Making money for critiquing yourself
(This post includes a very general discussion of the themes of the Barbie movie and references one specific joke, but otherwise avoids spoilers.)
The Barbie movie is a huge success. It’s got an A from audiences on CinemaScore, it’s certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s “Warner Bros.’ biggest movie ever at the American box office”. While other summer tentpoles like Indiana Jones and the Flash lost hundreds of millions of dollars, Barbie banked a billion.
This is all from a movie that the title star, Margot Robbie, thought would never get made. As she told BAFTA:
The first time I read the ‘Barbie’ script, my reaction was, ‘Ah! This is so good. What a shame it will never see the light of day, because they are never going to let us make this movie.’
Having watched and loved the movie, I get why Robbie thought this. Without getting into spoilers, Barbie is not presented in the most flattering light. She’s presented as a complicated symbol who set unrealistic beauty and even life standards for women everywhere. The movie doesn’t exclusively trash Barbie; it’s more complicated than that. But it makes multiple references to Barbie’s original creator committing tax evasion! How did Mattel not grind the script down into a colorless corporate pulp?
So Barbie is a weird beast. It’s a movie that’s made millions — sorry, billions — for critiquing the very thing that it’s selling.
Well, maybe it’s not that weird.
The Amazon Prime show The Boys is about a world with ‘corporatized’ superheroes. They’re flying, indestructible, laser-eyed celebrities who earn massive amounts of money for their parent corporation, Vought.
(Warning: the next two paragraphs contain a brief mention of sexual assault and very mild spoilers for season one of the Boys.)
In one storyline, the up-and-coming superheroine Starlight is sexually assaulted by one of Vought’s biggest superheroes. Despite being pressured by Vought executives to cover-up the assault and continue working with her assailant, Starlight tells the world what happened in a televised speech.
Seeing that the public sides with Starlight, Vought pivots. They throw the assailant into rehab, act like they’ve always supported Starlight, and make a movie called Citizen Starlight celebrating her noble quest for justice. They turn a story of sexual assault, which they tried to suppress… into an inspiring movie off of which they can profit.
For my money, this line of satire is the Boys’ sharpest. It zeroes in on the corporate tendency to co-opt (or at least try to co-opt) any situation into a profitable one. It doesn’t matter how shitty the situation is, or whether the corporate entity created the shitty situation in the first place. The goal is the same.
Obviously, the stakes are wildly different, but there’s a throughline here with Mattel and Barbie. The problems the movie criticizes Barbie for — creating unrealistic physical and life expectations for girls and women around the world — are problems caused by the company directly profiting off Barbie.
I see two ways to view Mattel’s behavior.
Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach wrote a wild, meta script that pays homage to Barbie while critiquing the doll and Mattel itself. And, in response, Mattel initially tried to tone down the criticism down — for example, asking to remove a line calling Barbie “sexist”.
But Gerwig argued her case:
I grew up with a mom who was kind of against Barbie, so that’s how I knew all [the arguments against Barbie]. If you don’t give voice to that, then you’re nowheresville.
Most people, especially coastal-elite liberal tastemakers, have a complicated relationship with Barbie. Maybe they have some childhood fondness for Barbie, but they also can’t help but notice that the doll is pretty much a prescription for body dysmorphia. Seriously, look at this rundown of “if Barbie were a real woman”:
“She would be 5’9” tall, have a 39” bust, an 18” waist, 33” hips and a size 3 shoe! Barbie calls this a ‘full figure’ and likes her weight at 110 lbs.”
“Barbie would have a BMI of 16.24 and fit the weight criteria for anorexia. She likely would not menstruate.”
When your doll’s body ratios qualify as an eating disorder that would prevent one from menstruating, you have not created a healthy role model. Understandably, this makes some people cringe at Barbie, even if they also harbor nostalgia for her. Given these complicated feelings, a rosy “Barbie’s perfect!” movie wouldn’t sell because people wouldn’t buy it.
Still, Mattel doesn’t have the all-seeing ability to know what would make them profit. Like many corporations, they’re risk-averse and slow to change. Gerwig says:
It wasn’t like I ever got the full seal of approval from [Mattel], like, “We love it!” I got a tentative, “Well, OK. I see that you are going to do this, so go ahead and we’ll see how it goes.”
In the end, they begrudgingly accepted Gerwig’s take right down to the “Barbie’s sexist” line. Their calculus: they hoped the buzz about “auteur Greta Gerwig’s incisive look at Barbie” would be worth the risk. Yes, her more critical and feminist take was the less obvious approach, but it would resonate with more people, and — Mattel hoped — therefore make Mattel execs more money. And, boy, did it.
If you’re capitalistically-inclined, you might see this as a beautiful thing: Mattel (reluctantly) recognized its mistakes, gave the people the corrective they wanted, and were rewarded for it. Or, if you’re more cynical, you might see this as ugly: Mattel set fucked up expectations for generations of women, then co-opted and profited from critiques of those fucked-up expectations.
I fall somewhere in-between.
Given that the world has Barbie, I like the movie as a companion piece providing a more complex, subversive take on both the doll and life as a woman. For that, I give a lot of credit to Gerwig. And, reluctantly, to Mattel execs for not censoring her creative vision.
However, since Barbie largely remains the same — despite using the movie’s critique to rake in money — it feels like Mattel wants to have their cake and eat it too. They want to profit off the waves of change without having to change themselves.
At least, that’s how I felt before I read this article about Mattel introducing different Barbie body types. Notably, Mattel introduced a ‘curvy’ Barbie in 2016, whose figure would… qualify as a size 4 in US clothing and be “far slimmer than the average 16-24-year-old woman in the UK”.
So curvy Barbie is healthier than original Barbie, but still not an exemplar of body acceptance.
Kids, being the best among us, greeted curvy Barbie with a song:
“Hello, I’m a fat person, fat, fat, fat,” a 6-year-old girl giving voice for the first time to curvy Barbie sings in a testing room at Mattel’s headquarters. Her playmates erupt in laughter.
You can see the bind Mattel is in. Kids, those little vessels of id, control their success. They need to produce a toy that kids want, but kids quickly absorb modern social norms, such as fatter = worse. Of course, Mattel helped spread that norm, so it’s hard to claim their hands are clean. Still, they did try to create a slightly-healthier doll. In response to this very small step in the right direction… kids ridiculed it.
Mattel shaped what kids like; what kids like shaped Mattel. They can’t change themselves, or their prize doll, without kids rejecting them. Like the girls who looked up to Barbie, Mattel is trapped by the unattainable beauty standards they created.
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