Recently, it was announced that Margot Robbie will be playing Barbie in a live-action film chronicling the adventures of the now 50-year toy, set to be released around 2021. Originally set the play the title role was actor and comedian Amy Schumer, known for a body of work that includes, if not centres upon, ‘body positivity’. Needless to say, the public attitude shifted considerably when Robbie was confirmed instead, as the 28-year-old blonde beauty is the classic archetype model of female beauty. The six-inch heel wearing plastic icon, with legs 50 per cent longer than her arms, and a smile immortalised by Andy Warhol, is set to be portrayed by an actor of arguably equally unattainable beauty.
While the specifics of Barbie’s dimensions may be nebulous at best, and unhealthy social conditioning at worst, in a society that too often overlooks contemporary significance and reception, Barbie was the poster-girl for female empowerment. She was a pilot, a vet, a doctor, in an epoch where young girls in STEM careers were still a new phenomenon. She was progressive and overwhelmingly effective in terms of the feminist contemporary zeitgeist. In a patriarchal society that has historically seen sexism dominate women, Barbie was something of a revelation: a woman to be venerated. Arguably, her ‘beauty’ does not negate her feminist undertones. It emphasises them, embodying the statement ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. Interestingly, Barbie’s ‘significant other’, Ken, is marketed as a complement to her, itself a revelation in terms of the typical heterosexual relationship. In Toy Story 3 (2010), Barbie is the strong one, the funny one, inherently relatable despite being unrealistic superficially. In essence, the tagline ‘it’s what’s inside that counts,’ is viable in both directions, and remains relevant in the face of exterior beauty.
One point which I feel has not been touched upon enough in recent debate is the economic power that Barbie has held for over half a century. Etymologically, ‘Barbie’, does not refer to a school of toy, nor a particular toymaker, but is so popular that it stands alone as a self-recognised entity so well known it requires no further definition. When we think ‘doll’, we do not necessarily think of Barbie, but the two are forever entwined. In a world where marketing is the ultimate power, Mattel has struck gold, or blonde, with Barbie.
From the moment Robbie burst onto the silver screen in Wolf Of Wall Street (2013), the commentary surrounding her was largely focused upon her superficiality. However, Robbie has proven herself to be wonderfully talented and multi-faceted; whilst characters like Harley Quinn in 2016’s Suicide Squad may be physically attractive, it is the vivacity, the vibrancy, the flair that makes her performances memorable. The phrase ‘not just a pretty face’ is clearly loaded with condescension but fits for both Robbie and Barbie. Or rather, a pretty face is irrelevant when an actor has the power to make the audience cry without the need for dialogue: as Margot Robbie’s Oscar-nominated turn as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya (2017), did.
Whether Margot Robbie’s interpretation of the blonde cultural emblem champions a positive body image is yet to be seen, but the global powerhouse has grossed over $3 billion in over half a century; if the Barbie of today can transgress to be as empowering as the original doll fifty years ago, the film will be as culturally, aesthetically and historically significant as her immortality is in the art of today.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.