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  • Elsa Kraemer

Barbie is back in the box office: should we cheer?

What did Hollywood do this time? Review of the Mattel-Warner Bros movie a trimester after its initial box-office run.


Elsa Kraemer

A couple of days following the movie’s release, I went to the theatre to watch it with my sister, both of us being genuinely curious to see a work concerning an emblematic character of our childhood stories and movies. The excitement was particularly present considering the advertisement made by the producers around Barbie being turned into a new feminist piece of work! I was thus hopeful to see it altered for the better and considered it was not irrevocably too late for the brand to reshape its signature product.


Short after its release, and after being a great debut success, the movie was on everyone’s lips. I often heard that people had been entertained by the Warner Bros - Mattel production; I, however, started fearing that the famous cast, together with its tailor-made soundtracks enabled by Hollywood’s gigantic means of production, would start occulting the movie’s substantial limitations.


After thinking the so-called feminist ambition had been frankly watered down in comparison to the producers’ promises, I started diving into the components that made me uneasy, and my initial ambivalent feeling towards the movie turned into profound disappointment, following Mattel’s alleged commitments.


At first, I was pleasantly surprised by the movie’s intention to re-engage with pink, glitters and more largely hyperfemininity, which in hindsight can empower women and liberate them from previous pressure and guilt on that topic. This is particularly relevant considering that 20th century-American pop culture ridiculed hyperfemininity, after having previously pressured women towards that hyperfeminine ideal and its high beauty standards. Additionally, the film industry – to which Hollywood has largely contributed – later pressured women to be different from that hyperfeminine archetype in order to be desirable, and by extension valued as women. This liberating dimension of the movie represents a welcome invitation for women to behave in a freer way, allowing them to (re)connect (or not) with hyperfemininity.


Though I thought this was a genuine improvement with large-scale reach for Western pop-culture, I quickly realised that no further breakthrough was to be observed in the Barbie movie. While Mattel tried to revive and re-polish Barbie’s image, they failed to be credible in their attempt to embrace feminist struggles, as the feminism they advertised did not encompass more than the socially privileged. The cast’ diversity was very limited, to an extent that gave me the feeling every non-white, cisgender heterosexual person on set was a token for Mattel and Warner Bros’ production. After seeing the movie, I did learn that the cast was more queer than the movie made it seem, but my late learning is precisely what makes me say the two giants failed at shedding light on experiences of people with other gender identities and sexual orientations (and particularly on women – as it is a central topic of the movie after all). There is not a single mention about gender diversity for the various Barbie’s, despite the movie advertising its main message to be for girls to become who they desire without restriction and realise their full potential. This message alone is in my view depicting very little commitment to the LGBTQ+ cause and therefore fails to embrace feminist struggle intersectionally, while claiming the intention to address the life experiences of all girls and women and simultaneously omitting a significant part of the female population.


This illusory representation of all women feels like a dangerous fallacy, as it sums up the feminist struggle as one big generalisation of the various, structural forms of discrimination and violence women face every day. Not only does it dilute them, it also ridicules the complexity and the systemic nature of feminism.


The danger of this simplification lies in the fact that the movie makers turn the movie into a fictional conversation between feminist advocacy and the audience, when they incorrectly display the different layers of patriarchal oppression that affect, though to different extents depending on social and geographical factors, more than half of the world population. This could contribute to discreditation of feminist advocacy on the public stage, and feels dishonest coming from a movie labeling itself as feminist.

Additionally, one wonders about the implications of the movie’s great financial success, as it will ensure the company’s continuation. The movie’s success, evidenced by the $1,3 bn revenue it generated, showed that Mattel pulled a very heavy and successful PR campaign with this movie, thus re-polishing their image and reviving Barbie and Barbie-related merchandise sales in a context where their sales had been declining for some time.


While the achievement of their director Greta Gerwig to be the first female director to reach the title of highest-grossing film by female director created a stir as she surpassed the previous record previously established by Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman in 2017, I question the extent to which the public good, and in particular that of women, matters to the giant. As a matter of fact, several studies have been conducted on the adverse effects playing with a Barbie doll had on young children (and a fortiori young girls, since the toy is targeted for them). Most of them reach similar conclusions on the way playing with Barbies negatively affects little girls and their mental health. One particularly draws attention to the negative impact on young girls to play with ultra-thin dolls like Barbie and studies the direct correlation between playing with these dolls and the strong negative impact on their body satisfaction.


Considering this, is it desirable that Mattel’s latest colossal advertising campaign gets such attention? It ensures their flagship product will be able to subsist in the longer-term, and thereby will keep reinforcing the impossible body standards it has traditionally done, and will further entertain the negative consequences it has on little girls and grown women (not to mention the overconsumption the movie’s release generated, when Mattel concluded numerous partner upsells: see for instance the disastrous environmental consequences caused by fast-fashion giant Primark who saw its sales rise by 9% with the Barbie collaboration). A second danger lies there precisely, as Mattel contradictorily claims encouraging diversity and defending the idea that women should aim for their personal ambitions and develop their full potential no matter what it is while using a character that perfectly endorses pressuring beauty standards for women as a means of communication to diffuse that very message.


In a nutshell, while the brand tries to get us to celebrate women and diversity through Barbie, I will probably wait to see whether Mattel introduces greater discussion concerning inclusivity and women's well-being in their globally-sold product before joining the cheering. A history of impossible body standards and an inherent lack of representation are not erased when a highly-promoted movie claims to have sent a feminist message for selling purposes.


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