SIXTY YEARS ago when I sat under an oak tree playing with my Barbie doll I never dreamed that a doll could become controversial or star in a movie. I certainly didn’t think Barbie had the power to offend men.
Who could have imagined that a movie about Barbie would be in cinemas the same time as a movie about J Robert Oppenheimer who led the Manhattan Project in the production of the first atomic bomb and that both movies would highlight how people are treated in the working world?
Both movies deal with power – political power in Oppenheimer and patriarchal power in Barbie. Both movies have been competing for box office revenues and Barbie is beating Oppenheimer.
Men’s reactions to the Barbie movie have been most interesting and most revealing. They’ve deemed it as male bashing – even though most of those complaining men never saw the movie. Men should be somewhat uncomfortable in those real-world boardroom scenes that Barbie visits. They aren’t pleased to be portrayed as clueless, uninformed and uncreative. They run a toy company with no high-ranking women in management. Men find those scenes exaggerated, but that’s the nature of satire, a form of humour that goes over most people’s heads.
Women watch the same boardroom scenes and note that we have come a long way in elevating women in the corporate world, but there’s still a long way to go.
For me, Barbie the movie is a stroke of genius for its lessons about the danger of judging history out of context. Barbie the doll must be examined when the doll first made an appearance in 1959. Then look at her place in the 70s, the 90s and in subsequent decades.
As soon as Barbie hit the stores she had a profound effect on girls like me because she allowed girls to dream of being women. Before Barbie, we had baby dolls and could only pretend to be mothers. Barbie allowed us to break free from that stereotypic image. Best of all, we could all be – or at least feel – popular with Barbie and her fun wardrobe.
Yes, it took Barbie a while to realise that her world needed to be racially inclusive. In 1967 Barbie finally had Francine, a woman of colour, as her friend.
Barbie continued to redefine herself and the image of girls who play with dolls.
By the 70s, Barbie was taking flack from the women’s liberation movement that criticised the doll for having an unrealistic body. Girls in the 70s deemed Barbie as a dangerous representative of body shaming.
At the same time, Barbies in the 70s began to represent exciting careers. Most girls growing up in the 50s and 60s – like me – didn’t know women could become doctors, lawyers, astronauts or corporate CEOs. Barbie helped us to make that psychological and social transition.
We can’t discount the criticism Barbie received during the women’s liberation movement. It’s valid for that era, but most girls in the two previous decades didn’t dwell on Barbie’s body type. She just represented adulthood to most of us.
As a satire, the Barbie movie pokes fun at society, stereotypical images, patriarchy – and even the way women are portrayed. The exaggeration that defines satire offends many people, but it’s there to drive home societies’ flaws.
Barbie was never a perfect doll, but she certainly has been one who embodies power and, more importantly, reinvention. Her purpose changed over time. She evolved, and girls evolved with her. She still has us discussing a woman and a man’s place in this world. It’s still a strange badge of honour for many famous people to see themselves portrayed as a Barbie doll.
Little girls still enjoy imagining themselves as fun-loving, successful women portrayed by Barbie dolls who now represent women in a variety of careers. Barbie comes in body-type options now.
Girls can choose Barbie dolls who portray their own role models, and they can create a unique community of dolls who represent their aspirations. They can have Ken dolls who represent the relationships they dream of, and they can even accept boys as friends.
Since 1969, Barbie has been a liberating experience for many girls, and she hasn’t stopped redefining herself.
If you see the movie with an open mind, you’ll see Barbie through your own defining lense. She can be fun, thought-provoking or irritating. She provokes or supports the image we want to see. That’s the magic and the beauty of Barbie.