FOR THE WEEK OF JULY 24, 2023
Cultural touchstone: Barbie, now a big-budget movie, has long been much more than just a doll
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The world's favorite doll is here, there and everywhere this summer – as you've surely seen. The blockbuster "Barbie" movie that opened last Friday is accompanied by new pink outfits at Gap and Forever 21, plus lots of other merch tie-ins. Even pink pet garments and pink sauce at Burger King are part of the splash. "Barbie is a cultural conversation at this point," says Richard Dickson, chief operating officer of Mattel, which in 1959 introduced the iconic "teenage fashion doll" that revolutionized the toy business. It – OK, she -- went on to become a marketing powerhouse, a gift that made adults keep spending on doll-size dresses, shoes, mini-Corvettes, a Dreamhouse, multiple Barbies, pals and boyfriend Ken, who arrived in 1961.
Through the decades, Barbie moved out of playrooms and into public discussions about sexism, female role models, consumerism, beauty standards, pop culture and more. Barbie was a celebrity influencer before social media. She inspired a 1997 dance-pop hit, "Barbie Girl," with these lyrics: "I'm a Barbie girl, in the Barbie world / Life in plastic, it's fantastic." On the negative side, Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary wrote last week that "I hate pink because of Barbie," which her family couldn't afford. "The doll and all her accessories made me feel left out as a little girl." In addition, she noted: "We can't all be blonde with exaggerated body measurements."
For something just 11½ inches tall, Barbie has a large impact. The toy's origins lie with Ruth Handler, a founder of Mattel who wanted her daughter, Barbara, and friends to have more than paper dolls to play with and dress up. Mattel has tried to make Barbie more culturally relevant, adding the first Black Barbie in 1980 and then giving her careers that have included nurse, ballerina, Army medic, astronaut, paleontologist, dentist, florist, robotics engineer, yoga teacher and U.S. president. For a doll who turns 65 next year, Barbie shows no signs of slowing down or retiring. The hot new film starring Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken adds vitality to the legendary plaything.
Mattel says: "When a girl plays with Barbie she imagines everything she can become." – 2015 ad from the toymaker
Columnist says: "How many people grew up to become shopaholics because they are desperately trying to fill a void left by their Barbie-less childhood?" – Michelle Singletary, The Washington Post
Film reviewer says: "Barbie has been a culture-war hot spot for about as long as it's been on the shelves because the doll perfectly encapsulates changing ideas about girls and women." – Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
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