happiness.
Life in plastic isn’t so fantastic
Ken, who was made solely to adore her, doesn’t feel great in Barbie World either. Therefore, he (and his rollerblades) go to the Normal World with her.
Barbie and Ken now face real-world problems and must come to terms with what it means to no longer be dolls in a pepto-bismol-perfect world.
Note that in the hidden details of the trailer, there is a reference to these two worlds — the plastic and the real. For example, Barbie drives past a movie theater showing The Wizard of Oz.
Oscar nominee Margot Robbie plays Barbie; Ryan Gosling is Barbie’s muscular boy toy, Ken.
The movie is well cast, with pop star Dua Lipa, actress America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, and Will Ferrell as the Mattel CEO, to name just a few.
Robbie’s first reaction after reading Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s (who also directed and co-wrote the movie) “Barbie” screenplay was — there was no way the film could become a reality.
“The first time I read the ‘Barbie’ script, my reaction was, ‘Ah! This is so good. What a shame it will never see the light of day because they are never going to let us make this movie,'” Robbie said. “But they did.”
“People generally hear ‘Barbie’ and think, ‘I know what that movie is going to be,’ and then they hear that Greta Gerwig is writing and directing it, and they’re like, ‘Oh, well, maybe I don’t…,’” she told British Vogue.
One would expect Gerwig to write a total reversal of Barbie — a doll that has come to represent a twisted, infantilized version of Anglo beauty.
But does the movie deconstruct the feminist iconography of Barbie and remake her for a new generation? Can that be — bearing in mind where Barbie originated from?
What you didn’t know about Barbie’s history
The inspiration for the U.S.’s most famous doll was born in Germany in 1952 when both countries emerged from the Second World War.
Barbie started as a comic-strip character created by German artist Reinhard Beuthien for Bild-Zeitung, a Hamburg newspaper.
Beuthien’s editors needed a “filler” for a blank section of the newspaper. So, the artist drew a baby first, but they rejected the drawing.
So, he went back to the drawing board. Beuthien kept the baby face (so creepy!) but added a ponytail and a voluptuous, feminine body, and out came Lilli.
Lilli was not a writer, president, doctor, or lawyer. Instead, she was a secretary — and sometimes golddigger — irreverent, quick-witted, and sexually adventurous—a postwar, modern woman, not afraid to talk back to male authority.
In one of the cartoons, a policeman reprimands Lilli for wearing a bikini in public. “Oh, and in your opinion, what part should I take off?” was her answer.
In 1953, Lilli became so popular that Bild-Zeitung came up with the brilliant idea of marketing an adult-version doll.
The Lilli doll was sold in bars, tobacco kiosks, and adult toy stores and was given out as gag gifts for men.
She was never intended as a child’s toy
That didn’t stop the woman known as “Barbie’s Mom.”
During a family trip to Switzerland, Ruth Handler, who founded Mattel Toys with her husband Harold, saw and bought the German-made Bild Lilli doll in a Swiss shop.
Handler had watched her daughter Barbara and friends playing with paper dolls and giving the dolls roles such as college students, cheerleaders, and adults with careers.
She chose Lilli to create a doll meeting her daughter’s expectations. Hard to grasp, but there you have it.
Mattel bought the rights to Lilli, and Handler renamed it “Barbie” after her daughter.
The iconic Barbie doll was first displayed on March 9, 1959, at the American Toy Fair in New York City and was the first mass-produced doll in the U.S. with adult features.
In 1961, Mattel gave Barbie a boyfriend named Ken after Handler’s son, Kenneth. Since its launch in 1959, Mattel has sold over 1 billion Barbie dolls worldwide.
Since then, Barbie has been at the center of feminist discussions because of her lack of diversity, unrealistic body standards (who has that waist?), and the embedding of sexist dogma.
So, what iteration of Barbie will we see when the pink extravaganza finally comes out: the modern European version or Mattel’s diluted lookalike?
Knowing Greta, and after seeing the first trailer, I bet this Barbie kicks ass and takes no prisoners. At least, I hope.
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