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Are you a Barbie girl?
I think I am.
Barbie—one of the most anticipated movies of the year—comes out this Friday. I’ll start by saying that I have not been able to look away from any of the very pink marketing that has surrounded this movie. Margot Robbie’s iconic Barbie outfit replications? Ryan Gosling talking about “Kenergy”? As a marketer & ex-partnerships manager, it’s safe to say—they got me. I am obsessed. And as a Greta Gerwig fan girl, I am truly so excited to go watch this movie.
As we all know, the Barbie brand itself has a controversial history when it comes to idealistic beauty standards, gender norms, and racial inclusivity. So I wanted to explore it all and share my own memories with Barbie growing up, inspired by the conversation our editor, Taylor, started in Diem the other day.
Interestingly, Barbie was created by Ruth Handler in 1959, who was inspired by watching her daughter play with paper dolls that resembled adult women (Barbie was eventually named after Handler’s daughter, Barbara). At the time, there weren’t many dolls on the market that allowed girls to role-play and envision a future beyond motherhood. (As Willa Paskin’s excellent NYT profile on Greta Gerwig points out, the fact that Barbie has never had a child “remains one of the most radical things about her.”)
At first, industry execs (notably, men) were apprehensive that young girls would want to play with a doll that had adult features. How wrong they were! 300,000+ Barbie dolls were sold in their first year on the market.
“My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be… Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.” — Ruth Handler’s autobiography, 1994
Ok, kinda love Ruth!
But in order for girls to imagine that they could be anything—they also had to see themselves as an aspirational toy through which they could project their dreams and desires. Many young girls couldn’t do this. As one Diemer commented:
“As inclusive as Barbie has tried to be, it still represents a white-washed version of what beauty and general aesthetic is supposed to be. Barbie is the materialization of what we need to be deconstructing in our society. She’s a tool in the form of a toy that’s been used since its creation to bully the average person into feeling like they aren’t the standard.”
I wasn’t a Barbie girl, per se, but I did play with them. So before writing this, I asked my mum what memories she had of me playing with Barbie. Outside of an incredible Barbie cake she made me for my birthday one year (thanks Mum), she recalled a vivid memory of me deciding I wanted to cut Barbie’s hair. Barbie ended up with a buzzcut. I don’t know how to interpret this. Perhaps I wanted to make her look like myself? I had short hair and was decidedly not a girly girl. Who knows. I do know that Barbie mainly reminds me of joyful, nostalgic memories. The toy never made me feel inadequate, but that’s probably because I’m white, pretty, and straight. Of course, maybe Barbie’s conventional looks did seep into my young psyche, projecting an image of what I should look like. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact things that had the biggest impact on any insecurity I feel today when everything else in the world also upholds unrealistic beauty standards.
In her piece on Greta Gerwig, Paskin writes that Greta wanted to ‘home in on this feeling — that modern womanhood is the perpetual experience of not meeting someone’s standards, including your own — and flip it.’ I keep thinking about that line. Has Barbie really been the problem, or is it the impossible expectations that society puts on women?
What do you think? What memories do you have of Barbie? What does Barbie mean to you? Is it okay to indulge in Barbie-core while acknowledging her flaws? And importantly, have you bought your cinema tickets? We’ll be discussing our thoughts after seeing the movie in Diem next week.
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