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What Was Barbie Made For? 

Written By Caitlin Taylor So
Cover Art by


Where does the film, and by extension, the doll, fit into our discussions of feminism, capitalism, and nostalgia?

Editors’ Note

On opening week, I saw Barbie (2023). You saw Barbie. We all saw Barbie

Leading up to its theatrical release, Greta Gerwig’s third feature film continues to be all anyone and everyone have been talking about. This and of course, its tonal and seemingly gendered juxtaposition with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023): a beautifully organic, fan-driven internet phenomenon that will forever hold a black-and-pink space in cinema history. 

But I want to focus on the woman of the hour herself. The doll. The myth. The legend. Barbie. (Trademark of Mattel Inc.) 

Who is she behind the painted face? What was she made for? 

Growing up, I hated Barbie. But not for any socially relevant reason like the size of her (white) body or internalized misogynistic one like the perceived size of her brain as suggested by her blonde hair, love for fashion, and 1992 struggles in math class. 

I hated Barbie like I hated all hard dolls. I hated the way their plastic bodies felt. I hated that it hurt if you stepped or fell on top of them. And quite frankly, they scared me. Barbies, Bratz, American Girls, you name it. Before I opened presents at my birthday parties ages 3 to 5, I would announce this to the friends and family gathered around me, immediately making several of my parents’ friends feel bad as they had inevitably bought these dolls for me as a kind, thoughtful gesture. I even wrote a whole essay about my hatred and fear of hard dolls in the third grade; it really was that serious. 

Instead, I played with Groovy Girls, Manhattan Toy’s line of fashionable dolls. They were marketed as the funky and more ambiguously diverse alternative to Barbie and introduced to me by my aunt for that exact reason. But their most important feature? They were soft and I could sleep comfortably with them in bed. (There was an East Asian-looking Groovy Girl named Caring Caitlin, but at 5 years old, I didn’t have the language nor context to express why that meant so much to me at the time.) 

Groovy Girls were not as popular as Barbie. Not even close. In 2019, Manhattan Toys retired the Groovy Girls, while Barbie today and more broadly, Mattel, are stronger than ever. Those poor Groovy Girls never had a chance. Since her creation in 1959, Barbie has always been more than just a doll. She herself is a brand with over 40 films (I adored many of them as a child despite hating the doll itself), TV shows, a now taken down-website filled with online games, skincare/makeup lines, and clothing. 

She also embodies a movement: packaged yet personified feminism of the past and present. She’s held over 200 jobs and with that, has her own money, dreamhouse, plane, etc. Barbie was the first toy to reflect and encourage the unique aspirations of little girls. They didn’t have to play and train for motherhood anymore; now they could be whoever they wanted to be. As the 2023 film so accurately states, “Humans only have one ending. Ideas live forever”: a sentiment that summarizes the great reckoning Margot Robbie’s Barbie confronts and the reason behind the commercial success of Barbie the doll. 

Greta Gerwig, along with the actresses in the film, will be the first to tell you that Barbie is “most certainly a feminist film.” Robbie Brenner, Executive Producer of Mattel Films, and other Mattel executives are quick to say the exact opposite. Whose words do we believe? Whose words hold more weight? Is it Gerwig, the woman who co-wrote and directed this film, or is it Brenner, the woman spearheading the years-long rollout of the next MCU: Mattel Cinematic Universe? (More on that later.) 

Greta Gerwig is an artist. A visionary. A filmmaker. Robbie Brenner, as she stands as Executive Producer, speaks for Mattel, the multinational corporation whose executive leadership team consists mostly of men. In fact, in the over 60 years Barbie has existed, Mattel has never identified Barbie as explicitly feminist; instead, she’s been associated with vague promotions of female empowerment and girl power. “Feminist” is too politically charged for Barbie; it’s us, society at large, that has projected feminism onto a plastic doll. 

Where does this leave a film that’s smashing box office records with a multimillion-dollar omnichannel marketing campaign to match? 

Well, as it will reveal—perhaps in a punchy five-minute-or-so monologue—somewhere sort of in between. 

Spoilers ahead. 

True to Barbie canon, every Barbie in Barbieland is…everything. She’s the President, a mermaid, a diplomat, a lawyer, a doctor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the Supreme Court Justices, a Nobel Prize-winning author, and a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. The lead protagonist, Margot Robbie’s Barbie, is “Stereotypical Barbie,” presumably a fashion model and the enduring original from 1959. She’s the brand, nay cultural icon, the feminist, nay fascist symbol, the role model, nay impossible beauty standard. She’s the most everything anyone could ever be. 

And the film does its best to acknowledge and tackle this dichotomy, albeit in chaotic, rushed scenes. You have to remember: Mattel’s CEO is watching Barbie’s every move, both Will Ferrell’s unnamed character in the film and the actual current Mattel CEO, Ynon Kreiz. 

(Barbie’s also a major plastic pollutant and the factories she’s made in have a long history of unsafe and inhumane working conditions, but that’s a bigger issue that doesn’t begin and end with Barbie. Mattel would never want you to know that though.)

Margot Robbie’s performance as Barbie is grappling with the culmination of ideals, expectations, and politics she represents is a marvel to behold. But it is America Ferrera’s monologue as Gloria, receptionist to Mattel’s CEO (Ferrell’s version), that has followed people long after they leave the theater. Ferrera articulates the sobering reality of the female experience, answering the film’s central question: if all this pressure is placed upon a doll, how does this manifest for women in the real world? 

Literal impossibility. A paradox that would make philosophers the likes of Plato and Bertrand Russell shudder. 

Gloria’s feminism is pure. It’s real. It’s relatable. 

At the same time, it’s pretty uncontroversial and not revolutionary; in other words, it’s perfect for Mattel. This merely enhances the trendy Barbiecore aesthetic taking the world by storm. 

Feminism goes far beyond the individual. It’s systemic. It’s global. It’s inherently political. 

That isn’t to say Barbie is completely devoid of 21st century politics. One can deduce where Gerwig stands on more contentious social issues concerning Americans today, say for instance the 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade. In Barbieland, the Supreme Court is packed with women until Ryan Gosling’s Ken, who I have purposely not mentioned until now, brings patriarchy and unravels everything the Barbies have ever worked for in a day. 

With the issue of bodily autonomy, Barbie just scratches the surface. The key difference is these hints are far more subtle than the otherwise spoon-fed messaging on what it means to be a woman. Mattel has to appeal to the pro-lifers after all. 

But I’ll cut the film some slack. The overt yet simple feminism of Barbie works for the narrative too. The Barbies are still dolls, empty vessels made of toxic plastic. In the end, Robbie’s Barbie decides to become human, accepting that she will realize how much worse the real world is in time. 

This time, however, she won’t be experiencing it alone. She has Gloria and Gloria’s daughter, Sasha, to lean on. Gloria may be a Mattel employee, but she’s, more importantly, the owner of Robbie’s Barbie. 

Which brings me back to my original question. Who is Barbie? 

When we push everything we’ve pushed onto Barbie aside, what is left? 

A doll. No, still not just any doll. She’s your doll.

She’s an extension of every child that’s played with her. 

And Mattel knows this. Boy, do they. 

Fourteen Mattel properties are in active development for their respective film adaptations including but not limited to Barney, Polly Pocket, American Girl, Hot Wheels, UNO, View Master, and more. 

Hollywood has our nostalgia in a chokehold, squeezing out every last dollar. 

Who cares about the controversies that have plagued Mattel as a corporation? Thanks to Barbie, they now have enough advertising to distract us for at least a decade. Unlike Will Ferrell’s character, Ynon Kreiz is no bumbling idiot. 

I get it, I do. If by some miracle there’s a Groovy Girl film, you know I’ll be the first in line. 

As another self-proclaimed pop culture nerd, I’ve fallen victim to the consumerist dystopia that comes out of fictional “utopias” such as Barbieland. (I’m staring right at my Harry Potter and Marvel Funko Pop collection.) You can use fantasy and capitalism as an escape! 

It’s not wrong to be nostalgic. It’s not wrong to revisit our favorite stories—in this case, toys—and reimagine them with a fresh new take. Greta Gerwig had a point to make. A point that was diluted to appease a billion dollar company, but a point nonetheless. 

The announcement of Robbie Brenner’s MCU has me nervous. The joint success of Barbie and Oppenheimer is exciting and yet it is happening against a backdrop of a historical double SAG-AFTRA and WGA strike. We talk of million dollar earnings when there are writers and actors who can barely afford to live. 

Barbie is feminist and it is not. 

Barbie belongs to you and she does not. 

At the core of Barbie, the film, and Barbie, the doll, is a fascinating push-and-pull between art and money, consumer and corporation. 

Looking back, Groovy Girls were not nearly as interesting. (I love them dearly, Bác Xuyến/Aunt Kelly; I’m kidding.) 

If only I had inserted myself into this conversation sooner as a 3 year old.

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