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Tina Casey headshot

The 'Barbie' Movie Blows Up the Culture Wars, But Will Barbie Step Up To the Plate?

The Barbie movie could have been just another lighthearted romp through Toyland, starring the best-selling doll in history. Instead, the film challenges extremist politics with a faithful portrayal of the gender-role-bending world of Barbie, plunging the film and toymaker Mattel into the center of today’s culture wars.
By Tina Casey
Barbie movie billboards in Times Square

The Barbie movie takes over Times Square in New York City on July 9. 

With the official seal of approval from the iconic toymaker Mattel, the Barbie movie could have been just another lighthearted romp through Toyland, starring the best-selling doll in history. Instead, the film challenges extremist politics with a faithful portrayal of the gender-role-bending world of Barbie, plunging Mattel into the center of today’s culture wars.

The Two Faces of Barbie

The Barbie doll is often criticized as an idealized, impossible representation of female beauty as seen through male eyes, but the power of transformation has also played an equal role in her story.

When Mattel launched Barbie in 1959, she moved seamlessly from the life of a risqué German novelty doll to a new life with a respectable job as a successful American fashion model. She has been on a dizzying whirlwind ever since.

Mattel points out that Barbie has more than 200 distinct careers under her belt, including many that have broken gender norms in the real world. “She first broke the 'plastic ceiling' in the 1960s when, as an astronaut, she went to the moon…four years before Neil Armstrong,” Mattel observes.

Barbie also began running for president in 1992, carrying on a long legacy of female candidates for the White House that began with the 19th century women’s suffrage activist Victoria Woodhull.

What about Ken?

In contrast, Ken has little to show for his more than 60 years of existence. When introduced in 1961, Ken was apparently meant to fill a hole in Barbie’s life. However, as amply illustrated by the Barbie movie, Ken was never equipped to match Barbie as she romped from one career to another, acquiring cars and houses along the way. The two never started a family, either.

While this comparably lesser role may seem unfair to Ken, the decision to keep the focus on a single, childfree Barbie was a bottom-line strategy that continued to pay off for Mattel through decades of women’s progress in the workplace.

“Barbie recognizes girl-relevant careers in which women are traditionally underrepresented to show girls that they can be anything,” Mattel explains. “Barbie’s career line reinforces the brand’s purpose to inspire the limitless potential in every girl.”

Barbie Movie toy
Mattel released a new series of toys inspired by the hit Barbie movie. (Image courtesy of Mattel) 

Yet another culture clash

Over recent years, it seems right-wing pundits and politicians pounced on every opportunity to amplify cultural outrage on matters concerning race, gender and sex, with Bud Light and Target being the most recent examples of their ire.

In that context, the right-wing reaction to the Barbie movie was as predictable as it was over the top. Much of the outrage focused on the treatment of Ken, with one pundit complaining that the Barbie movie is “possibly the most anti-male film ever made."

That is understandable. Rather than creating a Ken character that is more interesting than his role in the Mattel pantheon, the Barbie movie made the most of Ken as a sidebar, just as he is at Mattel, forever hovering in the glorious world of Barbie but never anchored by a career of his own.

That is an actual fact in the real-life world of the Barbie toy family, and the Barbie movie played it to the hilt with the gleeful participation of its marketing team. The now-famous tagline is spread far and wide: “She’s everything. He’s just Ken.

All that progress comes to a screeching halt

Ginned-up outrage made a dent in sales of Bud Light, but so far the calls for a boycott of the Barbie movie have proved, for lack of a better word, impotent. The movie opened with the highest-grossing debut weekend of 2023, and it shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, ticket sales are over-performing in the conservative strongholds of southern U.S. states, despite the manufactured outrage.  

The real question for Mattel is not how to defend the Barbie movie against ineffectual right-wing attacks. The question is: Can Mattel step up and defend its vision of women's “limitless potential” against the torrent of anti-woman judicial decisions and legislative actions pouring forth from statehouses across the nation, including restrictions on abortion as well as legislation directed against transgender and other gender non-conforming persons?

After all, Mattel appears to have envisioned the movie as a means of bringing Barbie up to date. If that's the case, they got what they wished for — and more.

“Well, from the beginning, we were set out to create a cultural event," explained Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street” program last week. "This is more than making a movie. Barbie is a pop culture icon that is both timeless and timely. And we always believe that this will be something very special, not conventional that will create a real societal event."

Barbie Movie President Barbie toy
The toy version of "President Barbie," portrayed by actress Issa Rae in the film. (Image courtesy of Mattel) 

Bridging the dream gap

The anti-woman movement clashes directly with Mattel’s recent efforts to put some real muscle behind its “limitless potential” mantra. The toymaker funds research into the conditions under which young girls lose confidence as leaders, and that research led to the establishment of the Barbie Dream Gap Project in 2018. The initiative supported Mattel’s elaborate leveraging of International Women’s Day in 2022 to focus on women’s leadership around the globe.

This year, Mattel focused its Women’s Day activities on highlighting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. “Barbie knows that seeing is believing — and access to successful female role models in STEM is essential for children to build and maintain an interest in the industry,” Mattel explained.

If Mattel really is serious about closing the dream gap, advocating for female leadership is just a first step. Right now, what girls in the U.S. are seeing and believing is a dystopian future in which their opportunities are thwarted by relentlessly unforgiving laws that leave them unable to control crucial decisions on reproductive health and gender-appropriate medical care.

In the runup to the all-important 2024 presidential election cycle, Mattel has a golden opportunity to prove it is serious about bridging the dream gap. Providing financial support to candidates who support equal rights is one place to start. However, in consideration of Barbie’s high brand awareness, leveraging Barbie herself could prove much more effective.

Given Barbie’s focus on fulfillment through work, Mattel could help advocate for the Time to Vote campaign, which encourages employers to provide paid time off for voting. The campaign currently counts more than 2,000 participating businesses, and Mattel is not on the list — yet.

Mattel could also launch another Candidate Barbie to support voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote campaigns, appealing to girls and adult toy buyers as well. Girls are too young to vote, but they are not too young to influence the adults in their lives, and women voters have already begun pushing back against repressive abortion laws.

Barbie’s all-American image is also well positioned to help push back against the voter fraud canard and other election-related misinformation promoted by former President Donald Trump and his allies.

Mattel has already established a track record on diversity and inclusion as Barbie conquers one career after another. It remains to be seen whether or not an Equal Rights Activist Barbie will step up to the plate, but here’s hoping.

Featured image: Brecht Bug/Flickr

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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