Barbie: the power and the plastic

It’s difficult not to notice the magenta pink re-brand that happened on a worldwide scale this month. The Barbie movie has arrived, and by bringing Barbie into the real world the film plays with the hallmark of the Barbie brand – the idea that girls can do and be anything. By introducing patriarchy, the film explores what happens when young girls realise that in a patriarchal world, the plastic is not so fantastic.

In this way, the film invites viewers to think about gendered oppression and how it impacts on women and girls in some of their diversity. The film features people of colour, people with disabilities, trans people and people of varying body shapes, demonstrating a level of baseline representation. Ultimately, Barbie is an entertaining and fun ride, and we are all welcomed to join.

But what happens after we wash the glitter out of our hair, and think beyond the branding by shifting our minds out of Barbie Land and into the world we all live in? In her world, Barbie is everything: a dentist, a physicist, the president. But in our world, she is also no small player in the global toy industry, with the doll and associated products netting over a billion US per year for Mattel Corporation.

This means that the Barbie brand is highly curated and fiercely protected, which limits the ability for the film to venture into certain political critique. The movie avoids the question of power and doesn’t explore the way that patriarchy intersects with capitalism and white supremacy, leaving us with a fluffy, pink version of diversity that avoids the questions of equity and justice that are so important to people who have been marginalised in the real world. By building in diversity, the Barbie brand defends itself from claims that it perpetuates hegemonic whiteness and promotes unattainable, harmful beauty standards. But in the real world, we cannot relegate the legacy of Barbie's promotion of racist ideals to the past. As journalist Antoinette Lattouf pointed out when she was given a promotional Barbie gift bag with skin whitener at an advanced screening hosted by Event Cinemas, the legacy of Barbie’s historical promotion of a racist ideal is not necessarily in the past.

At one point in the movie, a young woman of colour character calls Barbie an example of ‘sexualised capitalism’ and ‘a fascist’. Barbie cries and responds through tears, “She thinks I’m a fascist?! “I don’t control the railways or the flow of commerce!”. Barbie may not control the flow of commerce, but she is commerce.

Barbie, the doll, is a mass-produced commodity made by human hands. Barbie starts her adventurous life in factories in Indonesia and China where women and girls work excessively long, poorly paid hours to meet unrealistic production targets. Occupational health and safety standards are often bypassed, and companies do little to prevent and address sexual harassment and gendered violence. Despite the almost unthinkable profits that Barbie generates, the women who make it all happen do not reap the huge benefits of Barbie’s success. They endure exploitation, violence and harassment at work and earn nothing but small change for their labour.

While we celebrate the fun and pink joy that the Barbie movie brings us, let’s also take feminist solidarity seriously. Women workers in the global south are spending their lives making the plastic toys that global north children play with, and ultimately throw into landfill when the next trend comes around. If, as Barbie suggests, women can ‘do and be anything’ perhaps first we should be advocates for all women’s rights to earn a decent living in safety and dignity.

First published in edition #123 of The WRAP on 28 July 2023.