“Since the beginning of time, since the first little girl ever existed, there have been dolls! But the dolls were always and forever baby dolls…Until!”
With a near-perfect opening line about the invention of the Barbie doll, the first teaser trailer of Barbie, features the first footage of Margot Robbie in the character of the first-ever Barbie launched onto the American toy market in 1959, dressed in a black-and-white striped retro bathing suit. Undeniably, she would become one of the most legendary playthings ever made.
My first memory of Barbie was in the early nineties when I was six or seven years old, and my father suddenly gifted me a Barbie and boy I was hooked, mesmerised by a grownup near-perfect humanlike appearance, and abandoned all my other dolls just like the children in the trailer.
Now, when I look back as a scientist and a queer feminist, Barbie has made quite an impression on girls like me who have had a middle class 90s upbringing in India. Barbie’s legacy is rich yet complex.
How the Barbie Revolution Set Beauty & Body Image Constructs
The second trailer for Warner Bros’ first live-action Barbie movie starring Margot Robbie, and Ryan Gosling as primary Barbie and Ken was released to a huge response. In a visually striking pink setting and iconic accessories, with a star-studded cast, the film doesn't seem to be aimed at kids.
With emotionally powerful and unapologetically feminist films in her bag, Greta Gerwig has already gained a reputation as a serious filmmaker. It will be fascinating to see her take on the most controversial and anti-feminist (or at least it is perceived to be) toy of all times.
Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie, pointed out that the toy is a gamechanger because it encourages young girls to see themselves as grown-ups. Until Barbie’s arrival, girls were often given baby dolls to play with to foster maternal instincts and nurturing skills in them. No wonder children loved her and immediately got rid of their baby dolls, as shown dramatically in the first teaser.
Cool teenager/grownup toys associated with a regressive notion of femininity is ironic because Ruth, herself, was a vocal advocate of women being more than just mothers and homemakers. But the pale skin, big busts, and tiny waists played a significant role in children's minds in shaping beauty aspirations and triggered body image issues that even a Barbie fanatic would agree to.
Is the Modern Barbie Representational in True Sense?
Barbie has always been a powerful mirror for the changing roles of women in society. The trailer shows blonde and stylish strong-willed women in striking outfits in an array of jobs, from being president to Nobel prize winner Barbie. As per the Barbie website, she has more than 200 careers and many firsts on her resume; she went to the moon four years before Neil Armstrong.
From being a surgeon in the 70s, a "Day to Night” CEO Barbie in the 80s, and a President Barbie in the 1990s, she has been shaping young girls' aspirations for a long time against the trappings of domesticity. Although women have been making significant progress in every field, the continued use of heroic images for women, places greater importance on appearance rather than substance. Thus, it is ironic that she has been imagined through a myopic lens, despite having always contained depth and richness.
As explained in The Washington Post, the visually striking world is a hyper-realistic representation of the Barbie aesthetic and the stereotypical trappings of female worlds. However, this exaggerated aesthetic is a parody of itself which considers the criticisms Barbie has faced for being exclusionary, and representative of white womanhood.
It is hard not to notice that as women got more freedom in the world, barbie’s body got more mobility with bendable legs, waist, elbows, reduced breast size, and larger waists. Moreover, as the social movements grew stronger, society took cognisance of diversity and inclusion.
The Barbies and Kens of various ethnicities and body types in the trailer represent the toy manufacturing company Mattel’s current position, which hasn’t been like that forever. Although, as a woman of color, I would say the main cast is still a white Barbie and Ken, and we have to see the whole movie to comment on inclusivity.
Barbie Recast as a Feminist Icon
In the trailer, the oversaturated plastic world with disproportionate objects gives us a hint that something sinister is lurking behind. The film’s tagline is “Barbie is everything, and he’s just Ken”. Although Margot Robbie has warned us about predicting the plot, we are free to interpret some underlying subtext.
Moving past the candy-colored surface made me realise how women in society have to strive to be everything—astronauts, doctors, CEOs, presidents, etc but men can simply be men. While in the hyper-real vision of the young girls' world, Barbie is everything, and the role reversal is portrayed by Ken on the sidelines, cheering Barbie on.
Famous feminist Gloria Steinem once viewed Barbie as a symbol of sexism. With all the stereotyping, Barbies are perceived to be the absolute worst toy that can be gifted to a young child. While it could be the case in her time, this is not the case anymore. New waves of feminism have changed Barbie and it proved us wrong.
Most certainly this doll’s appearance is a product of sexism but unless it is striking in appearance how would it catch a consumer's eye? Besides with new lines that speak to girls of all shapes, sizes, and colours constantly being released, it’s a problem Barbie is actively addressing.
But the most ironic thing is that, in the name of feminism, all we can think about Barbie is her looks and body. And that’s what makes Barbie undeniably a real plaything with layers of complex social history surrounding women and their liberation.
That is what the beauty of this iconic doll is. Barbie has always been a feminist. It is safe to assume that this movie will be a feminist epic that will captivate us for many years.
(Dr Tuli Bakshi is a climate risk & decarbonisation expert. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)