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Barbie: past her prime or future feminist icon?

ByJasmine Niblett

Mar 10, 2023
barbie and girl illustration

Anyone who knew me growing up knows I was the epitome of the girly-girl cliché; I loved dressing up, pink was my favourite colour and, above all, I adored Barbie. From the age of three, I inherited my mum’s old Barbie dolls and all I wanted for Christmas was my very own mermaid Barbie, just like the one my friends had. As an only child, I spent many hours playing with my Barbies and using my imagination to invent the most elaborate storylines.

Only as an adult have I begun to reflect on how Barbie’s unrealistic beauty standards could have unconsciously affected me growing up. My entire life I have struggled with my body image and while this is definitely not a universal experience, I have sub-consciously always desired to be taller, skinnier and blonder, just like Barbie. Whether this is a coincidence or not, Barbie has certainly been criticised for perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards for years. Amongst other things, Barbie’s manufacturer Mattel has also been accused of tokenising people of colour, portraying women as dumb, sexualising young girls and capitalising off of women’s empowerment through their dolls.

However, in her beginnings, Barbie was originally intended to empower women. In March 1959, 63 years ago, businesswoman and mother Ruth Handler was inspired by the German fashion doll ‘Bild Lilli’ to create a grown-up doll for her daughter Barbara.
Before this, most dolls were designed to resemble babies, intended to lead young girls to aspire to the values of motherhood. Initially created for adults, ‘Bild Lilli’ was a blond bombshell with no reference to motherhood or domesticity.

Following her example, Barbie became the first adult, single, empowered doll on the American market. Barbie was marketed as a successful career woman, providing a rare source of positive representation for girls and women, who were often confined to motherly or caretaking roles in society. So how did something so simple and potentially empowering turn into something so destructive and problematic?

Based on the first teaser trailer for Greta Gerwig’s upcoming film Barbie, this seems to be one of the major themes the director will explore in her movie. Starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, the Barbie movie is announced to be a live-action romantic comedy with a feminist approach.

The trailer opens with a meticulous recreation of the Dawn of Man sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, replicating each frame of the iconic scene. While this scene has previously been parodied, recreated and paid homage to a great deal, Gerwig uses it innovatively to draw parallels with the original’s fore-warning message and, in doing so, offers us a glimpse of what the movie’s overarching message might be.

The original scene in A Space Odyssey explores the seemingly inherent con-nection between humanity’s discovery of tools and its discovery of violence as a method of procuring power, implying that humans inevitably corrupt everything good and useful through their violent thirst for power. Based on the message of the original, Barbie’s version of the scene seems to suggest that despite all the positive aspects Barbie has to offer, her true appeal and power are regrettably confined to her sexual appeal and physical attractiveness.
This short clip already suggests a self-aware and humorous tone for the film and social media is buzzing with excitement for this new movie.

According to Paper Magazine, viewers have had very positive responses to the movie’s first test-screening, with one person being quoted as saying: “It deconstructs the feminist iconography of Barbie and recontextualizes her for a new generation.”

Illustration by Ruby Tait

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