Let's not mistake a corporate rebrand for a feminist moment

Barbie is as feminist as a Lean In circle and a "You can have it all" essay in Cosmo.

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

Barbie is an enjoyable-enough summer flick. If you look at it as an extended Super Bowl ad, there's plenty to admire. The writing is clever, Ryan Gosling shines and the aesthetics are unique. Turning a corporate rebrand into the summer's pop culture event is a master stroke. MBA programmes are writing the case study as we speak.

But it's the film's insistance that it be taken as something else – enjoy eight painful minutes of writer-director Greta Gerwig trying to explain its feminist credentials – that forces me to call BS. Barbie is as feminist as a Lean In circle and a "you can have it all" essay in Cosmo. It's at least a decade behind.

Mattel's business brief

When Ynon Kreiz took the helm of Mattel in 2018, its fourth CEO in as many years, he inherited a loss-making business and a flagship brand that was treading water. Originally a television executive, he recognised in Mattel a portfolio of well-known brands rife for licensing deals.

"The journey was going to be about how you transform Mattel from being a toy manufacturing company that was making items to becoming an IP company that is managing franchises," Kreiz told Fortune. Risk-averse Hollywood's love for established intellectual properties and the popularity of late 20th-century nostalgiacore would do the rest.

But to bank on the Barbie brand, Mattel first had to turn it around. Sales had cratered in the mid-2010s; Gen X and Millennial mothers did not see the doll as a positive influence for their daughters. Barbie, originally modelled after an erotic toy for grown men, exacerbated body image issues, and her career as an astronaut-CEO-president was more intimidating than inspiring, a reminder of the exhausting expectations set for modern women.

New dolls with different skin tones and body types (including a "Curvy Barbie" still three sizes down from the average British woman) had helped. But the film, first floated a decade earlier, would be the chance to truly reset the narrative.

"This was not about making a movie and hoping for the best. This was about creating a cultural event that will resonate with as many people as possible," Kreiz explained. "We realised that our brands are timeless, but they also have to be timely. The Barbie movie will be a great representation of that, of taking a 64-year-old brand and making it relevant and current to today's consumers."

I'll concede this to Mattel: they are transparent. The film is indeed the flagship asset of the year's largest marketing campaign, and Greta Gerwig the director of the most successful ever piece of native advertising.

The self-awareness defence

Mattel's bid to make Barbie "relevant and current" meant the company couldn't get away with making a sugary rom com. It needed edge. It needed to address all the reasons Barbie was no longer "relevant and current." It needed to take on body image, consumerism and, gasp, the patriarchy. But it still needed to sell unattainable beauty standards and a "you can be anything you want to be as long as you shop" ethos. Because that's Barbie.

In short Gerwig, writing partner Noah Baumbach and executive producer Margot Robbie were given an impossible brief – to create a satire that serves the satirised party's interests. The tension is palpable throughout the movie, and the filmmakers are constantly apologising for it. It's mostly subtle until the narrator breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge the absurdity of casting Robbie to make a point about not needing a perfect body. At other times you can almost feel Mattel wrenching the pen from Gerwig's hand, not least in the saccharine ending where Barbie inventor Ruth Handler appears as a mother-saviour figure to extricate Barbie out of her existential crisis. "I am Mattel!" she exclaims.

Mattel's genius is in making it look like total creative freedom. Its all-male executive team is portrayed as dumb corporate villains atop a phallic skyscraper. Fictitious CEO Will Ferrell serves up the old "we can't be sexist, we once had a female CEO" line. The film says 'patriarchy' and 'consumerism' a lot, roasts Mattel for its mistakes, like the teenage doll whose breasts inflated when you lifted her arm, and acknowledges Handler's financial fraud conviction. Every scene that makes you think "it's crazy what the filmmakers got away with" lends credibility to Mattel's ultimate message – Barbie is good, keep buying.

It's corporate capitalism’s great survival skill, to defang its critics by co-opting them. Just enough evolution that there will never be revolution. Like a tech company begging to be regulated or Chevron advertising renewable energy, Mattel wants you to know it's in on the joke. It's impossible to pan a film (or a brand) that is so entirely self-aware.

What then is Barbie's great feminist revelation? Gender expectations block both men and women from realising their full selves, and while the world isn't perfect, we shouldn't despair because we can all do our bit and help change it at the margins. There's also something questionable about how mothers stand still for their daughters and don't get to continue being people.

I suppose we should be grateful a corporation can use the word "patriarchy" without blushing, much like they pat themselves on the back for acknowledging man-made climate change. America Ferrera's central monologue about the contradictory injunctions women have to live by resonated... probably because I've heard a hundred girlfriends say it over the years. It's all true, but not particularly new. Notwithstanding conservative America's expectedly overblown reaction, this stuff is entry-level emancipation.

It couldn't be any other way. When your marketing budget ($150 million) exceeds your production budget and executive producer Margot Robbie promises a billion-with-a-B-dollar movie, you don't get to be radical. You have to meet a mass-market audience where they are, validate their worldview and give them the buzz of minor transgression without shaking them to their core. We cheer for Barbie like we cheered for Cher Horowitz and Elle Woods. We were overdue for another bimbo feminism summer comedy. It's that and it's perfectly fine, though a little less fresh than it was in 1995. But, as one friend put it, "too bad about the patriarchy" doesn't get you a feminist medal in 2023.

Essays

Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.