The 2023 live-action Barbie movie directed by feminist indie filmmaker Greta Gerwig and starring modern bombshell Margot Robbie may have been surprising at first, but actually feels like a natural progression. As the Barbie doll has morphed over the years, she’s actually been a powerful mirror for the changing roles of women in the late 20th and 21st centuries. Today she can appear like an easy target for criticism, but in fact, Barbie’s legacy is far richer and more complex as a figure who’s worked hard to bring feminist conversations into the mainstream.
Who is the real Barbie, and who is she for?
As the Barbie doll has morphed over the years, she’s actually been a powerful mirror for the changing roles of women in the late 20th and 21st centuries. Today, a lot of conversations focus on how she’s an impossibly proportioned, white, blonde-haired, able-bodied archetype, and she can appear like an easy target for criticism.
Lisa: “I’ve waited my whole life to hear you speak, don’t you have anything relevant to say?”
Doll: “Don’t ask me; I’m just a girl”
- The Simpsons, 5x14
But, in fact, Barbie’s legacy is far richer and more complex – as a figure who’s worked hard to bring feminist conversations into the mainstream.
People may have been surprised when it was announced that the 2023 live-action Barbie movie was going to be directed by feminist, indie filmmaker Greta Gerwig, who has a talent for exploring young women’s inner lives. But this feels like a natural progression, just as Margot Robbie is fitting casting for the title role, as an actress who’s known for both her bombshell appearance and her tendency to complicate that with interesting roles and clever behind-the-scenes decisions.
Margot Robbie: “What’s been the most rewarding project thus far? -
Interviewer: “I, Tonya”
Interviewer: “‘Cause I got to be involved in all aspects of making that film.”
Here’s our take on how Barbie has managed to remain relevant and iconic for so long, and the essence of this character that’s persisted across her series of changing models.
Barbie’s Changing Roles
“There were basically five jobs for women. Lo and behold, Mattel Incorporated started putting ads in the paper that they needed designers for the barbie doll.” - Carol Spencer, Insider
Barbie’s launch in 1959 was a moment of change. Prior to that, girls were encouraged to play primarily with baby dolls as a way to encourage nurturing skills and maternal instinct. But Barbie’s creator Ruth Handler noticed that her daughter Barbara was more interested in mimicking teenage or adult conversations. So from the start, Barbie pushed against an expected model of womanhood by encouraging young girls not simply to dream of motherhood, but instead, to dream of growing up.
“There’s a whole world out there that you can find if you look for it.” - Spencer, Insider
It’s somewhat ironic that Barbie has become associated with a more regressive idea of womanhood because Ruth Handler herself vocally opposed the idea that women should only be thought of as mothers and homemakers.
“I loved being a mother, but I was fit to be tied with staying home. I hated that.” - Ruth Handler, Tiny Shoulders
Helping girls pretend to grow up also soon meant imagining a range of possibilities for what that adulthood might look like. Mattel argues that Barbie was often ahead of the curve when it came to modeling what women could do in the world. As the Barbie website points out, Barbie has “more than 200 careers on her resume”; she “first broke the ‘plastic ceiling’ in the 1960s when she went to the moon…four years before Neil Armstrong,” she was a surgeon in the 70s when few women had broken into the field, a “Day to Night” CEO Barbie in the 80s, and “in the 1990s, she ran for President, before any female candidate ever made it onto the presidential ballot.”
Even as she gained a boyfriend, in the shape of the Ken doll who was introduced in 1961, she has never played second fiddle; it’s always been Ken on the sidelines cheering Barbie on. This role reversal manifested in Toy Story 3, where Ken is cast more like the homemaker and extreme fashion obsessive –
“Come with me, live in my dream house, I know we just met, ah heck, you don’t know me from GI Joe.” - Ken, Toy Story 3
– while Barbie proves intelligent and cunning. While he’s serving the villainous gang, she’s a pivotal agent for the good guys – manipulating Ken into revealing key information and plotting to help her friends.
It’s fair that criticism of Barbie over the years has focused on the unattainable body standard she sets for girls to aspire to.
“If Jensen had Barbie’s proportions this is what she’d look like. She’d have shorter arms, a longer neck, and tiny feet. She’d have trouble balancing and would be forced to walk on all fours.” - Benji Jones, Insider
But she has always evolved as the Overton window has shifted, most recently being relaunched in a range of sizes and ethnicities.
“The 2016 Barbie fashionista line now includes 4 body types, 7 skin tones…” - Tanya Rivero, Wall Street Journal
Arguably, Barbie’s biggest flaw is that her evolution has been too small, slow, or reactive at times, instead of the figure moving the dial herself. This is played with in the Simpsons episode, “Lisa vs Malibu Stacey,” where the corporate response to Lisa developing a new, feminist doll is to make a superficial change to Malibu Stacey that doesn’t really address any of the deeper issues with the character.
Lisa: “She’s just a regular Malibu Stacey with a stupid cheap hat! She still embodies all the awful stereotypes she did before!” - The Simpsons, 5x14
So how do we square this history of Barbie with what a Greta Gerwig-directed Barbie movie might be? Amy Schumer was previously attached to the project, and at that time, the plot was reported to center around Barbie being kicked out of Barbie-land for not meeting up to their standards of perfection. Very little specific information about Greta’s Barbie story has been revealed. However, the film’s star and producer, Margot Robbie, has suggested that it will challenge expectations, saying, “People generally hear ‘Barbie’ and think, ‘I know what that movie is going to be,’ and then they hear that Greta Gerwig is writing and directing it, and they’re like, ‘Oh, well, maybe I don’t…’” (Vogue).
And one piece of information that is rumored about this version, that Will Ferrell is playing a CEO of a toy company that “may or may not be Mattel”, could suggest a more self-aware take on the character – perhaps similar to the approach of The Lego Movie, which Ferrell also starred in (Hollywood Reporter).
Barbie has appeared on the big screen already - there have been dozens of Barbie animated movies since 2001 - but given the people involved with this film and the current zeitgeist, it’s likely this iteration will be more interested in unpacking and examining the whole Barbie myth.
Is Margot the Perfect Barbie?
If people underestimate the political bite Barbie has always had, then Margot Robbie seems the perfect choice to play her. In her breakout role as Naomi in The Wolf Of Wall Street, she’s a blonde bombshell, set up as an uber-sexy pin-up.
“Mommy is just so sick and tired of wearing panties.” Naomi, The Wolf of Wall Street
But since then, Robbie’s roles have often played with, investigated, or dismantled this image. In The Big Short, Robbie leans into this idea of her as a sex symbol, using it to get people to listen to otherwise dull, financial information.
“So now he’s going to short the bonds, which means to bet against. Got it? Good. ” - Robbie, The Big Short
And as Kayla Pospisil in Bombshell, she explores the sexism and abuse that can come from being an attractive woman in a male-dominated space. This thread of self-awareness underpinning her choices might give us an idea of what to expect from her Barbie. Robbie hasn’t avoided parts that incorporate her looks; the roles she’s taken often subtly acknowledge that we were introduced to her as an object of desire, but they also reframe what that means – making us see her as a person, who’s also a lot more than just something to look at.
With Tonya Harding, Harley Quinn, and Queen Elizabeth I, Robbie has also veered into character actor territory, taking roles that deliberately confound our expectations, where she might be unlikable, unglamorous, or off-putting. And in addition to always bringing a witty, self-possessed air to her public persona –
Chris Connelly: “Your characters want to be good at their jobs.”
Robbie: “That’s probably coming a lot from me.”
- Good Morning America
– Robbie has excelled as a producer. And her production company LuckyChap has focused on powerful, female-led stories like I, Tonya and Promising Young Women – as well as the in-development adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and remake of Tank Girl.
Her star power is bound up in her malleability – yet despite her acting range and her success as a producer, she’s still thought of predominantly as a blonde bombshell. In that sense, Robbie has a natural kinship with the Barbie character; both tend to be viewed through a very specific, often limiting lens, despite having always contained a depth and a richness that can easily go underappreciated.
Who is Greta’s Barbie?
“In movies about teenage girls or young women, so many of them are women waiting to be looked at.” - Greta Gerwig, TimesTalks
So what will a Gerwig-esque Barbie hero look like?
Greta’s female protagonists have always been independent, strong-willed, or gone against the grain of what’s expected of them. The protagonists in Hannah Takes The Stairs and Frances Ha, both co-written by Gerwig, are questioning the adult world they’re supposed to enter. In Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, the titular, brash, independent heroine on the cusp of adulthood is determined to make her own choices, even if that might upset people.
“I wanna go to where culture is like New York, or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire where writers live in the woods.” - Lady Bird, Lady Bird
In Little Women, Jo March is adventurous, creative, and laments that she wasn’t born a man in a society where women’s choices are limited.
“I can’t get over my disappointment in being a girl.” - Jo March, Little Women
In much the same way that Ruth Handler bristled against the trappings of domesticity, independent Jo fears what settling down with a husband would do to her.
It may be too strong to call Barbie a feminist icon or a trailblazer. And many love Barbie precisely because she is perfectly beautiful, cheerful, unthreatening, and a fairly shallow blank slate we can project our own hopes and dreams onto. But she is raw material who – thanks to sticking around so long – has been able to reflect many of the ups, downs, and changes in the ongoing story of growing up female.
What’s maybe most exciting about the Barbie film is that it’s a high-profile, big-budget, summer blockbuster movie that’s being helmed by a top-notch female director who’s had time and support to grow into herself and find her voice. Gerwig has already proved what an exciting modern-day auteur she is, and Barbie has always reflected changing feminist politics – so it’s fitting that now she’s reflecting a new era for female filmmakers.
“Careers.” Barbie Media. 2022, barbiemedia.com/.
Dockterman, Eliana. “Barbie’s Got a New Body.” Time, 2016, time.com/barbie-new-body-cover-story/.
Kim, Gene, and Benji Jones. “We Compared Our Bodies to Barbie. Here’s What the Doll Would Look like in Real Life.” Insider, 2 Jan. 2021, www.businessinsider.com/barbie-ken-dolls-would-look-like-real-life-unrealistic-body-2019-6?r=US&IR=T.
Kit, Borys. “Will Ferrell Joins Margot Robbie in Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie.’” The Hollywood Reporter, 11 Apr. 2022, www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/will-ferrell-barbie-margot-robbie-greta-gerwig-1235128254/.
Wiseman, Eva. “‘If I Want Something, I Have to Make It Happen’: Margot Robbie Refuses to Be Put in a Box.” Vogue, Aug. 2021, www.vogue.co.uk/news/article/margot-robbie-vogue-interview.