The Barbie movie and its associated colours, merchandise and promotions have taken the world by storm. Through this article, we think through the pink, plastic, perfect world of Barbie, and ask what the doll, the brand, and the movie mean to us as consumers.
In their first ever advertisement for Barbie in 1959, creators at Mattel described exactly what you were supposed to do with the doll: you should want to be her. “Till then, I know just what I’ll do: Barbie, beautiful Barbie, I’ll make believe that I am you”, says the little girl in the ad. This strategy of Mattel’s – directing their commercials towards children as opposed to adults, continued into the 70s, when it began selling Barbie to adolescent girls. It is then that the colour pink began being linked to their brand identity, with Barbie Pink eventually becoming a copyrighted Pantone shade.
As a colour, pink carries a lot of cultural connotations, gathering both endorsement and hate as it came to be linked to gender, beauty, and power. As a pigment, it has an even longer standing history. Pink travelled from a lip and cheek tint in ancient Egypt, to a class signifier in 1700s Europe, it went from a label of homosexuality in the Nazi regime, to a reclaimed symbol of gay pride. In 2023, how were you made to see pink, and what did you think of it?
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie hit theatres on the 21st of July this year, and whether you watched the movie or not, you have definitely been fed its colour, merchandise and promotions in some form or another. Brands, influencers, advertisements and the internet have embraced the ‘Barbiecore’ aesthetic (read our previous edition on ‘cores’ here) – an homage to the classic, ultra bright pink associated with the doll. In June 2022, when images of Barbie-fied lead actor Margot Robbie were released, it prompted a 416% increase in the search for pink clothing. In 2019, on Mattel’s 60th anniversary, a lifesize Barbie dreamhouse opened for bookings on Airbnb, and was brought back this summer prior to the film’s release. “They’ve taken that DNA of what made this toy so successful and put that into the marketing, having her turn up in gaming, in Architectural Digest, in food, fashion, interior design, everything,” says Amplify director Alex Wilson in a Telegraph interview.
Like any wildly popular consumer goods, Barbie (both physical doll and brand) comes with its complexities, the most obvious one being its harmful influence on the body and societal images of young girls. Experimental psychological research has shown that girls exposed to Barbie (vs other dolls, or no dolls) had lower self-esteem and poorer body image than girls that weren’t exposed to it. In an attempt to redesign the traditional Barbie in 2016, Mattel introduced ‘curvy’, ‘petite’ and ‘tall’ versions of Barbie. “At her core, she’s just a body, not a character, a canvas upon which society can project its anxieties about body image”, says branding expert Jess Weiner to TIME. In fact, most people who owned Barbies as children will remember having ripped off their heads or limbs, painted their bodies or chopped their hair. Barbie was a tool through which to channel curiosity and aggression, not merely invite aspiration.
The plot of the movie progresses as the stereotypical Barbie starts to ‘malfunction’, when her arched feet go flat, her mind floods with existential dread, and her thighs have cellulite. Everything is no longer as perfectly pink as before – but isn’t that how all our Barbies ended up? In her essay ‘Why Barbie Must Be Punished’, Leslie Jamison articulates why our Barbies met this fate: she was too perfect, and that made us want to make something go wrong for her. “If Barbie embodied something that always felt beyond my reach, then playing with Barbie—subjecting her to an array of trials and tribulations—was less about becoming her than it was about exerting some sort of power over the archetypes that tyrannized me”, she says. Of course, Mattel, and Gerwig, are acutely aware of this, making Kate McKinnnon’s ‘Weird Barbie’ embody it in the film. Weird Barbie’s weirdness is attributed to someone playing with her too hard in the real world.
However, McKinnon’s role remains restricted to helping Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie find her way back to her original self – what this self is, is something she must reckon with. Sure, there’s President Barbie and Lawyer Barbie and Physicist Barbie, but what is Stereotypical Barbie? The film visibly tries to answer this question by entering the discourse on how women are burdened with unrealistic expectations (almost every critique notices its abundant use of the word ‘patriarchy’), but it remains an explicitly Mattel-authorised narrative.
The products we buy and the media we consume very obviously affect our images of ourselves and the world we live in. Anthropologically speaking, we understand who we are by studying who we think we are/are not. Who is the self and the other here? It is important to ask ourselves: did the film upend Barbie as a brand, or further it? Is Barbie something we toy with, or something we embody? Did the film create a perfectly plastic, fantastic world and hold it up as a mirror to our own, or repackage it as an idea for us to buy?
Written by Ananya Damodaran, Researcher at LagomWorks. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for any queries on this article.