• Deconstructing Barbie (2023): unmasking the illusion of feminism & its corporate agenda - squïd studios

Sorry to burst your bubblegum-pink bubble but the 2023 Barbie movie was not the feminist revolutionary film so many people on the internet are making it out to be. While obviously the connection each individual made with the movie and what they took away from it might differ from person to person, there are some aspects - especially when examining movies that criticise social injustices - that can be observed from a more analytical standpoint.

For decades, Barbie, the beloved (and also hated) creation of MATTEL, has undoubtedly served as an iconic figure in the world of toys, undergoing various transformations over the years that attempted to align her image and look with feminist ideals and changing cultural norms. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie really does an amazing job at capturing the real-life fantasy that is Barbieland, and for a few moments, one is tempted to just be mesmerised by the playful perfection that is the carefree everyday life of all the different variations of Barbie and Ken that were ever produced. Led by an obviously stunning Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, the cast is also stellar and features funny and endearing performances from Michael Cera, Kate McKinnon, and America Ferrera, among others [1].

However, peeling back some of the glittery layers and attempting a deeper analysis reveals a complex interplay between superficial feminism, corporate agendas, and the commodification of empowerment that makes it feel less like a revolutionary piece of media

and more like a cheap ploy for MATTEL to start its own extended cinematic universe [2]. In this blog, I delve into the layers of contradictions surrounding Barbie's portrayal, the co-opting of feminist movements for profit, and the fundamental tension between genuine empowerment and capitalist motives.

MATTEL's image management: Barbie’s history

Long before Greta Gerwig’s attempt at modernising Barbie (in what ultimately feels like a big, fun, high-quality MATTEL commercial), MATTEL's drive to protect the corporation's brand image was epitomised by their reaction to Aqua's provocative and immensely successful 1997 song "Barbie Girl". Initially, the company viewed the song’s crude lyrics and presentation as offensive and damaging and famously tried to sue the band’s label over trademark violations [3] and sexualization of the doll). After that strategy proved to be unsuccessful, the company changed course and instead sought to reclaim control of the situation by reimagining the song's lyrics, with passages like “I’m a blonde bimbo girl” getting changed to “I’m a girl in my world” in a 2009 ad campaign [4]. The aim was to shed the song's critical undertones and present Barbie as a non-controversial, empowered, and marketable figure.

This evolution of "Barbie Girl" and the doll herself has gradually diluted the song's original social commentary: the transformation of Barbie from a (nearly identical) copy of the German Lilli Doll - a doll with exaggerated body proportions, originating from a sexy newspaper comic character [5] - to a feminist embodiment of various careers (while mainly still adhering to the same unrealistic body image).
MATTEL thus managed to shift the main focus of the discourse away from a rightful critique of the harmful and gendered beauty standards the dolls imprint on the little girls that play with them, to promoting aspiration and a “Barbie can be everything she wants to be” liberal feminism, that values representation and individual status over addressing the systemic misogyny and unhealthy body image at the doll’s core.

While Gerwig’s adaptation and MATTEL's general marketing strategy align itself with contemporary feminist ideals, it inadvertently diminishes the song's initial critique of a sexualized doll whose proportions - like the Lilli Doll’s - were not just anatomically impossible to achieve but also designed to mainly appeal to men.

Consumerism or Feminism - which one is it?

When the first Barbie entered the market in 1959 as a fashion model, she was blonde, blue-eyed, with wildly unrealistic body proportions [6]. However, over the years, Barbie has evolved to reflect changing societal values. In the 1960s, Barbie was given a variety of careers, including doctor, astronaut, and firefighter (famously travelling to space nearly ten years before women in America were allowed to have credit cards without their husband's permission in 1974). While this fact is obviously jarring when thinking about women's rights, it also leaves out the fact that real women had gone to space before the release of the Miss Astronaut Doll [7].

This could be seen as a progressive move, as it shows girls could aspire to have any career they wanted. It also could be seen as a smart business model that centres around creating the customer’s need to keep buying dolls, outfits, accessories and additional gadgets, one new career Barbie after the other.

With the first African-American & Latina Barbie being released in 1980 it would still take more than four decades of receiving backlash over Barbie’s body type, until after two years of declining sales in 2016 MATTEL created a more “diverse” range of body types and skin colours in an effort to revamp the customers interest. While the company hailed this as progress, diverse body types effectively meant there would now be a petite Barbie (52.8cm/72cm), a tall Barbie (56.4cm waist/78cm hips), and a “curvy” Barbie (63cm waist/91cm hips), measurements still wildly unattainable for the majority of people [8].

While this was seen as a further step towards progress, in a news article by BBC at the time of the new doll’s release MATTEL also tried to discredit and deflect criticisms of the image the doll was portraying by claiming that as a toy, Barbie “is not meant to reflect a real woman's body.” This cheap attempt at evading the controversy was of course rightfully called out by critics such as Sussex University psychologist Helga Dittmar, who called the company out for “side-stepping the issue” and rightfully pointing out, that “if there is evidence that the doll does harm, if intended or not, then that is extremely worrisome." [9]

Indeed, studies have shown that playing with Barbie dolls can not only lead to thin-ideal internalisation and body dissatisfaction in girls as young as five years old, but, contrary to MATTEL's brand image of helping girls aspire to any career in the world, a study published in the journal Sex Roles showed that even when playing with Doctor Barbie instead of the standard one “girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head thought they could achieve more careers than girls who played with Barbie.” [11]

MATTEL’s prowess in terms of consumerism is also evident in the new Barbie movie’s marketing. As part of the movie’s near record-breaking marketing budget of $150 million, the
company introduced dolls in Robbie’s, Simu Liu’s, and America Ferrera’s Likeness (and of course, you need to buy a new Barbie to get all the outfits…) with Robbie’s Barbie immediately reaching the number one spot on Amazon the day of its release [12], the Barbie Movie could not be a bigger commercial and marketing success for MATTEL than it already is [13]. After revenue had dropped in 2022, the company’s stock prices soared by 21% this year in anticipation of the movie [14]. With over 15 brand deals and more than 30 collaborations with companies ranging from AirBnb to Ulta Beauty and Tangle Teezer - drinks, hair styling products, shoes, makeup, clothing, toothbrushes, underwear, jewellery, and even roller skates [15] - everybody wants a piece of this year's billion-dollar pink money cake [16].

When renowned director Greta Gerwig joined MATTEL’s Barbie movie project - coming from critically acclaimed woman-focused and empowering movies “Lady Bird” and “Little Women” - expectations for a contemporary and critical take on the character immediately arose. Yet, Gerwig's film falls short of changing or at the very least challenging MATTEL’s lacklustre engagement with the problematic origins of its most successful doll, resolving to cheap gags and superficial criticisms of patriarchal society instead.

While the movie at its height features a rousing and empowering speech about the difficulties and challenges of being a modern, independent woman by America Ferrera’s character Gloria (which ultimately proves to be the key to stopping the Ken’s Patriarchy), even that part does not really provide any profound or new insights on the real-world oppression and extremely harmful stereotyping of women, that MATTEL has happily engaged with, reproduced and profited from for decades.

Even if on social media it was hailed for being some people's new bible [17], thousands claiming online they were sobbing/crying [18], when watching and posters of it are already bestsellers on Etsy, for many people these words were rather moderate takes and simple lines. One of the reasons for the movie falling short in this aspect for myself, was the fact that both Gerwig, Robbie & the cast had talked about the script and movie being profound, emotional and feminist, with Simu Liu’s agent even describing it as “one of the best scripts he [had] ever read [19]”. For me personally, these high expectations were definitely not met by pointing to and dramatically recounting some of the difficulties women face today and implying they want a medal and a thank you for pushing through.

After watching and reading interviews from cast, crew and MATTEL executives themselves, one is left with the impression that the movie is trying to have its cake and eat it too, calling not just its central message, but also its integrity and sincerity into question: While MATTEL executives have called BARBIE (2023) “not a feminist movie” [20], moviegoers, executive producer Margot Robbie, director Greta Gerwig and most of the cast have very much described it as such. The problem with the non-committal and largely just superficially empowering messaging of the movie is best summarised by The Guardian’s Natasha Walter who rightfully pointed out that: “​​[...] [T]he reinvention of Barbie shows us all too clearly how the language of women’s empowerment has been taken up on a massive scale not as a means to revolution, but as a tool to unlock further consumerism.” [21]

MATTEL’s and Gerwig’s use of feminist ideas, empowering messaging and radical language to generate sales and consumption overshadows more profound, actual change and support of women’s rights. In this regard, it serves as an excellent example of the all too familiar play of capitalism repackaging its critique and selling it back to us.

Polyester clothing, for instance, can shed up to 700,000 microplastic fibres during a single wash. In total, just the washing of clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibres into the ocean each year, an amount that would be equal to 50 billion plastic bottles. The fibres, which can take up to 200 years to decompose, pollute the ocean and eventually end up in our food chain. One-third of primary microplastics released into the environment originate from the washing of synthetic textiles.

Cotton is a more natural and biodegradable fabric, but often involves the use of heavy pesticides. Plus, conventional cotton cultivation is extremely water-intensive. The high demand for cotton has led to particularly unsustainable farming practices and labour exploitation.

Viscose, the popular plant-based silk replacement, is often believed to be a sustainable alternative to cotton or polyester. While viscose could be produced sustainably, high demand leads to harmful production practices: Wood pulp is treated with aggressive chemicals to obtain viscose yarn - a highly polluting process. Handling the chemicals leads to birth defects, skin conditions and cancer; its waste contaminates nearby water and farmland. Handling the chemicals leads to birth defects, skin conditions, cancer and all sorts of health deterioration; the chemical waste contaminates nearby water and farmland.

Beyond the environmental damage caused by production, most (87 per cent) newly bought clothes are burnt, end up in landfills or are piled up in the desert (but more on that in another blog post, later).

  • Dall-E: Barbie being carried by exploited factory workers

Female Empowerment & Exploitative Labor Practices

MATTEL’s aversion to the word “feminism” or actually contributing to female empowerment [22] apart from selling Barbies with “GIRL BOSS”-t-shirts or having the slogan “to inspire & nurture the limitless potential in every girl.” [23] slapped across their centre seems particularly gross when put in context with the company’s long history of exploiting their (largely female) workforce in their Chinese factories.

Investigators from China Labor Watch, a non-profit organisation that advocates for workers' rights, have found that MATTEL's factories in China have a long history of labour abuses. This list goes from unpaid overtime, with workers putting in up to 80 - sometimes even 100 - hours of unpaid overtime per month, psychological violence like “verbal abuse, bullying/mobbing, harassment to threats” and sexual harassment. [24]

There have also been reports of unsafe working conditions: The working conditions at MATTEL Factories were also reported as unsafe, often dirty and overcrowded, with workers for example being exposed to hazardous chemicals on the regular. While MATTEL has taken some steps to address these problems like creating departments for “Home of MATTEL”, “Worker Hotline”, Communist League Branch or the All-China Women’s Federation in their factories, China Labor Watch reports claim “these were only there as formality and were ineffective in representing the rights of workers, who mostly did not even know they existed".

While MATTEL does have a code of conduct that prohibits labour abuses [25], the company has been repeatedly and credibly accused of failing to enforce that code and heavily criticised for its lenience with violations in their company's factories. Not very girl-power of you, MATTEL.

Navigating the Feminism-Capitalism Conundrum

Overall the BARBIE Phenomenon encapsulates the inherent tension between any radical social movement or theoretical school and the all-encompassing behemoth of contemporary capitalism. While outwardly MATTEL feints empowerment, its primary focus remains its stock price and profitability. The conflict between feminist ideals and capitalist strategies results in cosmetic changes tailored to commercial interests, overshadowing the pursuit of genuine societal change.

Storywise the film's plot and the majority of characters are not super well-developed and ultimately fail to live up to the film's potential. MATTEL's involvement with the project, the commercial success of the movie and its subsequent brand collaborations leave the viewer with a feeling of being cheated or even manipulated.

While my - like everybody's - anticipation was high, the 2023 Barbie movie is a missed opportunity for an honest reflection on the doll’s problematic origin, the damaging effect it has had on generations of impressionable young girls and how a modern, subversive and critical take on not just the famous doll, but also the damaging effects of corporate and societal patriarchy on women all across the globe. The film's marketing has been very successful in generating hype and excitement, but BARBIE's feminism feels empty and neither subtle nor integrated into the storyline. It instead consists of bland, radical-sounding but ultimately fairly tame and non-revolutionary lines and revelations that ultimately fall rather flat.

The fact that so many women found the Barbie movie to be a profound revelation about life as a woman in the 21st century is a sign that we are still starved for positive female role models in media. We need films that don’t just make us reflect critically but inspire us to fight against patriarchal, capitalist oppression and for genuine equality. The 2023 Barbie movie is not that film, but it may be a start. If only the movie didn’t have that big red spiky circle with the word “MATTEL” on it… that pink bubblegum wouldn’t have such a bad aftertaste.


[1] The set & costume design really are “Sublime!” as Ken would say and expected to win an OSCAR.

[2] https://variety.com/2023/film/news/barbie-sequel-mattel-films-barney-hot-wheels-1235680302/

[3] Aqua’s Label MCA Records, Inc. countersued for defamation after being likend to a band robber, with a judge ultimately dismissing both claims and advising “the parties [...] to chill.” https://billingsgazette.com/news/world/supreme-court-rejects-ugly-fight-over-barbie-doll/article_e7d55bf9-3557-5198-8cf8-a504a16d9241.html


[4] https://archive.nytimes.com/mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/26/years-later-mattel-embraces-barbie-girl/

[5] https://bild-lilli.com/

[6] http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk/media/images/45543000/gif/_45543032_barbie_comparison466.gif

[7] https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/doll-barbie-miss-astronaut/nasm_A20070121000

[8] https://ichef.bbci.co.uk/news/976/cpsprodpb/C37C/production/_88544005_curvy_barbie_inf624_v03.png.webp

[9] https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35670446

[10] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1740144516300730

[11] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/how-barbie-affects-career-ambitions/284411/

[12] https://time.com/6289864/barbie-time-cover-story/

[13] https://variety.com/2023/film/box-office/barbie-marketing-campaign-explained-warner-bros-1235677922/

[14] https://nypost.com/2023/08/10/mattel-executives-stock-dump-after-barbie-bump-raises-red-flags-experts/

[15] https://www.highsnobiety.com/p/barbie-movie-collaborations-2023/

[16] https://edition.cnn.com/2023/08/06/business/barbie-box-office-history/index.html#:~:text='Barbie'%20makes%20history%20with%20%241%20billion%20at%20the%20box%20office&text=%E2%80%9CBarbie%E2%80%9D%20has%20answered%20the%20billion,to%20official%20Warner%20Bros.%20estimates

[17] https://twitter.com/ZoeRoseBryant/status/1683329083516780550?s=20

[18] Just go to the comment section of any social media post regarding this speech and you will see what I mean…

[19] https://www.indiewire.com/features/general/simu-liu-barbie-greta-gerwig-dance-audition-1234725000/

[20] https://time.com/6289864/barbie-time-cover-story/

[21] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/jul/15/barbie-hollywood-film-role-model-girls-greta-gerwig

[22] “a minuscule proportion of Mattel’s profits – in 2022, $250,000 [...] out of $394m, or less than 0.1% – is now put into projects that support girls’ ambitions, such as school workshops or ‘mentorship conferences’.”

[23] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/07/10/after-barbie-mattel-is-raiding-its-entire-toybox

[24] The China Watchdog report also highlights MATTEL’s missing measures: “Last year, we found cases of sexual harassment at Foshan MATTEL. This year, at the Changan MATTEL factory, there were issues with sexual harassment, which shows that MATTEL has largely failed to put in place measures to protect victims and also to address the issue.” read the full report and more here:


[25] https://corporate.mattel.com/content/dam/corp-site/pdfs/MATTEL-2020-Citizenship-Report-FINAL.pdf

Cover Image:
Barbie at the movies
Photoshop composition by Nathalie Kayser

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