The lights go out, and the Warner Bros logo turns pink. A light, constant gust of wind can be heard, a kind of enveloping whistling, over the audience. The black screen opens to a sunset. It’s literally a dusk. The world is brown, rocky, a desert. Distant crows can be heard, and all else is silence. The sky (or the future) is dark for these girls who drag small carriages with their long, brownish dresses, wash clothes, serve tea, carry bottles, and take care of plastic children with their bald heads, clothes, and blankets. They don’t play; they wander like little mothers.
And suddenly, with the sun, the prodigy arrives. Taller, thinner, brighter, more beautiful. A woman. We recognize her because she is Barbie, unique. She looks at the girls, smiles at them, winks, and this is the signal to destroy their future children. Barbie is everything that didn’t exist before; she is the symbol of a new world and observes it from above, as if it were her creation.
In reality, for almost two hours, that world is the work of Barbie the director, Greta Gerwig.
“Yes, Barbie changed everything,” the narrator tells us. This is what Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie, wanted to do with her creation, the girls’ toy that became a universe. The story is well-known: tired of seeing her daughter Barbara playing with flat paper figures to dress and undress, Ruth believed there was room for something more. It’s said that the girl preferred those adult-like drawings over the childish three-dimensional dolls offered in the market. Even little Barbie didn’t like playing with baby dolls, and her parents were co-owners of an American company dedicated to manufacturing and distributing toys: Mattel. Ruth sensed that her idea was unbeatable, so she persisted even after an initial rejection of her proposal (parents wouldn’t want to buy their daughters a doll with adult features and proportions) and it solidified in her mind during a trip to Europe. The story goes that she came across a German doll, Lilly, inspired by a cartoon that had started as a kind of joke among men: a female doll with buttocks and bust. Desirable.
And so enters Margot Robbie, the actress Barbie, into the brown world: with her legs, her heels, her painted nails, her red lips, and her curves accentuated in her striped swimsuit. She’s not afraid of horizontal lines; her waist is tiny, and her measurements, perfect (unrealistic, some will say). Finally, in 1959, as the socialist revolution triumphed in Cuba, the Chinese invaded Tibet, and the Soviet Union launched a first object to the Moon, Mattel introduced a doll with a striped swimsuit that swept everything: 350 thousand sold in a year.
The Handlers’ children were two; Barbara gave her name to the family’s star, and two years later, the younger Kenneth gave his name to her accessory, Ken. Then Barbie had a boyfriend or neighbor, and later a house, a story, and a profession. She was the model Barbie and also had a best friend and a sister. The slogan, the promise to girls, was: “You can be anything you want to be.” The toy quickly ceased to be just a doll; what was asked for, what was sought, what was given as a gift, what was bought, was a Barbie. And, above all, it was sold. Every day, every week, every year, a Barbie is sold every three seconds in the world.
It’s not just the most famous doll; shortly after its launch, it was surrounded by adjectives: controversial, capitalist, hegemonic, stereotypical. The latter is the one that the director Barbie took to shape the main character of her film, and, with the makeup artist Barbie, the art director Barbie, and the costume designer Barbie, turned Margot Robbie into the stereotypical Barbie, the one that began receiving criticism shortly after being released.
So, in line with criticism and the times, Mattel released different versions that not only changed her wardrobe, car, house, and profession but also her identity, features, and appearance: Black, Latina, Asian, androgynous, petite, curvy, in a wheelchair, with a hijab. They are the inclusive Barbie; that’s how they are promoted and sold. Far from avoiding criticism, biases, and trends, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach used them to write a script that gradually incorporates them one by one. As happens in Barbiland, in the movie, there’s a Barbie for everything and everyone. Even a pregnant one, because Barbie can also dream of being a mother.
We won’t spoil the story, but we can say that, faced with such a variety of Barbies, it’s Ken – just Ken – who gets the most amusing moments, the greatest casualness, and the most accomplished narrative arc. We’ll also mention that Ruth Handler is honored with a small character around the middle of the film, picking up on that foundational story of the entrepreneur who designed a doll based on her daughter’s image and the demands of a new generation of women.
And that’s how we got to know the Barbie frenzy, against which there were also complaints: some wanted to open our eyes and said (as if it were a revelation) that the film industry is a business and that Mattel wants to make money by selling more Barbies, now doing it through pinkwashing. With everything tinged in pink, the word is an ironic and happy coincidence, much like the ones that happen in Barbiland.