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Much ado about a doll

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Jul 26, 2023 5:00 am

Barbara Millicent Roberts is not one to be taken lightly—just take a look at recent events when her first live-action movie became a subject of geopolitical concern in both the Philippines and Vietnam because of a scene where the doll, famously known as Barbie, as played by Margot Robbie, stands in front of a map with the nine-dash line, which is used by China to assert its internationally rejected territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs had the film reviewed “to ascertain if the depiction of the imaginary world map is inimical to the national interest,” and even if the MTRCB approved it for public screening after concluding that it was a child-like drawing “with no clear or outright depiction of the line,” Senator Francis Tolentino insisted that “what we see here is China’s continued claims of Philippine waters” and the MTRCB asked the movie’s distributor to blur the line lest it be misinterpreted. Vietnam, on the other hand, had the film banned outright.

Ana Cruz Kayne (Justice Barbie) wearing a Dennis Lustico terno top with a Hervé Leger skirt at the Barbie premiere in LA

The film had actually been creating a stir even before production began and Barbie Pink has been dominating fashion for the past year as the signature color of Barbiecore, the style of dressing influenced by the doll’s wardrobe and lifestyle. Pierpaolo Piccioli had an all-pink collection in 2022 that spawned its own Pantone shade and Jeremy Scott’s collection for Moschino was centered on the toy’s iconography. Dennis Lustico used the color for Ternocon, landing one of his beaded balintawak tops on the red carpet of the Barbie premiere in LA, where Ana Cruz Kayne, who plays Justice Barbie, wore it proudly as part of her Filipino heritage.

“The Dawn of Barbie,” a parody of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

The doll’s history isn’t all that rosy, however, courting controversy from the time it was created in 1959 by Ruth Handler, who was the first president of the toy manufacturer Mattel. Inspired by her daughter Barbara’s playing with paper dolls, and a trip to Europe where she saw the Bild Lilli doll, which was an adult woman unlike the baby dolls of the time, she developed Barbie, short for Barbara, representing everything that little girls “wanted to be” other than just being a mother. The arrival of this revolutionary concept is dramatized perfectly by director Greta Gerwig in the film’s opening, which parodies 2001: A Space Odyssey with Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra heralding the arrival of a giant Barbie, stunning little girls who, realizing it’s the dawn of a new age for them, start destroying and hurling their dolls in the air the way the apes in the former movie were smashing bones. 

Ruth Handler, Barbie’s creator, in 1961 

Mattel wasn’t sure that mothers would buy their daughters a doll with a bombshell figure, but a marketing consultant assured them that they could be convinced with the assurance that Barbie was teaching proper comportment and femininity, so she debuted as a “teenage fashion model” with a ponytail, side-glancing eyes, high-heel-ready feet and a face with painted-on makeup. She wore a fitted, black and white striped bathing suit, stiletto mules, and cat-eye sunglasses. Her other outfits were unapologetically feminine as well, reflecting trends of the day, including couture pieces that any woman would covet.

Robbie in Prada; Barbie: The Movie Collectible Doll, 2023

This would establish Barbie’s influence on fashion in the real world, a source of inspiration for designers in their collections and a “muse” to be dressed up by couturiers like Yves Saint Laurent.

Teenage Fashion Model Barbie, 1959; Robbie in Hervé Leger

For Ruth, fashion through Barbie was really a way for imagining the future, so she designed the doll’s head to pop off easily, making it easier to change clothes. This allowed girls to have the imaginative kind of play where they could dream about anything they wanted to be—even an astronaut—during a time when there weren’t as many options for women. The fashion model was just the first of many succeeding careers, with corresponding wardrobes that were crafted meticulously down to miniature zippers.

Pink and Fabulous Barbie, 2015; Robbie in Valentino

With clamor for a boyfriend, Ken, named after the Handlers’ son, was introduced in 1961. Soon, fans wanted a baby, a demand that Ruth would not indulge since her very concept was the antithesis of the old-school dolls. Mattel issued a “Barbie Babysits!” play set instead.

Earring Magic Barbie, 1992; Robbie in Balmain

If Mattel was confident about the doll’s success, a lot of it could be attributed to their marketing which targeted children instead of parents, broadcasting Barbie commercials during the Mickey Mouse Club show. It assured the doll’s lasting hold on pop culture, as generations of children grew up to be adult consumers. Marketing to young girls instead of adolescents in the ’70s, pink was used as the dominant color for brand identity and remained the signature all the way to the current Barbiecore trend.

Day to Night Barbie, 1985; Robbie in Versace

Of course, Barbie’s popularity made her open to a lot of naysayers. Feminists criticized her for perpetuating unrealistic body and beauty ideals or promoting outdated gender norms. She was also not inclusive enough. Even when black, Hispanic and Oriental versions came out in 1981, they remained secondary to the blond originals. By 2015, the doll had hit its lowest sales volume in 25 years, after Mattel’s findings revealed how customers thought the doll was “shallow, materialistic, too perfect and not reflective of the world around her.”

Sparkling Pink Barbie, 1964; Robbie in Moschino

The company made a big pivot by rolling out 100 different skin tones, hair textures, face shapes, and eye colors, as well as four different body types, now coming in curvy, petite, or tall options. Even versions with vitiligo and Down syndrome were issued. 

Ken (Ryan Gosling) and Barbie (Margot Robbie) on their way to the real world

Eventually, just as the doll evolved, so did the world. Now feminists can choose to look like anything, even the original Barbie, and still feel empowered. There are just as many kinds of women and fashion choices. The director of the film, in fact, realized that with all the Barbies available, “All of these women are Barbie, and Barbie is all of these women. Selfhood is contained amongst all these people.”