SAN JOSE, Calif. — It’s Barbie’s world — and after the first week of the new Barbie movie — it’s clear we’re all just living in it.
In its opening weekend, director Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” smashed box office records with a $155 million debut.
The star-studded cast features leads Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling — along with an ensemble cast including America Ferrera, Issa Rae and Will Ferrell — whose performances are being praised by critics for transforming a film about a beloved children’s doll franchise into a thought-provoking experience about gender norms, double standards and identity.
The diverse film pays homage to Mattel’s efforts to ensure there’s a Barbie and Ken doll that represents different body types, nationalities, looks, and especially careers throughout history, both fans and critics of the franchise say.
But Barbie was not always as diverse as it may seem today. Upon its creation in 1959, the doll promoted a sense of feminism that was largely career-driven and encouraged self-expression. Despite changing with the times, Mattel has been criticized for its Barbies lacking diversity in terms of skin color, size, and not having dolls who represent “everyday” life. Whether or not Barbie fully reflects America’s diversity, many say her successes — and shortcomings — aren’t seen as important to the children who play with her. But many adults, especially parents, feel both the film and toy franchise is the representation they wished for as kids.
Chelsea Reynolds, a feminist media scholar and communications professor at Cal State Fullerton, acknowledged that Barbie has become more diverse in the last 40 years in terms of race, clothing, careers and body size. Today, there are dolls of 35 different skin tones, 97 different hairstyles, and nine different body types. There are Asian Barbies, Black Barbies in wheelchairs and Kens with vitiligo. Earlier this year, Mattel designed its first Barbie doll with Down syndrome.
However, Reynolds said, “I don’t think we see super plus-sized Barbie, I don’t think we see super dark-skinned Barbies specifically.”
Barbara Millicent Roberts was created by Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler, who noticed her daughter Barbara — for whom “Barbie” is named — enjoyed changing the clothes of her own paper dolls. So Handler created a more realistic adult doll with real clothes and more “human-like” functions.
Different versions of Barbie have evolved in nearly every cultural and political era, Reynolds said. In the ’50s, she was an emancipating figure for the traditional stay-at-home “housewife,” and in the ’80s, she represented disco and punk. The first Black Barbie, Christie, was invented in 1968. Becky, the first doll in a wheelchair, was released in 1997.
Reynolds said that the toy “presented this new way of envisioning womanhood. Barbie wasn’t necessarily a mom. Barbie wasn’t necessarily only in a caretaking role. She was like this autonomous, independent woman who could be pretty much anything.”
Through the decades, the company’s many collections try to spotlight diversity — including “Dolls of the World,” featuring Barbies in cultural and traditional dress, and the ongoing “Global Sheroes” line honoring female icons from history. A 1981 “Oriental Barbie” was later ill-received.
In 2016, when dolls weren’t selling well, Mattel rolled out Barbies with different body types, hair textures and disabilities. But when the wheelchairs for Barbies with disabilities couldn’t fit through the Barbie DreamHouse, the doll was discontinued — undermining the company’s efforts for inclusive branding.
Concerned about the impact a lack of representation can have on a child’s self-esteem and empowerment, both Mattel and other toy companies have since created more “everyday”-looking dolls — including Healthy Roots and Jilly Bing — with features including smaller-shaped eyes and big curly hair.
And for first-generation, immigrant children, Reynolds said that those efforts, however imperfect, really matter. Barbie represents a “cultural notion of Americana that is important to many communities of color,” she said. And in the film, diverse Hollywood stars are cast as dolls that “purposely represent this new ‘Americana.’ ”
“This version of Barbie that Greta Gerwig presented was dismantling so many of the gender norms that I think we associate with dolls, and specifically with Barbie dolls, as girls’ toys,” Reynolds said. “I think that the way that patriarchy was challenged by Barbie in the movie is emblematic of what she has always done — giving women or girls the ability to imagine themselves in a society that is unlike the one that we live in.”
At a Barbie-themed storytime hosted by the Anaheim Public Library, there was no shortage of pink — the color the film most visually embraces. Parents at the event all agreed that it’s important for little girls and boys to have the mindset embodied in Mattel’s vast doll empire: “You Can Be Anything.”
Diana Fuentes, from Brea, said that children now have a wider selection of dolls on the shelves that look “just like them.” She praised how her 6-year-old daughter can play with Barbies that represent both her physical attributes and career dreams.
“I’m Hispanic, and if I see a doll that’s Hispanic, if I’m a child then I’m like, ‘Oh, that could be me one day,’ ” Fuentes said. “They put themselves in their shoes, so when (Barbie) doesn’t look like or resemble them, it’s harder for them to see themselves being that in the future.”
Sarah Martinez, from Buena Park, agreed that it’s important for kids to see toys that represent people they interact with daily; in their school, neighborhood and community. She remembered playing with Barbie in the ’90s with childhood friends.
“Our world didn’t have that,” she said, noting that she usually played with a brunette doll that reflected her hair type, but that was all.
Fourteen-year-old Ava Rodriguez said she watched the new movie with her family, and it reminded her how nice it is to have a doll that “looks like you, who you can relate with.” Playing with her Barbie when she was younger always made her feel like she could be anyone she wanted to be.
“When (my sister Gabby and I) were playing with Barbie, you were able to do anything, be in your own world, not have anyone tell you what to do,” Rodriguez said.
But some parents raised the question of whether representation in the Barbie doll franchise — much like many global companies’ efforts to diversify their brands — starts to feel inauthentic.
After the film’s release, Jason Munoz from Woodland Hills visited the new “World of Barbie” pop-up experience in Santa Monica with his family. He was more skeptical, calling out the franchise for leaning “too much” into ethnic stereotypes. He said that his daughters were looking to find a Barbie that reflects their Mexican heritage.
“When I see something that’s (branded) a Mexican Barbie, it has to have a Mexican dress, and that’s not an everyday Mexican person I see,” Munoz said. “They’re just like you and me… just normal people that live everyday lives.”
Reynolds, the feminist media scholar, was uncertain about whether the film’s casting was truly authentic.
“It’s hard to tell whether this movie is authentically representing diversity, or whether it’s meeting the industry quotas that have been established over the last few years,” she said. “I don’t know; I’m not mad to see it.”
Actor Issa Rae’s role as the Black female president of Barbieland, the film’s main setting, as well as the casting of one Asian American Ken — played by Simu Liu — and one curvy Barbie, played by Sharon Rooney, can be seen as “tokenizing” since both actors do not play prominent roles in the movie, Reynolds said.
“On the one hand, you can argue that’s representation. On the other hand, you can argue that maybe Greta Gerwig slapped a person into each role that fit the diversity model that Hollywood is looking for these days.”
Still, she said, the movie did a “tremendous job at getting complex topics like feminism and equity issues into the living rooms and homes around America.”
Mia Tustison from Corona won a Riverside County competition award in the spring for her Barbie-themed history project. She built a website that explores different perspectives surrounding Barbie — from inspiring women to be “more than what was expected of them,” to being glorified for her unrealistic body proportions — and its controversy.
The 14-year-old incoming freshman at Santiago High School said that Mattel’s efforts to build a more diverse toy line were mostly driven by sales. She watched the film with her family on opening weekend, wearing the brand’s signature pink.
Tustison highlighted the movie’s feminist-heavy message, but thought that its diversity is more reflected in its ensemble, not the starring roles. Still, she hoped the movie opens people’s eyes to be able to point out and “criticize things that are happening, things that are holding us back as a society.”
“I think (“Barbie” the movie) is not changing culture, with the way we look at diversity. That has already been shifting,” Tustison said. “I think it’s a reflection and commentary on that shift.”