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Go Barbie or Go Home

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UD expert Sarah Wasserman explains our complicated relationship with the original material girl

​It’s Barbie’s world, and we’re all just living in it. This has been the case since the eponymous comedy starring Margot Robbie as the famed (infamous?) doll hit theatres in July. With the film grossing more than any Warner Bros. flick since 2019 — think $20 million per day — retailers around the globe are cashing in on a glittery pink frenzy. Airbnb is renting a Barbie DreamHouse replica in Malibu (complete with oceanfront views and so-called “kenergy”). And even Burger King is hawking a fuschia combo meal. So how does such a little blonde manage such a big stranglehold over everything from furniture to fast food? For a look into society’s enduring obsession with the iconic toy — an obsession that transcends time, gender and geopolitical bordersUDaily spoke with Sarah Wasserman, director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Material Culture Studies, associate professor of English and self-described tomboy who once incorporated her own Barbies into an obstacle course for a pet gerbil. Here’s what she had to say about life in plastic:​

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​Sarah Wasserman

Q: The Barbie movie is shattering records at the box office. How is it possible that a film about a plastic doll is taking America by storm?

Wasserman: There are many reasons for this, and I think the most important one is that Barbie is a film pitched to women-identified viewers. It’s surprisingly rare that a big summer blockbuster appeals to mothers and their daughters; to women who played with Barbie dolls decades ago as well as younger girls who are interested in what it all means today. Women who don’t usually go to the movies have gone to see Barbie; the huge box office numbers demonstrate just how eager these viewers are to see something that feels like it’s for them.

Barbie’s simultaneous release alongside Oppenheimer has also made viewers feel like there is a real movie event this summer that they want to be a part of. It’s not yet another Marvel movie, but something new and exciting that’s become a social phenomenon — something to do with other people, in a shared space after the long pandemic years of staying at home.

The critical response to both films has been very positive, and that’s synced up with the popular response in a way that’s somewhat rare. All of this together has brought people into movie theatres in record numbers.

Q: Hordes of people are wearing their hottest pink getups — aka, Barbiecore — to the theatre. Is this merely the natural result of an intensive Warner Bros. marketing campaign, or is there something deeper at play?

Wasserman: Obviously the marketing — the Barbie boxes at movie theatres that you can pose in, the endless memes, the Barbiecore fashion we’re seeing on celebrities at the premieres — has played a significant role here. But I think that it’s also linked to what I’ve said above: Barbie represents a light-hearted opportunity to participate in something that feels collective. Wearing pink to the theatre becomes something fun to do with friends; it also allows Barbiecore audiences to feel a part of this cultural moment.​

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Q: The fun factor makes sense... pink is associated with frivolity. But that frivolity is so often linked to femininity. Is it possible there's a reclamatory thing happening here as well? Women taking what's been written off as frivolous — the color pink and, by extension, their femininity — and wearing it loud, proud and empowered? Or is this reading way too far into fuschia yoga pants?

Wasserman: One of my favorite books on this subjects is Guilty Pleasures by Arielle Zibrak, who argues that “femme” pleasures are often described as guilty, i.e. unserious. Following her lead, I’d say that the point is not to reclaim pink but, in this case, to proclaim as you say that frivolity (or fun, or pleasure, and in particular femme pleasure) can be an end in itself. Maybe it’s a way of saying: We don’t have to be (re)productive, or serious, or have a greater meaning behind a color we wear; we can just do something because we want to, because we enjoy it. That said, I can’t quite ignore the fact that so many people seem to be wearing pink because they want to be part of a trend, they want to “look the part” for Instagram or other social media.

Q: This year, we’ve seen Barbie-themed weddings. We’ve seen Barbie-themed beers and bars. And we’ve seen brands come out with all sorts of Barbie-themed merchandise — from rugs to wallpaper, candles to cocktails, heels to hairbrushes. What, if anything, do you suppose anthropologists will be studying from this big Barbie moment 100 years from now?

Wasserman: There’s fantastic work from material culture scholars on Barbie, and we’ll be seeing lots more of it to come. Trying to imagine what might be interesting about this moment 100 years from now though, I think that maybe scholars will be studying Barbie as a vexed symbol of femininity, as they long have, but with an added layer of complexity, since the movie explicitly takes up questions of patriarchy and sexism. What does it mean to have “this big Barbie moment” as Roe v. Wade has been dismantled, as intersectional feminism struggles, as LGBTQ rights are attacked?

In terms of the material culture, the merchandise, I think there might be scholarly interest in who was actually consuming things like Barbie beer, and whether or not these consumption practices were sincere or ironic. I personally think that there’s an interesting question about age and these objects: if Barbie the doll is marketed primarily to young girls, to whom is the current Barbie merch for? Does its consumption indicate a nostalgic desire to connect to childhood? Or is there something else going on for the adults buying Barbie-themed merchandise today.​

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Q: It is the eternal question: Is Barbie feminist or anti feminist? On the one hand, she’s a CEO, a paleontologist, a paratrooper and an astronaut who went to the moon before women were permitted to vote. On the other hand she’s, well, Barbie — plastic toy with unattainable proportions who once announced that “Math is hard!” and inspired chants of “I am not a Barbie doll!” at the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality in New York City. Is there a research-backed, academically sound way to answer this question — once and for all?

Wasserman: I’m afraid there’s no way to answer this question simply, in large part because regardless of how Barbie is designed and marketed, some people will always use Barbie in subversive ways. Barbie certainly promotes unattainable, toxic beauty ideals as well as an image of whiteness that’s deeply harmful. The first African American doll in the Barbie range is usually regarded as Christie, who debuted in 1968, almost 10 years after Barbie’s initial launch. Black and Latinx Barbie dolls were released in 1980. But blonde, white, hyper-feminine, impossibly thin Barbie remains a potent symbol. And this matters. As Toni Morrison put it so searingly in her 1970 novel The Bluest Eye, “Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs — all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured.” This is incredibly damaging and is a lasting part of Barbie’s legacy.

However, no one — not even Mattel — can script how people will actually use or relate to Barbie. To use myself as an example, I was a tomboy and thought Barbie was boring. I had one Barbie that I used to experiment on: She was many different colors thanks to food coloring, had a wild hair cut (calling Weird Barbie from the movie!) and was launched from slingshots, submerged in water, melted over candle flames, and used as an obstacle in courses built for my gerbil.

Q: There’s been so many think pieces about Barbie in recent weeks/years. What do you think is missing from the mainstream Barbie discourse?

Wasserman: I’d like to see more discussion of plastic and its oddly enduring place at the center of toy culture. Despite growing environmental awareness and a general anti-plastic trend, Barbie endures in her plastic glory. I wonder if Mattel has ever thought about using other materials, or what the environmental effects of their manufacturing processes are. Are there landfills littered with non-decaying Barbies out there? Is Sustainable Barbie an oxymoron?

I’m also currently writing a book about 1980s computers and the popular culture that helped mainstream them, and there’s a really wacky game from 1984 called “Barbie” that was published by Epyx for the Commodore 64. I didn’t love Barbie dolls as a kid, but I loved this game. I haven’t seen anyone talking about this particular Barbie artifact, which I think is fascinating not least because it represents an attempt to market computer games to girls, which didn’t happen very often in the PC’s early days.

Q: Did you see the Barbie movie? What did you think?

Wasserman: I did see the Barbie movie and enjoyed it: the performances are great, the comedy works well, and the aesthetic is fun. I don’t think that the film does enough in terms of its critique of consumerism, and some of its points about gender are quite obvious, but it’s effective as a movie that creates a vibe and taps into nostalgia.

Q: And did you wear pink?

Wasserman: My friends wore pink, but I couldn’t resist — I showed up in an Oppenheimer-style suit and hat for contrast and laughs.​

Article by Diane Stopyra

Photos by Diane Stopyra and courtesy of Sarah Wasserman

August 03, 2023​

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UD expert Sarah Wasserman explains our complicated relationship with the original material girl
Center for Material Culture Studies; English
 
8/3/2023
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