At its core, the Barbie movie is Mattel trying to reinvigorate its brand

Mattel is threatening to roll back at least some of the progress made in kids detaching themselves from a doll that encourages a fixation with appearance.
08 Aug, 2023

As a 90s kid who made her first memories with books and toys in the early 2000s, I remember being obsessed with Barbie. Though it is the Ladybird Early Reader classics that first get you going, I always trace my earliest reads back to two Barbie picture books from Variety Books, Lahore. Turning through the virtual pages of these books on Etsy, I can almost relive the experience. Barbie, with her toned torso (which six-year-old me did not know was essential to sporting her figure-hugging clothing), slender legs, thick head of hair, and immaculate fashion, looks as perfect today as she did 23 years ago. And then there were the dolls — such a heavenly escape into a world of haute, blonde perfection.

But then we grew up, and we learned about the real world and how it has problems — war, disease and poverty, exacerbated by the irrepressible human instinct to conquer and exploit everything from other humans to nature. We learned how there are religions and convictions people uphold and defend with their lives, and nations straddling manmade constructs called states that have their own laws and policies, and how they have critics who group themselves into schools of thought that some people study, and…and we forgot all about Barbie. Unless it was about how consumer culture instils impossible standards in women from a very young age.

This was until Margot Robbie stepped out of those damned pom-pom heels and positioned her perfectly aligned feet in the perpetual tip-toe posture of the original and early Barbies. These five seconds opened the floodgates as the film, while staying true to the origins of the iconic doll, seemed to promise a commentary on its irony. I was certainly looking forward to it.

On that score, the movie does not disappoint. In fact, instead of targeting the younger female demographic, it seems to have been designed for women who grew up playing with Barbie but subsequently fell out of love because the doll embodied standards that the modern woman was increasingly weary of. The content of its satire on patriarchy and capitalism is for an older audience, familiar with the debates and controversies that have surrounded Barbie and haunted Mattel over the years. Barbie — complete with her wardrobe and dreamhouse — is everything you’d want her to be. So is Ken — as much as you’d want him to be (after all, he’s just… you know).

The script, however, in terms of both plot and characters falls hopelessly short. For a high-budget film aiming for an intelligent audience to keep up with its satire, this was a major let-down. From the point Barbie enters the real world, I found myself wondering several times if I would ever watch this movie to the end if I hadn’t paid for it.

Barbie, the movie, is essentially an extravagant — and rather desperate — attempt by Mattel at redeeming itself. In an age where women are increasingly frustrated with the expectation to fit certain moulds and to look, dress, and act a certain way, it is no surprise that a corporation thriving on sales of a doll popular precisely for its consistent ability to look, dress, and act a certain way sees an existential threat to its product and related business.

Over the years, Mattel has taken pains to make the Barbie brand more inclusive and representative. From launching dolls based on diverse careers and cultures, to those based on body types and skin colours — the expansion has been thorough. And the movie is, in a sense, a commentary on the brand’s own journey. Sales, nevertheless, plummet every now and then in the face of more powerful brands and movements, keeping the toy giant on edge. That, one assumes, became the ultimate driver for the all-out production and marketing offensive that we have seen unfold.

But there is something inherently troubling about a corporation jumping to its own defence. It only makes you more sceptical. Mattel’s attempt at positioning itself as a movement, and the fact that — owing to the success of their latest multi-million-dollar venture — people will actually buy into it, sounds an alarm for the consumer culture sceptic. It is not novel for companies to sell their products by building and instilling powerful associations. But Mattel is a company with a record of revolutionising — for better or for worse — both the international toy market and children’s imaginations. And when a company this big pushes for this kind of association, it threatens to roll back at least some of the progress which children — especially little girls — have made in detaching themselves from a doll that in one measure or the other encourages a fixation with appearance. Nothing is worth losing that.

Barbie is, after all, directed against the same backdrop of pink and perfection that it ostensibly mocks. It has brought back the shade of pink that, for too long, was avoided precisely because it was ‘too Barbie’. It has managed to create mass hysteria out of nostalgia for something a lot of women retrospectively realised to have been a counter-productive pursuit. But this movie wants to woo them back. And it wants to woo those from the new generation who — in their ignorance of Mattel’s efforts at inclusion failed to appreciate how long the brand has been struggling to win feminist favour — had decided they were better off without the doll.

The messaging is clear: Barbie is back, and this time she’s all sorted. She takes in all the criticism she’s ever had, turns it into clever satire and shoots it back at you so you can have a hearty laugh. She is also very smartly distinguished as the ‘stereotypical’ Barbie — originally the only kind of Barbie, now she is just one among a score other Barbies including President Barbie, Nobel Prize winner Barbie, curvy Barbie, and Barbie in a wheelchair.

Dramatic monologues like America Fererra’s “It is literally impossible to be a woman” and Rhea Perlman’s “I always knew Barbie would surprise me but never expected this”, give you the impression that this is a movie about celebrating womanhood, an artistic and cinematic contribution to the movement for women reclaiming agency. But that bubble quickly bursts when you see it against the backdrop of a doll manufacturer basically just trying to prove that it celebrates womanhood and is entitled, as such, to the profits it has made in the name of women over the years.

This is Mattel justifying its raison d’etre by suggesting that it is in fact a movement for empowering girls to make their own choices — a movement you can join by buying.

The process of building an edifice around this narrative has already been five years in the making with the creation of Mattel Films in 2018. After Barbie, it is poised to bring us at least 17 more films based on other Mattel toys and brands, while more are on the cards. You can count on each of them to come with some message on the entertainment-empowerment-inspiration spectrum. Ultimately, it is the probability of parents walking their child into a toy store after a movie that will decide whether some of Hollywood’s greatest creative talent will continue on the company’s payroll. Unless the idea is to create brands capable of outliving toys altogether.