I’m a Barbie Girl In a Brutal World

Lessons from the new “Barbie” film

Rachel Wayne

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“Did I break the glass ceiling or does life just suck?” Composite by author, original photos by Arunachal Art and Nicolla Nuttall

Like many millennial women, I grew up with Barbie. That unforgettable shade of pink, the plethora of outfits, the PTSD from trying to comb their hair or put on those tiny plastic heels…Barbie was a crucial part of my childhood, along with Beanie Babies, slap bracelets, and questionably dark cartoons.

I had many Disney Barbies, including Belle and Ariel, but of course, I had the stereotypical blonde Barbie. I’d imagine her on adrenaline-packed adventures: rappelling down a cliff, battling a ninja, diving underwater to fight a shark with a squeaker in its mouth. Ken was there, too, always to support with his mysteriously vague bulge and vacant smile.

So naturally, I was eager to see the new Barbie film. I expected psychedelic colors, zany nostalgia, and plenty of scenery-chewing from the cast, and I was not disappointed. And I was pleasantly surprised to see a nuanced take on toxic masculinity and second-wave feminism as well.

For sure, the movie has important messages about workplace equity, gender-based harassment, and the illusion of empowerment. But that was preaching to the choir for me. I know very well that sexism is not “solved” and that womanhood has zero guarantee of, well, anything.

What struck me about the film was its ontology: that we humans project ourselves onto dolls, and those dolls’ existence can impact ours. Barbies, like every popular toy, weigh on both the collective consciousness and our individual perceptions.

It got me thinking: how much of our existence is mediated by toys?

Barbie as an Icon

The film begins by introducing the dolls’ utopian existence. They are happy, living their “best life every day” — not just by design but also because they’ve solved sexism. They taught girls that they could be anything from astronauts to presidents. Now, they live in a pink paradise, buoyed by this unprecedented accomplishment.

It’s a message that in real life, ran counter to the physical dolls’ design, which featured body proportions that were unrealistic at best. The film doesn’t shy away from this controversy. Barbie must challenge her problematic design and its negative impact…

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Rachel Wayne

Artist/anthropologist/activist writing about art, media, culture, health, science, enterprise, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP