clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What loving Barbie says about us

A Barbie aficionado and certified doll expert explains why life in plastic has suddenly become so fantastic.

Robbie is mid-clap during a dance number at a big party at the Barbie Dreamhouse, surrounded by other guests in party outfits.
Margot Robbie as Barbie in Barbie, a movie about Barbie
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

This summer belongs to Barbie. Thanks to the Margot Robbie-led movie and the inescapable marketing surrounding it, Mattel’s 64-year-old doll has once again become America’s sweetheart. Everyone wants a Barbie. Everyone wants to be a Barbie. And everyone wants to go see Barbie — the movie made $337 million worldwide in its opening weekend.

When did life in plastic become so fantastic? And further: Is this love for Barbie something that’s always existed? Is it just brilliant marketing? Why Barbie and why now?

Barbie’s big moment is one of those rare things that feels both like a fiery overnight phenomenon and a long-simmering success. To better understand Barbie culture, Barbie’s history, and what we mean when we talk about Barbie, I spoke to Maria Teresa Hart, a Barbie expert and author of Doll, which she describes as a “non-fiction pop-culture feminist critique of dolls, doll history, and doll culture.”

Loving Barbie, she explains, isn’t as simple as it seems.

I want to get your vibe on this movie. Are you excited for it?

I am elated about this movie. Which might be a little bit of a surprise because in my book I do have criticisms. I’m sort of like a mother that wags her finger at a beloved child — in this case Barbie — being like, you could do better, you know? But I do love Barbie. My criticism is an act of love.

Does the fanfare surrounding the movie surprise you?

I mean, it’s this moment where you recognize that you’re not alone — there’s so many other people that are just desperate to get back into their toy box and want to relive their moments they had in their childhood bedroom. You know, walking Barbie up and down the plastic stairs and having her jump into the Corvette and drive off into the sunset.

There’s an entire wave of people that have grown up with this toy that feel this attachment and want to have this giddy moment. I see people planning their outfits or, what you saw last summer which you’re seeing again, which is the Barbie-core stuff coming — not just the clothes, but also the interiors, and really anywhere where you can have that moment of exuberant girliness.

When I’ve been on book tour, there are people that will come up to me and they’ll tell me their favorite Barbie. It’s almost like they’re telling you what their sign is astrologically. Like, when they say, “I was a Peaches ’n Cream Barbie,” “I was a Day-to-Night Barbie,” they’re giving you their personality. They’re giving you this, like, key piece of themselves. They still identify that way as an adult.

I want to stop you there. What kind of Barbie are you?

I’m very much a Day-to-Night Barbie, I guess. I’m a working gal. But that doesn’t really suit my fantasy because I would prefer to be something a little more glamorous, more frivolous, you know?

Wait. Back up. What is the Day-to-Night Barbie? Is it just a Barbie that has a job and then goes out?

No, she’s actually better. She is a Barbie that wears a little pink suit, and the outfit is reversible. You know how a mullet is business in the front and party in the back? That was her. Her pink business suit — you would essentially reverse it. You take off the jacket and turn the suit skirt into this party skirt, and she’d be ready for a night on the town.

Rae, dressed in a pink jumpsuit and wearing a sash that says president, is raising one arm and appears mid-speech, while other women dressed in pink jumpsuits cheer from behind her in an all-pink room
Issa Rae (center) as a Barbie who is president in Barbie.
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Does Day-to-Night Barbie like espresso martinis?

I don’t think she did, but I’m pretty sure she came with a giant brick of a cellphone and a little plastic business briefcase. Funnily enough, she also had a kind of boater hat that had a ribbon around it, which is very strange. I don’t know what kind of business Barbie was supposed to be in, but apparently that’s what Mattel thought businesswomen were wearing to the office.

Oooh. On that note — I wanted to ask you about criticism. I’m an old millennial, and I think when you see this excitement toward Barbie, it feels a little weird because, in my adult life, I think I’ve seen several different iterations of Barbie and Mattel criticized for being sexist.

Like, I remember multiple stories about how Barbie’s proportions are actually anatomically impossible.

In the ’70s, there was a protest of the New York Toy Fair, where people were protesting, in part, against Barbie and how sexist she was. It’s like what you said, there’s historically been a wave of articles critiquing her body and calling out these unrealistic proportions and the expectations they put on young girls.

Those critiques weren’t necessarily wrong.

Not at all. Barbies in the early days really doubled down on both unrealistic beauty standards and on diet culture. One of them was Slumber Party Barbie. I believe she came with a scale and had these little diet books with the “diet advice” in them that was like, “Don’t eat.”

That was the advice!

Oh my god.

Right, it’s really damaging and damning stuff to put into a little girl’s head. The scales were set to a certain number, I think it was like 110 or something like that. The point is these toys were like an instruction manual, and you’re giving them to a little girl saying, “Do this.” And with these toys, you’re really starting them down this lifetime path of potential body dysmorphia and issues with weight. Barbie is definitely complicit in that historically, and I think we have to remember that Barbie, she has all these incredible careers now — but her very first career was teen model.

Everyone needs a first job!

So like, the very early history of Barbie is that she was a cartoon in a saucy German tabloid, called Bild Lilli. That character was very much for the male gaze. She was created for men. The original prototype was a novelty toy that was sold in gag gift shops for bachelors. She came with all of that baggage, but then her world, the world that she exists in, is where so much of what we consider patriarchal norms gets subverted. So this is very much a world where women are centered, their needs are centered, their aesthetics are centered. And it is about kind of entering this fantasy world where a lot of patriarchal norms are completely reversed.

Right, like the Barbie paradox. She’s capable of everything in her world — even if that world hasn’t always been a “great” place.

In your book, you mention that Barbie’s world is a utopia or a fantasy, and on the one hand, it’s great. But on the other hand, the woman who gets to experience that power fantasy has to be a beautiful, blonde, skinny woman.

I think Barbie represents the pinnacle of womanhood and an achievement of that — and so she’s always going to be a mixed bag. We can think about supermodels or you know, young A-list starlets that are walking the red carpet or what have you. They are existing within the patriarchy and they are reflecting some of those values the Barbie does too.

Young girls look up to a giant-sized Barbie in a striped swimsuit standing in the desert, in a still from the Barbie movie.
This Barbie is the “pinnacle of womanhood.”
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

I do mention this in one of my chapters, but there are women who take that as 100% prescriptive and they think, “If I can achieve this ideal, then doors will open for me.” And so it becomes this goal that they’re trying to attain through plastic surgery, through extreme dieting, through whatever means in order to have access to the things that Barbie portrays. And it’s not necessarily wrong, because we know that we live in a society that is patriarchy-based and is shaped with those issues.

Obviously, I don’t think Slumber Party Barbie and her scale are making the cut in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie. I want to ask you where you think this all turned. Like everyone seems genuinely excited about this movie. How do we go from “Barbie is problematic” to now?

I know for me, it turned out quite some time ago. I think I came to a place in kind of my own feminist journey where I was embracing a lot of the things that I had rejected.

I think that there’s been this feminist adjustment that’s been happening for some time. I see my own femininity and hyper-femininity as things that shouldn’t be villainized, or things that should be considered like a tool of the patriarchy.

They are genuine aspects of myself and my own joy.

And you know ... oh, here we go [sighs].

Hahaha. Go on!

Okay, so there was this meme years ago going around. It’s this classroom of young girls that were having their photo taken, and it might have been costume day because they were all dressed like princesses. And then there’s one little girl that was dressed as Darth Vader. And then the caption was something like, “Be the Darth Vader you wish to see in the world or something like that.”

It was like, let’s reject princess culture as being foolish and silly and like, and embrace the fact that, you know, this one little girl was being a rebel and was dressing up as Darth Vader. It was very cute!

Was it “cute” though?

Hahaha! Right? At the same time, I was like, this feels like corporate feminism. It was like, “Hey, instead of being a girly girl, why don’t you be a person that owns an evil empire?”

Like, that’s the message. Instead of dressing up in pink and a bunch of bows, what if you ran a completely horrible corporation? This current moment that we’re living in now, I think we’ve been looking back, saying we’re wrong about these things, and reevaluating.

I think it’s also if you’re gonna go back to that meme, I think the whole binary of like, running an evil empire or being a princess, I think the Barbie line would now be like, “Why can’t I do both?”

Be the princess that runs an empire!

The Barbie tagline would be “This Barbie runs an evil empire!”

Absolutely. It totally would. She would get her own poster!

It’s funny that we’re talking about death and destruction because Barbie is going up against Oppenheimer, which is probably the most guy-coded movie this summer — a movie about mass death and destruction. And the way the two movies have been positioned seem like diametric opposites.

I love it.

Barbie is the type of movie that I think gets overlooked. Like it’s not created to be Oscar bait. That’s very much an Oppenheimer thing — you know, vehicles that are this hyper-masculine, very tortured, and have a dark and sinister type of vibe to it. That appeals to Oscar voters.

And Barbie is one of those things where the more feminine something is, the more discredited it can be. Barbie feels like the underdog. So the movie and its press tour have been this message that “Hey femininity matters too and this is also worth your attention, your awards, and your rave reviews.”

Thematically, Barbie vs. Oppenheimer also feels like opposing forces. Barbie seems to be about creation, imagination, and finding a new world, and Oppenheimer is about massive destruction.

I still have my criticisms of Barbie. I know she exists in this gray space. But I think with Barbie, I hope it acknowledges she has this exuberance, this feminine joy that comes with her. I don’t want to diminish that by saying yes, okay, there can be improvements that are made, there are things that Barbie gets wrong, very wrong and historically extremely wrong.

But there’s also a freedom that comes with Barbie.

If Barbie can be anything, why not let her be everything? That’s sort of beautiful.

There’s freedom to be able to throw on the sequins and the marabou feathers. To saying here I am, and like feeling that Barbie’s world is something that’s made for this — to validate and to amplify this feminine energy.

Update, July 24, 4:25 pm ET: This story, originally published on July 12, has been updated to include the movie’s first-weekend receipts.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.