It is everywhere – the Barbie Movie. I was thinking a lot if I should dedicate this Postcard to Barbie. I struggled a bit with the thought. I have always loved Barbie – I played with her until I was 13, I kept collecting the dolls and I always defended her when people said she stood for anti-feminist values. Once, I was even called a Barbie myself – when a coworker thought he was funny and made sexist jokes about me even before I started working with him. (You can read this in Postcard #71.) I also kept giving Barbie as a gift – even though I knew that a lot of mothers my age raised their eyebrows at this present. Barbie was not “progressive” enough for their daughters. How could I give such a gift? I felt sorry for the girls who would not experience the same joy of playing with this doll I had.
On Friday, I got a message from one of my cousins: it was a picture of her baby daughter and my cousin said: “Just when the Barbie movie comes out, I introduced my daughter to Barbie. I hope she will love her as much as we did.” It made me smile. So many memories came up. I never really liked the dolls which required me to act like a mother. I found it boring and one-dimensional. Barbie was so much more exciting. We made up our own world when we played with Barbie – there was no limit to our imagination. I never thought that Barbie stood for an unrealistic beauty ideal. As a girl, I did not even question it. Barbie looked the way she did, I looked the way I did – I never felt the need to look like her. It was almost like in the real world – I never felt pressure to look like my friends.
I was a shy child and as I was also on the chubbier side, I knew I did not look like Barbie. But more importantly, Barbie let me escape. On days when other children made fun of me and my body, I went home, into my Barbie dreamworld and played the school day as I would have imagined it to be. Nobody hated each other, nobody bullied anyone for the way they looked. Barbie showed me that I could be anyone – I could become a doctor, a lifeguard, a business woman. (I have to admit, I always loved Barbie’s yacht and airplane and I loved that she bought them herself.) Furthermore, I was obsessed with Barbie’s fashion – she could wear anything she wanted. In the real world, she may have looked ridiculous but in her own world, she looked amazing. Also, she did not care what other people thought, she did what she wanted, she was a trendsetter.
When I got older, I heard about women who underwent surgery to look like Barbie. Especially in the early 2000s, the doll was criticised for her stereotypical looks. Furthermore, the sales numbers steadily decreased. Little girls stopped playing with dolls much earlier than we did. Some people say they grow up faster. (I am not sure if they really do or if social media and society make them want to appear older sooner.) Moreover, the Barbie brand struggled in markets such as China as there was not the same sentimental attachment to the doll like in Europe or America. From a business perspective, I was not surprised when I first heard about Mattel planning a movie about Barbie. After the Lego-movie, I already expected a similar move – it would be a smart way to draw a new generation to the doll, create nostalgia amongst the older Barbie lovers and maybe also clean up the doll’s image. I was excited but also apprehensive at the same time.
Soon, the hype started getting bigger and bigger. Over the past weeks, there was hardly any single magazine, retail store or Instagram account which did not jump on the “Barbiecore” bandwaggon. The bigger the hype, the more sceptical I became. I also found it strange that the trailers did not really reveal too much about the movie, but at the same time, it already got so much praise in advance. Just the fact that Greta Gerwig directed it was obviously enough to assume that it would be a “great” movie. I was curious what she would make out of the Barbie story. I thought it could be an advantage that a feminist like Gerwig took over the movie, especially when I read that she herself played a lot with Barbie dolls as a child and obviously shared the same view of the doll as me.
The two weeks leading up to the movie, I started to do more research. I analysed the outfits of the press tour (you can read the article and watch my video here) and I got a bit more excited. It was an interesting approach – outfits based on previous and current dolls, vintage pieces and 80s and 90s trends. Maybe my reservations were wrong – maybe this was indeed a great movie to come. I spotted more and more people in Barbie accessories or pink clothing – especially Gen-Zs seemed to really like dressing up like Barbie and her friends.
I pre-ordered the movie tickets and went to watch it on the second day after its opening. I have never seen a theatre bustling like on that day. I imagine that the premieres of Dirty Dancing may have had the same vibe. People were dressed in pink or brought Barbie accessories. I do not know if any other collectors were in the theatre that night but I felt a bit awkward – I have such a close bond with that doll. Nevertheless, I felt out of place. I was not dressed up in pink (because for me Barbie was not always pink), even though I like the colour, I did not feel like wearing pink like everybody else that day. Barbie had taught me not to be mainstream and on Friday, I did not feel like blending into the pink crowd for some reason.
The lights went out and the Warner Brothers logo appeared in Barbie pink. People started applauding, screaming, whistling. Call me prejudiced, but if a movie does not catch my attention within the first 15-20 minutes, I lose interest. The Barbie movie started – it was funny, colourful (the set designers were great) and I also think that Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, Barbie and Ken, did a great job. But somehow it just did not click with me. People around me were laughing at basically anything – it felt forced, as if we were expected to laugh at certain things. I was also a bit disappointed by the outfits. I had my notebook ready for an article about them this week – but after some time, I realised that Robbie would not wear too many new outfits and the ones I saw were not really my style (too much logomania, especially Chanel).
I left the movie with a strange feeling. I really wanted to like it. Like Gerwig, I grew up with the doll, I loved the feminist messages, but to me, it felt like the messages were “hammered” into my head. (Furthermore, the movie had a few scenes which dragged on, especially towards the end and it was a bit too long – can we please go back to 90-minute-movies?). I guess what left me with this strange feeling was that many people in the audience were exactly the ones who criticised Barbie just a few years ago. The mothers who raised their eyebrows when I gifted a Barbie to their daughters. Suddenly, because we label the doll “feminist” and making sure by repeating that message that really everybody got it, she is super cool. Over the weekend, I read the reviews and many comments on social media were about how emotional people felt at the theatre, that they cried. I am a cry-baby when it comes to movies (I cry when Arielle has to leave her family behind to be with Eric, when Eliott the dragon sings or when the side characters of Home Alone make up with their families). But this movie did not make me cry, even though I expected it to be very emotional. I came to the conclusion that this movie was probably not necessarily made for people like me who were already in “Team Barbie”. As mentioned above, it was a marketing move and an attempt in polishing the doll’s image. From that perspective, it obviously was a success.
I am aware that this is probably not a popular opinion about the movie. It was an OK movie, I will probably not watch it again. What was genius about it is Mattel’s marketing machine and the crazy hype they created around the movie. Already during the opening weekend, the movie was projected to make over USD 155 million – USD 55 million in addition to covering the cost of production. Mattel has partnered with about 100 brands for licensing deals. While I was in the movie, I got a newsletter by Mattel about some products such as the “Kenough”-sweater or some additional Barbie dolls. I am pretty sure that this movie will be used for case studies in business schools very soon.
I am not a film critic and I also expect that many people will disagree with my opinion. But Barbie did not teach me to jump on a hype without questioning it or if I do not feel comfortable with the mainstream opinion. Exactly the latter was the reason why Barbie and I had such a close bond – I could be me, with my opinion, which was often not the mainstream. Also a fun fact: when I was 13, Barbie turned 40 and a regional TV channel came to our house to film me amongst my big Barbie collection and interview me about the doll. Can you imagine, the social suicide I committed in the late 90s when this happened? The next day, the whole bus ride to school, kids made fun of me. I wonder how many of them are now wearing “Barbiecore”-outfits and applauded in the movie theatre…
Barbie, I will always stand by you – no matter if the public opinion of you. I hope you enjoyed being the star of a movie and finally got the applause you deserve for having been a feminist who could never be brought down – even if I personally am not a fan of that movie.
Have you watched the Barbie movie? What did you think?