With the Barbie live-action film coming soon, today we’ll briefly cover key points of the brand’s history, see how it has evolved along with the cultural discussions it has inspired, and what the movie could mean for the brand.
Ruth Handler’s main inspirations for creating Barbie were seeing Bild Lilli, a then-popular German doll line, and her daughter Barbara (whose name is the brand’s basis) playing with paper adult dolls. Mattel’s Barbie debuted in 1959. As a fashion doll, Barbie was made to showcase the fashion of the time. With owners able to buy her different outfits, accessories and more. Interestingly she was one of the first adult-looking toy dolls on the US market. Many dolls produced beforehand were baby dolls made to encourage parenting instincts.
More Barbie-branded characters soon followed. Including Barbie’s boyfriend Ken (1961) and family or friends characters, like Midge (1963), Skipper (1964), Christie (1968), and more.
The brand’s popularity also spawned Barbie-branded tie-in media. There are Barbie comics (as early as 1962), video games (the first released in 1984), television series and specials (starting in 1987); the character has starred in 40+ animated films since 2001 and appeared in projects like Toy Story 2 – 4. Despite some sales dips the brand remains iconic. Often being listed among the all-time best-selling toys.
Barbie’s Many Hats
Barbie helped change what toys targeted at girls and women could do. It shifted attention away from baby dolls that enforced aspirations of motherhood toward focusing on personal enjoyment. Thus helping to shift cultural attitudes. Barbie dolls also later showcased different career prospects for women and began introducing Barbies that provided representation for different groups. Barbie’s aesthetic has also been cited as helping many LGBTQ+ people feel comfortable expressing their identities. Undoubtedly the brand has sometimes had a positive impact regarding representation, and showcasing fun, positive, inspirational images for its customers.
But Barbie does have problems. For example, many have argued that Barbie’s unrealistic body has, because of its reach and influence on children, had negative effects on children’s physical and mental health. Additionally, despite the brand showcasing more progressive images now its dominant image has helped reinforce particular hegemonic ideas of womanhood. One that prioritises white, straight, cis-gendered, non-disabled women, in stereotypically gendered attire above other women. This serves to further entrench ideas of what womanhood is and alienates those who fall outside of this image.
Product or Art
Considering everything shown here how will a live-action Barbie movie play in 2023? Well with Greta Gerwig directing and writing alongside Noah Baumbach and Margot Robbie starring it has incredible potential.
Gerwig’s previous directorial efforts both explored childhood nostalgia and viewpoints, through Little Women‘s split-time structure and Lady Bird‘s memory-like feel. She is also talented at making fully rounded characters and her stories foreground themes of independence and diverse views on womanhood. This makes her perfect for Barbie (2023). Her other films indicate she will give us engaging characters and a movie that knows how to appeal to its child and nostalgic adult audiences. While her thematic focuses guarantee some thoughtful interaction with the brand’s problems.
Co-writer Baumbach also has a great record of making thoughtful comedic work with strong women characters (Frances Ha). Robbie has excelled in roles that have harnessed her star appeal to explore relevant cultural issues (Bombshell and I, Tonya). Finally, with its diverse, talented cast and joyful attitude evidenced in the trailers, Gerwig’s Barbie seems prepared to celebrate what fans love about the property while also addressing the cultural debates surrounding it, which could represent a turning point for how the world sees Barbie.