Can a Live-Action Barbie Movie Be Feminist?

Let’s be real, life in plastic isn’t *actually* fantastic

Ishani Nath
Barbie in a feminist t-shirt
(Photo: iStock)

Barbie is (finally) coming to the big screen.

The brains behind the blond icon have been trying to make a live-action Barbie movie happen for quite some time. Amy Schumer was initially attached to the project in December 2016, for a story about a Barbie who gets kicked out of Barbieland for not being perfect enough, setting her on a path to embracing inner beauty and individuality rather than unrealistic standards of perfection. A few months after the announcement, Schumer dropped out, citing scheduling conflicts, and was replaced by Anne Hathaway—who Vanity Fair declared to be the “perfect choice” because of her comedy chops—but the Princess Diaries star also later stepped away from the role. So here we are in 2019, and it seems that the third time’s the charm because Mattel Films has just announced that it has partnered with Warner Brothers to make the live-action Barbie, produced by and starring Margot Robbie. And let’s be real, with her slim figure, big blue eyes and blonde hair, she deffo looks like the classic doll.

Margot Robbie wearing pink in a gift where she flips her hand and looks away, a scene from Wolf of Wall Street
(Photo: Giphy)

But isn’t that classic doll—and its history of perpetuating unrealistic and problematic beauty standards—exactly what we’ve been trying to move away from? I mean, OG Barbie wasn’t exactly the poster child for feminism.

“Playing with Barbie promotes confidence, curiosity and communication throughout a child’s journey to self-discovery. Over the brand’s almost 60 years, Barbie has empowered kids to imagine themselves in aspirational roles from a princess to president,” Robbie said in a statement quoted by Variety—sentiments which are reiterated nearly verbatim on Barbie’s media website.

Personally, I never saw myself reflected in my stash of Barbies. As a kid, I was once gifted an “Indian” Barbie… which was just a white Barbie in a red sari. Later, I got another sari-clad “Indian” Barbie, this one with exactly the same facial features as the classic doll, just painted brown. Mattel is doing a much better job these days, having made a conscious effort to produce more inclusive Barbies with different body shapes, sizes, heights and skin tones. It’s also leaning into empowerment; for International Women’s Day 2018, the company released 17 dolls honouring modern-day role models including Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins and badass artist Frida Khalo. Time magazine even argued that the very fact that people constantly judge Barbie’s appearance rather than her 200 career-long resume might make her “the most feminist doll around.” But will Barbie’s feminist evolution be reflected on the big screen? 

My first reaction was that making a live-action Barbie movie that is also feminist is impossible. With Robbie stepping into the role of Barbie, it seems to reaffirm that while there are a lot of other dolls with darker skin tones or different body types in the Barbie family, they are just that. Other. The real Barbie remains unchanged. (Her casting announcement already has some publications speculating who will play Ken, selecting only white men as potential options.)

“Casting Margot Robbie as Barbie is kind of a predictable move,” says Stephanie Patrick, a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies, who researches female celebrities. “She’s very [conventionally] beautiful, blonde hair, blue eyes, everything you would expect Barbie to look like. So in itself, that casting choice sort of suggests that it’s not going to be radically feminist.”

Gillian  Goerz, who co-founded Toronto’s Drunk Feminist Films, agrees and adds that by casting Robbie in the starring role, it cements the idea that while we may have seen different iterations of this character, the real Barbie adheres to white, heteronormative beauty standards. “As soon as you cast it, you sort of lock Barbie in stone,” she says.

It all feels like new film, same ol’ problems. We’re in this culture of rebooting and reviving old ideas, but maybe Barbie is one that we needed to leave in the past. Yes, in theory, we’ve progressed to focussing on Barbie’s brains instead of her (unrealistic) beauty, but the key character traits remain the same. Perhaps rather than trying to fit feminism into a Barbie-shaped mould, we just need new characters altogether.

“I don’t know if [a live-action Barbie movie is] inherently bad, but they have so many hurdles to jump over with this. It’s a really tall order,” says Goerz.

However, while Robbie playing Barbie raises some concerns, her role behind the camera gives both Goerz and Patrick hope. Robbie’s LuckyChap Entertainment, the company behind I, Tonya and an all-female Shakespeare TV series, will be producing the film, and the actor readily calls herself a feminist and has been outspoken about her journey to understanding what the word actually means. She also has a history of bringing complicated and nuanced female characters, such as Tonya Harding, to screen.

Patrick suggests that Robbie’s involvement could lead to a Legally Blonde-like filmThat is, a tongue-in-cheek parody on the ideas we have about Barbie and her history, with a message that is relevant to all girls and women today. “I’m interested to see if this can develop into something better than maybe most people would expect it to be,” she says.

Goerz agrees. “I am curious to see it without totally writing it off because I’ve seen cool stuff come from interesting and diverse creators,” she says. She highlights the reboot of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, created by Noelle Stevenson, as an example of a reboot done right. “She-Ra has some of the same initial problems as Barbie where she’s uber white and very skinny and not a super developed character, sort of a peripheral to He-Man, but the new reboot is amazing,” says Goerz, highlighting the show’s queer representation and complex storylines.

With that in mind, perhaps the live-action Barbie could help address some of this doll’s problematic history and represent something entirely new for children now.

“If the kids today, who are the adults of tomorrow, only know this Barbie and it’s good, this could be an opportunity to make that change—just like kids now are going to know a better She-Ra than we grew up with.”

Related: 

Margot Robbie Is Producing an All-Female Spin on Shakespeare Classics and We. Are. Stoked.
WTF Is ‘Barbie Feet’ and Why Is Everyone on IG Doing It?
What’s Coming (and Going) to Netflix Canada in January 2019

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