How Barbie, The Movie, Embraces Empowerment

Lucy Broadbent
on 8 August 2023

Barbie made records with the biggest opening of the year with its explosion of pink and a whole lot of fun. But perhaps most importantly, Barbie, the movie is going to place Barbie centre-stage in the world of female empowerment.

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, renowned for putting women and their untold stories at the forefront of her movies, like Little Women and Lady Bird, Barbie has been reimagined from her once two- dimensional character into a fleshed-out real woman who enters the real world, played by Margot Robbie.  Even Barbie’s high arched feet, once designed permanently for high heels in plastic, get flattened out in the film.

Barbie the Movie stars Margot Robbie
Barbie the Movie stars Margot Robbie

The movie completes Barbie’s make-over, bringing her into current times as an inspiration for girls. It’s tagline “You can be anything,” is important, and marks the culmination of years in which Barbie’s image has been slowly transformed from vacuous blonde stereotype with an unrealistic body shape into a girl who inspires others to reach their full potential. The hope now is that a movie about Barbie makes her a real feminist icon.

A decade ago, Barbie was in trouble.  Mattel’s iconic white-skinned, blonde fashion doll was being left on shop shelves.  Her sales were in free-fall, largely because she had not evolved from the ideal of white beauty, favoured in 1959, the year that she was launched.  Consumer studies in 2015, had her pegged as vapid and shallow. There was also the issue of her body shape – a waist so impossibly tiny that critics said she encouraged anorexia in little girls, and if she had been expanded to human size, there would have been no room for her internal organs.

In attempts to see her evolve, she started to be sold in different skin tones, given curves to match a real woman’s, wheelchairs, hearing aids, and skin conditions. She was given more careers in typically male dominated worlds like science and engineering, and Mattel launched the Barbie Dream Gap Project in 2018, a global initiative to encourage girls to see themselves as smart and capable, equal to boys.

Tech began to play its part too.  Youtube video blogs from Barbie’s bedroom made her relevant as she tackled social issues.   There are now dozens of Barbie apps available, like Barbie Magical Fashion, Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures, the Barbie: You Can Be Anything game.

Greta Gerwig is one of very few women to have ever been nominated for best director.  As someone who personally knows the struggle women face competing in a male environment, taking on Barbie as a movie project could have been seen as an odd choice. Barbie’s tarnished image as an out-of-date stereotype has never quite disappeared, but Gerwig saw Barbie as an opportunity. 

Now she has made history as Barbie scored a US$356m (A$527m) opening weekend around the world, making it the biggest debut ever for a film directed by a woman. This week, the film has surpassed one billion dollar earnings at the box office.

Barbie the Movie stars Margot Robbie
Barbie the Movie stars Margot Robbie

In the movie, Barbie discovers that some women in the real world hate her and find her oppressive. In this way, Gerwig tackles the subject head on.  “It felt like we had to give the counter argument to Barbie and not give her short shrift, but give it real intellectual and emotional power,” says Gerwig. “Mattel was incredibly open to it. I said: ‘We have to explore it, because it’s a lie any other way’.”

Barbie the Movie stars Margot Robbie
How Barbie, The Movie, Embraces Empowerment

Stand by to see Barbie win over her critics.

Barbie, the movie opens July 21.

You can read more stories by Lucy Broadbent here! Lucy Broadbent is the author of What Would Ted Lasso Do?


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