The very first live-action feature film based on Mattel’s iconic fashion doll is only coming out only now, in 2023, more than 60 years after the doll was launched on March 9, 1959. It is ironic that the doll that has been singularly responsible for scarring the psyche of so many was launched a day after International Women’s Day! The irony continues as the film is opening on July 21, going head-to-head with the Christopher Nolan’s very serious Oppenheimer.
There are over 40 animation films based on Barbie from Barbie in the Nutcracker (2001) to Barbie: Skipper and the Big Babysitting Adventure (2023). The live-action movie has been in development since 2009. Several actors and directors were attached to the project at different points in time including Diablo Cody, Amy Schumer, Anne Hathaway, Alethea Jones and Patty Jenkins, till the final combination of Margot Robbie starring as the blonde doll, with Greta Gerwig directing from a screenplay she wrote with Noah Baumbach.
The 39-year-old Gerwig with Academy Award nominations for her Lady Bird(2017) and Little Women (2019) might seem a strange choice to write and direct a film on a plastic doll which has had people wax eloquent on the harm the doll has done with its stereotyping of gender roles and acceptable beauty standards. The trailers, however, reveal the delicious subversions that are in store.
The teaser tells the story of the inspiration for the doll. Ruth Handler, who created the doll, apparently noticed that while her daughter, Barbara, enjoyed giving adult roles to her dolls, the dolls in the market were all baby dolls with chubby cheeks, dimple chin, curly hair, and very fair (sigh). When she suggested a doll with an adult body, her husband Elliot, who was a co-founder of the Mattel toy company, was not convinced.
Handler, while travelling with her children in Germany, saw the Bild Lilli doll, based on a comic-strip character, Lilli. The doll was launched in 1955 in Germany and had a full wardrobe of 1950s fashion — how charming that would have been! And so Barbie, named after Handler’s daughter, inspired by Lilli, was born. Incidentally, Handler’s son is called Kenneth and Barbie’s on-off boyfriend is called Ken — psychologists can have a field day with that.
Coming back to the teaser, with its unsettling Kubrick-ian vibe from the auteur’s 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, we like all the little children playing with their baby dolls, see Robbie as a giant Barbie doll dressed in the zebra-striped one-piece swimsuit that the first Barbie sported back in 1959. The little children immediately destroy their baby dolls looking up in awe at the glamazon towering over them.
Apart from all the pink in the trailer, which apparently caused a worldwide shortage, (the manufacturers however, say the shortage was caused by supply chain issues because of COVID-19) Barbie seems to be going through an existential crisis which causes her to be expelled from Barbieland to the real world. Barbie’s arched feet have gone flat (her heels touch the ground she says in wondering horror), ensuring she does not have to walk on her signature tiptoes.
Her boyfriend, Ken, played by Ryan Gosling, accompanies Barbie on her real-world adventure. The trailer also has Ken asking Barbie if he should stay over. When Barbie asks why, he says “because we are girlfriend and boyfriend”, but when pressed about what they are to do when he stays over, Ken admits to not knowing. The exchange reiterates the simultaneous sexualisation and neutering of the doll.
As Barbie greets all the different versions of herself in the trailer, it is a hat-tip to her many avatars even if there is every chance of split personalities and other mental health challenges. Kate McKinnon plays Weird Barbie, who with her hacked hair and scribbles on her face is a personification of children’s rough treatment of their toys. Issa Rae’s President Barbie is a tribute to the President Doll line, and transgender actor Hari Nef as Doctor Barbie is a call back to the 1973 doll which was so influential that Mattel created a commemorative reproduction in 2022.
Alexandra Shipp’s Writer Barbie is reminiscent of the Maya Angelou Barbie doll from 2021 and Emma Mackey’s Physicist Barbie is inspired by a combination of the Scientist, STEM Leader, and Astrophysicist Barbie dolls. There is Sharon Rooney as Lawyer Barbie, Ana Cruz Kayne as Judge Barbie, Ritu Arya as Journalist Barbie, Dua Lipa as Mermaid Barbie from 2018’s blue Dreamtopia Mermaid Barbie doll, and Nicola Coughlan as Diplomat Barbie, an echo of Australian diplomat Julie Bishop who was honoured with a Barbie doll. Thankfully, there are no killer Ken and Barbie dolls — that would have been too dark.
Celebrating the unreal
In interviews Gerwig spoke of taking inspiration from the “authentic artificiality” and “the tangibility of the artifice” of classical musicals as well as from Mary Pipher’s non-fiction book on the pressures faced by American adolescents, Reviving Ophelia (1994).
With the avowed aim of giving the audience what in Robbie’s words, “the thing you didn’t know you wanted,” Barbie should be a fun ride even without Aqua’s smartly subversive hit single, ‘Barbie Girl’. Yes, a snatch plays in the background at the end of the main trailer, but that is only a cover.