All dolled up: Dissecting buzz around ‘Barbie’ and the titular character’s legacy

The Lantern
Margot Robbie stars in “Barbie.” (Warner Bros. Pictures/TNS)

Critically acclaimed director Greta Gerwig’s upcoming film will unwrap Barbie’s life in plastic, much to the internet’s delight.

“Barbie” premieres in theaters July 21, and its two teaser trailers have amassed 31 million views on YouTube at the time of publication. The movie appears to follow Mattel’s iconic Barbie doll (Margot Robbie) as well as her boyfriend Ken (Ryan Gosling) as they depart from Barbie Land and head for the real world.

Though few details are known about the plot of “Barbie,” prospective moviegoers are nevertheless drawn in by a star-studded cast and their own nostalgia, Bhairavi Gupte, a third-year in film studies, said. Barbie continues to be culturally relevant as both a toy and brand because she symbolizes multiple yet often contradictory ideas surrounding femininity, Orlaith Heymann, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, said in an email.

Gupte, a 2023-24 film student ambassador representing Ohio State’s Film Studies Program, said the official casting announcements for “Barbie” captured significant public attention. Shared via Instagram April 4, they feature cast members’ photos against glittering backdrops; most introduce characters’ occupations, beginning with the phrase, “This Barbie is…”.

Seeing the diverse individuals gearing up to play supporting Barbie and Ken dolls, from Senegalese American actor Issa Rae to Chinese Canadian actor Simu Liu, piqued Gupte’s curiosity about what Gerwig’s “Barbie” looks like, she said. Gupte said the format itself promptly went viral on account of its built-in capacity for personalization and replication.

“It’s really fascinating to see all the marketing behind it,” Gupte said. “They got lucky with how people have enjoyed creating memes out of it. I think everyone’s just been so creative.”

The character posters also allude to Barbie’s history as a career woman, considering she has held around 200 jobs since her creation in 1959, according to Barbie Media . While applaudable, this facet of Barbie simultaneously demonstrates how complex perceptions of femininity can be in male-dominated industries, Heymann said.

Heymann, who previously taught a course titled “Barbie: Sociology of Culture” at the University of Cincinnati, said Barbie’s penchant for pink and ever-smiling face, even when depicted as an astronaut or presidential candidate, have contributed in part to the development of an unthreatening image. At the same time, her ultra-feminine appearance can be construed as an unapologetic rebuke of sexism as a whole, Heymann said.

“Historically, femininity has been devalued socially and economically, and Barbie’s portrayal makes me think about the careful balancing act that many women do to not appear too feminine or unfeminine in work settings,” Heymann said.

Given the fact Barbie and Ken are products above all else, the “Barbie” filmmakers have an opportunity to embrace or reject buyers’ popular characterizations when it comes to screenwriting, Heymann said. Dolls’ on-screen identities may be shaped by a larger social context constructed over the span of decades, she said.

“A good example of this is the way many consumers have interpreted Ken as gay, though it’s doubtful that Mattel intended for people to extract that meaning,” Heymann said. “It will be interesting to see whether the movie plays with sexuality in the Barbie world and in what ways.”

In addition to effective advertising and innate cultural influence, “Barbie” has the power of friendly competition on its side, Gupte said. The highly anticipated “Oppenheimer” — a biopic about theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, frequently called the “Father of the Atomic Bomb” — will also release July 21.

Any online discourse on which film is superior will simply drum up more press for both, Gupte said.

“I know with my friends, we were just talking, and we were like, ‘We have to find our best hot pink clothing items and go see “Barbie,” and then the next day just wear formal stuff and go see “Oppenheimer,’” Gupte said.

Gupte said movies such as “Barbie” have the ability to bring a childlike sense of fun, made scarce by COVID-19, back into movie theaters.

“If you’re not really interested in all of that hype, it is easier to just wait and to just watch it when it comes onto a service that you’re already paying for,” Gupte said. “But for the people who really want to go out and see movies, I think the moviegoing culture — dressing up and buying popcorn and all of that — it’ll also have a resurgence.”

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