Ivy Allie

Barbie, we're just getting started

Why I haven't watched the Barbie movie

Posted 17 Dec 2023

Author’s note: I wrote the following essay in Summer 2023, when the popularity of the Barbie film was at a fever pitch. I didn’t publish it at the time, partly because I feared backlash from the film’s fans. Now that some time has passed, it’s no longer clear whether the film will have the cultural sticking power that many people seemed to think that it might, but I believe the main points that I made here remain salient and worth recording.

Barbie appears to me to be one of the most cynically calculated works of art ever created. Judging solely from the discourse surrounding it, (sanctioned and otherwise) it appears to have been intentionally engineered to have wide appeal and head off potential criticism in service of rehabilitating a tainted brand for the long term and making a tidy profit for Mattel in the short term. Naturally, this is not the first attempt to use Hollywood to further such goals, but what frightens me about Barbie is how successful it has been.

Barbie, the brand, has long been the subject of harsh criticism from feminists, who have accused it of causing body image issues, glorifying consumerism, providing poor role models, and so on. I’m not here to argue any of these points, but neither am I here to argue against any of them. Barbie is, as it always has been and always will be, foremost a consumer product, a hunk of plastic that exists as a commodity to be bought. Mattel doesn’t care if feminists think Barbie is a bad role model unless those criticisms lead to a decline in Barbie’s sales. And, to be clear, Barbie’s sales have been declining. As of 2016, sales of the brand were at an “all-time low” and, as the press interpreted it, Mattel was having a hard time keeping it “relevant.” Whether this was due to feminist criticism or to unrelated market forces is hard to say, although I would venture to guess it was a mix of both.

Mattel clearly thought so too: the Barbie movie, as a rehabilitation tactic, took aim both at the feminist criticisms and the cultural irrelevancy.

It’s been obvious from the start that Mattel has wanted this to be seen as a feminist movie. Attaching Greta Gerwig to the project is a clear enough sign of that. And much of the discourse around this film since its release has been related to feminism, and whether or not it’s successful at making some sort of feminist statement.

I argue that it is impossible for this kind of film to be unequivocally feminist, especially not in the contemporary intersectional sense. Regardless of what statement Gerwig et al. are trying to make here, you cannot make a philosophically consistent argument for feminism in a product that also functions as a commercial for an international toy conglomerate.

This is because Mattel is not, and can never be, a bastion of feminism. It is a legacy corporation, one worth billions of dollars, and is built on a foundation of greed and suffering. It’s been known for years that Barbies, and most other Mattel products, are produced for low wages under hazardous conditions in factories throughout the global South. Many of the workers in these factories are women, and Mattel has consistently denied or ignored reports that find them to be hotbeds of sexual harassment. Additionally, Mattel, being first and foremost a purveyor of plastic gewgaws, is unavoidably a contributor to the plastic waste that is befouling our planet and—go figure—having an outsized effect on women in poor countries. To support feminism, Mattel would have to become something other than Mattel. The old disclaimer still applies: the views and opinions of the filmmakers do not reflect those of the company.

Of course, the film does not let Mattel off the hook entirely. In fact it addresses Mattel very explicitly, depicting its CEO as a buffoon in what is clearly meant as a light criticism of the corporation’s dubious intentions. But this also serves to obscure the fact that the CEO of Mattel is a real guy, one whose intentions with Barbie are every bit as questionable as those of anyone who came before him. His name is Ynon Kreiz, and he has not been at all subtle about what the Barbie movie was supposed to do: “This was not about making a movie. This was about creating a cultural event that will reach, engage, and touch consumers all over the world.” Note the telling use of the word consumers there. This was not about “reaching, engaging, and touching” people more generally, it was about talking to the people who are likely to buy things, and telling them that what they ought to be buying is Barbie.

Regarding his depiction in the film, Kreiz said simply that Mattel “embrace[s] self-deprecation.” Naturally: recent years have proven quite definitively that corporations like Mattel can have their cake and eat it too. They’ve learned that people no longer appreciate corporations that comport themselves like stuffy authority figures, we prefer corporations that act like our pals. That means PR offices making snarky comments on Twitter, it means CEOs who dress like teenagers, it means rainbow-colored pablum every June. And in 2023, corporations realized that they can take direct potshots at themselves and reap rewards for doing so, as Netflix has done in a recent Black Mirror episode. It is now a viable marketing strategy to stand up and say “hey, we suck, don’t we?” and get an appreciative laugh from the audience. If self-deprecation is more likable than maintaining an air of superiority, of course they’re going to do it.

So if the problem is that Barbie is no longer culturally relevant, what tactic did the movie take to make it culturally relevant again? Essentially, they tied it to a larger cultural phenomenon: camp. Camp has been with us for a long time (Susan Sontag’s seminal essay on the topic was published in 1964), but the increased popularity of the phenomenon has recently run the gamut from high to low culture, from TV drag competitions to the hallowed halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, camp becoming more culturally relevant at the same time that Barbie’s popularity was on the wane. The pairing of Barbie with deliberate camp was a natural one: Barbie has always been campy, with its bright pink trappings and its emphasis on fashion. It’s hard to imagine any other current cultural trend that would have been a more convenient vehicle for Barbie’s return to relevancy.

However, I would argue that Barbie is not doing camp so much as it’s appropriating it. Camp has always been inextricably linked to gay culture, to the extent that it’s almost impossible to discuss one without discussing the other. Granted, no group can claim exclusive ownership over an aesthetic, but is this not a form of cultural appropriation? Greta Gerwig isn’t gay. Margot Robbie isn’t gay. Ynon Kreiz isn’t gay. Mattel sure as hell isn’t gay. I won’t claim that no queer people worked on this film (which would be absurd), but the major stakeholders and decision-makers involved were not. This is a film made by straight people that was designed to capitalize on a trend created by queer people.

And did it ever work: a veritable waterfall of bright pink money for its creators, very little of which is going to find its way back into the pockets of the queer people who pioneered the style. Regardless of how Mattel wants to position itself in terms of its relationship to queer people (and to be fair, it has a somewhat better track record than many large corporations), it’s important to remember that it does not exist to be anybody’s friend. They make “gay stuff” if they think people are interested in buying gay stuff.

The integration of camp is just one aspect of the film’s larger strategy toward being universally appealing, however. The first thing that I found alarming about Barbie, before I thought about any of this, was the way that it seemed deliberately (and very effectively) engineered to have the broadest appeal possible. This is a strategy that film studios seem to be getting increasingly adept at, and I find their success deeply unsettling. It’s akin to other forms of social engineering like the casino or the con man, systems which exploit quirks of human psychology as a hacker exploits a software bug.

This “universal appeal” is attained by building up the film in such a way as to appeal to broadly different demographics whose interests wouldn’t normally overlap much. We’ve got the camp aspect to bring in the queer people and aesthetes. We’ve got Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach to bring in the cinephiles, who normally wouldn’t show up for this kind of corporate production. This also loops back and ushers the film into “critical darling” territory, which is useful for drawing in the more casual moviegoers for whom Rotten Tomatoes is the final word. We’ve got the trappings of feminism to draw in the NPR-liberal demographic (which conveniently also sells tickets to the Ben Shapiros of the world, who will watch anything if they think they can make culture-war fodder from it). Including Margot Robbie brings in her substantial fanbase, a significant percentage of which are also the highly lucrative superhero fans. Then there’s the nostalgia aspect for the many, many people for whom Barbie is associated with fond childhood memories. If you get enough momentum behind the marketing (and Mattel spent $150 million marketing this baby), you can even start getting straight men into the seats, whether they come out of curiosity or because a female partner dragged them into it.

Finally, you also get children. With a rating of PG-13, the movie isn’t meant for them on paper, but obviously a lot of them are going to see it anyway, and you can bet that Mattel is well aware of this. The Jurassic World films are rated PG-13 as well, and Mattel makes tie-in toys for those. Much ink has been spilled to the effect that Barbie is a film meant for adults, but it’s not meant for adults, not exactly. Barbie is a film meant to be fun for the whole family, as the old cliche goes. But where this usually means “fun primarily for children, and more or less tolerated by adults,” here it’s the opposite. Mattel knows kids will see this movie. They expect and want kids to see it. And they’re hoping that said kids will like it at least enough to beg for more pink plastic crap come Christmas (and presumably grow up to be the next generation of Barbie-loving adults). Regardless of what else it has become, and what so many people want to believe, Barbie is still a toy commercial, and always has been.

Target's Christmas 2023 toy catalog displays Barbie film merchandise alongside its "standard" Barbies.

And even as the film sells toys to kids, as per tradition, Barbie is also the harbinger of Mattel’s pivot from being a purveyor of childhood playthings to being a company that profits off of its intellectual property. This is the company’s stated goal, according to recently-hired executive Josh Silverman, formerly of Disney. Barbie is merely the beginning of a slew of branded media franchises that they plan to unleash on the public. Films based on Hot Wheels and Monopoly sound idiotic now, but Barbie would have sounded just as silly before it became a phenomenon. I see no reason to think that they won’t be able to find equally compelling justifications for these films. Hot Wheels is already “revving its engine,” so to speak, with producer J.J. Abrams (an experienced reinvigorator of tired properties) saying that the film will be “emotional and grounded and gritty.” Of course. It’ll have a script that’s just good enough for it to be better than people expect it to be, it’ll have some star with a cult following, it’ll have a slightly surprising hook, and a message just to the left of centrism. These people know exactly what they’re doing, and so far they’ve done it very well.

Before Barbie was released, when it wasn’t yet clear whether we had a bona fide cultural phenomenon on our hands, I predicted that it would be one of the most significant works of art in recent memory. I felt insane as I said it, but the film’s reception has not led me to think otherwise. The Barbie phenomenon is deeply disturbing to me, perhaps the most thorough and effective fusion of commercialism and culture that I’ve ever seen. All big-name films sell merchandise, of course, but it’s rare to see something that is so transparently an advertisement be wholeheartedly embraced by people as a cultural treasure in its own right.

I have no doubt that some of Barbie’s fans, reading what I have written here, will want to rush to the film’s defense, and charge that the film is more than an advertisement, that it’s just a good and fun movie. Maybe so. But if anything, that makes it worse. Barbie has shown that you can wrap a commercial in a veneer of cultural legitimacy, and that you can make unfathomable amounts of money doing so. The same formula that saw Saturday morning cartoons reduced to toy commercials in the 80s has come for cinema, but now it’s been optimized for grownups—including the kind of grownups who think they’re beyond this kind of pandering. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a Trojan horse. A spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. They’ve found a way to make us pay to watch commercials and go home swearing that we enjoyed it. If that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what would.