Only stirring the Barbie cynic’s pot, myriad studies in journals like “Body Image” and “Developmental Psychology” have shown how Barbie negatively impacts the body image of young girls. Mattel didn’t help defray longtime accusations that Barbie promoted bimbo stereotypes when Teen Talk Barbie debuted in 1992 uttering phrases like “Math class is tough!”
Now comes actor-turned-director Greta Gerwig to further complicate the doll’s legacy with her hilarious, insightful “Barbie” blockbuster, larded with references to “Blade Runner,” ’70s rock operas, Stanley Kubrick films and Gene Kelly musicals. It’s Gerwig’s revisionist take on Barbie for the 21st century.
This 2023 Barbie is still hot and blonde as played by Margot Robbie. But Gerwig’s social commentary puts Barbie’s controversial duality up front: Is she a celebration of female possibility or a reinforcement of limiting stereotypes? In Gerwig’s hands, Barbie discovers life is not a closed loop of dream houses, pool parties and an extraneous sidepiece named Ken. Instead, it’s a rigged game of male masters and female acolytes.
“Barbie really holds up a mirror to our own personal empowerment journey as women,” says New York-based Eliza VanCort, the bestselling author of “A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space: Stand Tall. Raise Your Voice. Be Heard.”
VanCort also didn’t let her own daughter, now a college student in a gender studies program, have a Barbie. But VanCort acknowledges that she might think differently about letting a child play with Barbie today after seeing how today’s women respond to the plastic sexpot.
When VanCort talks to contemporary women, like her daughter’s friends, their response is very different from traditional critiques of the doll as an unattainable beauty ideal.
Because for many young women now, discounting a woman over how she presents herself is frowned on.
“Every woman should be able to choose what she wants to look like, how feminine she wants to be. And to go after Barbie is to say there’s a rigid idea of womanhood, which is anti-feminist,” VanCort says of this new way of thinking.
Barbie has proven eternally mutable as she surfs the waves of these cultural shifts. And like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can, she has become a potent representation of American ideals and values for artists.
Artist Melissa Sims, who lives in Tucker, has painted the Mattel doll lounging at a 1950s-style motel pool, tapping into the pleasant, nostalgic qualities she embodies.
“I have always wanted my paintings to bring happiness and a smile. And for so many kids, Barbie does that,” Sims says.
Portrait painter Ross Rossin has captured captains of industry and politicians, including President Jimmy Carter and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. As part of his “American Royalty Collection” celebrating the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, Rossin painted Barbie in 2008 as another definitive American.
For Rossin, who lives in Sandy Springs, Barbie is a painterly emblem of “physical beauty and harmony and good proportions,” or what he calls the “ideal of the Divine.” But to this immigrant from Bulgaria, Barbie also represents independence, confidence, self-determination and a version of girlhood that the rest of the world doesn’t always celebrate.
Erica Lee, aka “Barbie Lee,” grew up playing with Barbie and extols the doll’s positive qualities.
Her parents encouraged, rather than discouraged, her interest in Barbie. As a little girl, she tooled around her Georgia neighborhood in a little pink Barbie car. She was called “Barbie” so frequently that she eventually took on the name as her beauty influencer brand.
For Lee, Barbie has been something of an extension of herself: attractive and motivated, with a love of clothes and makeup.
“I want to be cute for myself. It’s not for other people,” she says.
She has leaned into that brand by outfitting her Buckhead apartment with hot pink furniture and accessories so that, she concedes, “it does look like a Barbie Dreamhouse type of situation.”
For Lee, who is 25, Barbie represents what Ruth Handler — the doll’s creator and Mattel’s co-founder — intended for her to be.
Barbie, who was invented in the age of stay-at-home moms, came with an assortment of “career paraphernalia.” She represented financial independence, which is very much how Lee sees Barbie. At 14, Lee got her first job doing makeup at Douglasville’s Arbor Place mall, which allowed her to save enough money to buy a Mustang. It also led to her present career as a makeup artist for celebrities, including “Real Housewives of Atlanta” stars Cynthia Bailey and Kenya Moore and actor Lynn Whitfield.
Lee is young enough to have never experienced life without Black Barbie. Mattel’s first African American Barbie was introduced in 1980 courtesy of Mattel’s first Black designer, Kitty Black Perkins.
Barbie has also inspired Lee’s sense of personal style. A self-professed “girly girl” and Southern belle, Lee sighs when she sees people wearing their jammies on airplanes or leaving their apartments with wet hair.
“Don’t save your best clothes and bags for a special occasion” is Lee’s style mantra. “Every day is a special occasion,” she says. “I think the way that you present yourself definitely dictates the way people perceive you and treat you.”
Russell Gandy, who owns a local garden design company, has a vintage Barbie collection spanning 1959 to 1973 and has paid as much as $3,600 for a rare Barbie. His collection is so large that he’s lost track of how many he keeps behind glass cases and in boxes in an entire room of his Old Fourth Ward apartment.
The creator of an influential Facebook page about Barbie with 8,000 followers, 53-year-old Gandy has an encyclopedic knowledge of the doll’s history. His initial attraction to Barbie was her original marketing as a “teenage fashion model.”
As a kid growing up in Plant City, Florida, Gandy loved to sketch outfits. For him, Barbie was a fashion ideal whose tailored outfits, dime-sized purses, fur-embellished coats and dainty stilettos spoke of a more cosmopolitan world.
“Fierce, fashionable women” made him gravitate toward early iterations of Barbie. “These women are not stupid blonde bimbos,” he says. “They look like they know things.” And they look like they drink Scotch, he adds.
To him, the Barbies of the ’50s and ’60s epitomized feminine style and self-presentation. Gandy begged his mother to wear Barbie-level gloves, skirt sets and heels for trips to the grocery store, but she preferred something more comfortable.
Gandy began collecting Barbies when he was 22. The hobby opened up an entire world of fellow collectors around the world who have become friends. For Gandy, Barbie has been a conduit for meeting remarkable people: the Italian woman who meticulously sews the miniature outfits that Gandy dreams up and his “Barbie mom” in Alabama who has one of the most extensive collections he’s ever seen.
“Mattel gave her a story. And as time went on, they added to her story, created different friends, outfits, accessories, et cetera,” says Gandy.
“But no matter the story they were writing and continue to write, people still write their own stories,” he says. “And that is the most beautiful thing about Barbie. She could be anything you imagined.”
Starring: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera
Runtime: 114 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for suggestive references and brief language.