The psychology behind Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’ movie, which seems poised to be a huge summer hit
Executing one of the most successful marketing campaigns in franchise history, the upcoming Barbie movie is on-track to break box office records. As a Gen-X’er who grew up in a three-girl household, we owned enough Barbies to choke a humpback whale. I am exactly the target market, and, I have to admit, I’m intrigued. Directed by Greta Gerwig, the trailer is extremely pink and campy, signaling a Zoolander-esque take on the iconic doll.
The positioning seems poised to bridge the gap between Barbie lovers and haters alike, the newest trailer taunting “If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you.” With wry references to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 a Space Odyssey with Barbie as the monolith, and Kate McKinnon as Morpheus in a Matrix-like scene, offering the hilarious choice between a pump or a Birkenstock, Gerwig signals that she’s ready to let the humble plastic doll do a little intellectual heavy lifting–without messing up her manicure.
The Barbie movie marks a curious tipping point in the market, when top execs *finally* realized that women have disposable income too and that they can leverage our nostalgia for the toys of our youth for massive financial gain. What’s next? Fashion Plates with a Sex in the City twist? Cabbage Patch Kids meet Euphoria? Ru Paul’s Rainbow Brite Drag Race?
Not gonna lie, I would bingewatch all of those.
One of the most interesting implications of the tone of the film may be that it results in a reclaiming of the Barbie doll’s original intention. When Ruth Handler created the doll in 1959, she intended it to provide an alternative to a marketplace full of baby dolls – dolls that not so subtly encouraged young girls to aspire to motherhood. Barbie was the first doll with an adult body – a single, independent fashion model with choices: the choice of any amazing career a young woman could imagine, while living the good life hanging with all her best girlfriends in amazing wardrobes. And Ken, a boyfriend who was just…. there sometimes, with no pressure of kids and marriage on the horizon. A true feminist fantasy.
Of course, it wasn’t long before Barbie faced harsh backlash for encouraging unhealthy body image with her unrealistic body shape featuring giant boobs and stabby, pointy feet, permanently molded for high heels. (However unless Barbie gets a BBL (Brazilian Butt Lift), she doesn’t have enough junk in the trunk to match today’s unrealistic body standards.) Rightly or wrongly, the male gaze permanently marred Barbie’s intention as a beacon of independence, causing many progressive parents endless hand wringing and virtue signaling that resulted in forbidding their little girls from playing with the dolls at all.
Fast-forward to 2023 and Gerwig has delivered a trailer that seems to hold space for those intellectual contradictions, while delivering the pure girlish delight of PINK STUFF EVERYWHERE. A scene where Ken (a perfectly cast Ryan Gosling, I don’t care what the haters say) overconfidently tries to take over from a real doctor, and a clip showing Ken doll himbos warring on the beach, indicates a potential takedown of toxic masculinity,
Successfully playing with Barbie on the big screen is definitely going to be a precarious balancing act – one that only a woman used to balancing on her toes can achieve. In an ironic cosmic yin and yang, Barbie premieres on June 21st, the same day as Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. It remains to be seen if either film will be the bomb, or simply…. bomb.