Public Media Arts Hub

Success of 'Barbie' film adds to doll's cultural legacy


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Barbie, the name conjures up feelings for many generations of women and men across the world.

And as you have likely heard, the plastic wonder is featured in a new movie. "Barbie," the film, raked in a whopping $155 million this past weekend, making it the biggest opening for a film this year.

Jeffrey Brown looks at the global phenomenon as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Margot Robbie, Actress: What are you doing here?

Ryan Gosling, Actor: I'm coming with you.

Margot Robbie: Did you bring your rollerblades?

Ryan Gosling: I literally go nowhere without them.

Jeffrey Brown: Barbie is getting a big screen makeover in director Greta Gerwig's new film, but its just the latest update in a long history.

Woman (singing): Barbie, you're beautiful.

Jeffrey Brown: Barbie — her original full name was Barbara Millicent Roberts — was created in 1959 by Ruth Handler or the Mattel toy company.

She stood 11.5' inches tall. That mostly hasn't changed, but her look certainly has, as the blonde, slim-waisted, full-chested doll became a cultural phenomenon of the postwar era. Her male counterpart, Ken, was brought on board in 1961. Worth noting, he first came with straight arms that didn't bend and a head that could turn only left and right.

It was 1980 before Mattel released the first Black and Latina dolls actually named Barbie. And, in 2016, three new body types were introduced curvy, petite, and tall. Also changed, who she is, including her work. She's saved lives as a surgeon, traveled to space as an astronaut, and even run for president, a few times, in fact.

She has had over 250 careers, from CEO to Canadian Mountie. She still sells plenty across the globe, found in more than 150 countries. Mattel estimates that more than 100 dolls are sold every minute. And, of course, she's on social media with some 19 million followers across platforms.

An icon of the LGBTQ+ community, Barbie drag shows have cropped up this summer in anticipation of the film. Now Gerwig's film, starring Ryan Gosling as Ken and Margot Robbie as Barbie, clearly has some high heels to fill.

Joining me now is Andrea Nevins. She's director and writer of the documentary "Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie."

Thanks for joining us.

So, we are deep into the world of cultural touchstones here, right? How can one small doll mean so many different things?

Andrea Nevins, Director and Writer, "Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie": Well, this was a doll that was not like any doll that had preceded her.

Most dolls were baby dolls. And baby dolls were a way for little girls to enact potentially the only job that they could have in society, which was to be a mother. And that was the sole aspiration. This doll came about, and it was an adult doll, and it had breasts, and thus it almost instantly absorbed all of the contested space of femininity at the time and continues to today.

Jeffrey Brown: And that has come to mean different things to different generations of Barbie buyers, Barbie lovers, and Barbie haters.

Andrea Nevins: Precisely.

So, she rides the waves of feminism again and again and again, from being adored early on, because she was one of the only toys that girls could play with that that allowed them to think about their adult selves, and not only allowed them to think about their adult selves, but allowed them into a space that they weren't allowed, meaning to be doctors, to be astronauts.

And then, when the second wave of feminism came around in the early 1970s, she was reviled. She was everything that feminists didn't want to be, which was an object. She was — she came to symbolize an object, as opposed to an aspirational toy.

And then she comes back again in the '80s, and then she gets the full backlash of the U.S. third wave of feminism backlash in the 1990s, and so on and so on.

Jeffrey Brown: Tell me a little bit about your own documentary, what you were able to see clearly at a key moment for Mattel and in the history of Barbie.

Andrea Nevins: Yes, it was a pivot point for them.

They had had great success with Barbie for a long time, but this was a moment where they felt the doll might cease to exist.

Woman: Barbie wasn't widely revolutionary toy. Barbie became things that real women hadn't become. She had broken barriers.

Woman: These dolls enable girls to tell stories about dreams.

Man: She's been around 55 years, but the last few years have been trying for Barbie.

Andrea Nevins: This was 2014, and a friend of mine was working on the doll. She said that she was so excited to go to work every morning, because they would sit as a group of women and try and think about what it means to be a Woman in our society today and thus imbue the doll with that, with the positive aspects of that.

And so, it was very fun for her to go into work. And as she said that, I thought, this doll is such an excellent lens to look at the last 60 years of feminism. Would it be possible for me to go and film this re-ideation of this toy?

And it took seven months, because they were really frightened of letting anybody in. But I think they ultimately decided that illuminating the inside would keep them authentic and accountable. And so they let me in on all of the meetings as they thought through who this doll could be and all of the ramifications of that.

Jeffrey Brown: Who is Barbie now pre-Greta Gerwig's film?

Andrea Nevins: That's a very good question.

She is still a toy and was a toy that managed to really take hold again during the pandemic, because the kind of toy that she is allows little girls and boys to get to play using their imagination. And because of the changes that they made in making her curvy and many different colors and handicapped Barbie, that made her ore appealing to parents who were afraid of that old stigma, where Woman would be put into a box, so to speak, as opposed to allowed every opportunity.

That was the doll that Greta got to take out into the world. So, now I think she's going to be seen in a very different way.

Actor: Hi, Barbie.

Margot Robbie: Hi, Ken.

Jeffrey Brown: What has Greta Gerwig done with this complicated history?

Andrea Nevins: She's allowed us to get inside the head of a little girl in the most magical way, meaning, when a little girl plays with Barbie, the world is hers. Everything that she decides comes from inside of her.

And her imagination can be limitless, because there aren't doors closing in her face. She's not subject to the male gaze. So, it's a very particular kind of world. And Greta has allowed us to see what that world would look like without men and the choices that women can make and the freedom that they have in a non-patriarchal world.

So, it's really quite an amazing thing to watch. And she does it with irreverence and humor and joy and a wee bit of rage, and so it's just a really fun way to reexamine this doll.

Jeffrey Brown: Given what you know about the history, do you expect even more twists and turns for Barbie in the future?

Andrea Nevins: Absolutely, because she is subject to the same backlashes that we as women are.

So, I, sadly, feel certain that that backlash will occur. But maybe we have taken a giant step and it will be smaller this time.

Jeffrey Brown: We're also seeing this phenomenon of Barbiecore. Pink is everywhere, right? Pink is being embraced. What's going on?

Andrea Nevins: I will take it right now, because it's very rare in our culture that we celebrate femininity, and celebrate femininity positively.

And so I will take this Barbiecore pink moment as a way of saying women are fabulous, and they can be feminine, as well as be powerful.

Jeffrey Brown: Andrea Nevins is director of "Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie."

Thank you very much.

Andrea Nevins: Great to talk to you.

Geoff Bennett: As always, there is a lot more online, including a look at fun facts behind Barbie's lasting appeal.

That's at

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.