In the 1950s, a Jewish woman born in Denver, Colo., to parents who fled persecution in Eastern Europe, decided that the toy market needed adult-themed dolls for children.
Ruth Handler (1916-2002) came up with the idea for “Barbie,” named after her daughter Barbara and reportedly inspired by “Bild Lilli,” a German sex doll modeled after a comic for the German tabloid, Bild. A few years later, Handler played matchmaker and gave Barbie a boyfriend, “Ken,” named after her son, Kenneth. With her husband, she co-founded Mattel, the toy empire that released Barbie to instant success.
The ironies in this story are many: A Jewess attuned to anti-Semitism can credit a billion-dollar idea to a post-war German doll. Having started out strawberry blonde, she evolved into the most well-known “stereotypical” Barbie: that “all-American” whose platinum-blond hair and blue eyes might also classify her as an “Aryan” (only with American good cheer and free spirit: Heidi Klum comes to mind). Some analysts argue that Handler’s “graven image” was a sublimation of a desire to assimilate into America.
Or maybe it was just a good business decision that led to many more, like starting a line of more “ethnic” Barbies in the 1980s, to the delight of “brown girls” like me.
Columnists are desperate to read philosophical, political or social commentary into the box-office smash film Barbie. You would think it’s the Torah from the sheer number of contradictory interpretations it elicits. Take, for example, Ben Shapiro’s 40-minute tirade (and essentially, commercial) against the film as “woke garbage.” A Twitter civil war then erupted when his Daily Wire colleague, Michael Knowles, tweeted: “It’s terrific. [Director] Greta Gerwig is a genius. Ben is completely wrong.” Knowles defended the movie for its affirmation of motherhood, of femininity, and of the need for interconnectedness of the two sexes.
They all seem to underplay one major fact: Barbie was co-produced by Mattel. With the film, in which Handler (played by Rhea Perlman) imparts wisdom to a distraught “stereotypical” Barbie struggling with her mortality (played by Margot Robbie), Mattel simply continued Handler’s tradition of making excellent business decisions, which included hiring Israeli-American businessman Ynon Kreiz as CEO in 2018. As reported in several media interviews, he envisioned leveraging Mattel’s intellectual property to ensure the company’s liquidity and relevance. In the movie, he’s played by a goofy Will Ferrell in an intentional act of self-deprecation. A pro-Israel Shapiro might have missed that Israeli angle when he literally burned a Barbie doll in his video review.
Barbie is essentially a glorified marketing campaign for a “politically incorrect” icon that idealizes beauty, the feminine form (in an exaggeration of proportions) and heterosexual relationships (although Ken, as comically played by a deliciously ripped Ryan Gosling, is hyper-metrosexual, at best).
Some feminists might admire the Barbie brand for asserting that women can be anything. Other feminists might praise “Astronaut Barbie” but wail that there’s no “Chubby Barbie.” (“Weird Barbie” is hilariously brought to life in the film, but she’s the Barbie that naughty girls rebelliously burn and mangle). Non-feminists will wonder why there’s no “mother Barbie,” and the discontinued pregnant “Midge” doll is no consolation for them.
In a very politicized world, Barbie the doll would have a severe image problem if a film didn’t come along and appear to grapple with her problematic identity and place in society. Mattel seems to engage in introspection about Handler’s creation, especially through the impassioned speech by the Latina matriarchal protagonist, Gloria (played by America Ferrera) who joins the campaign to save “Barbieland” from a hostile takeover by “Kens” pining for “patriarchy.”
“It is literally impossible to be a woman,” Gloria laments to her daughter and plastic comrades. “You are so beautiful and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow, we’re always doing it wrong. You have to be thin, but not too thin.”
I wanted to laugh when a woman sitting next to me in the theater muttered: “She’s right.”
Are we seriously going to find words of wisdom in a film that clearly has a conflict of interest in making a movie about its own product? This pop-psychology mumbo-jumbo was Mattel’s way of covering its tuchus while showing off its product in a stunning pink tableau.
Actually, those who should be most offended by the film are men. The film implies that if men had their way, all they’d want are mini-fridges stocked with beers served by hot “Barbies” in mini-skirts. And that women could easily control them by stirring their drunken, chauvinist jealousy. (We can then debate if there is truth to that, as well.)
To appeal to the masses, the film needed to hover somewhere in the middle: It’s woke and not woke, it’s true and false, it’s politically correct and politically incorrect, it’s feminist and unfeminist, it’s deep and silly, it’s fun and serious, it’s liberal and conservative (or, shall we say, “Kenservative”). We can take solace in that. Mattel, perhaps thanks to its Israeli-American CEO, did not surrender to corporate woke-ism; in the end, the market “regulated” a foray into any extreme ideology.
That is the genius of writer/director Gerwig, raised Catholic, and of her writing partner and Jewish husband, Noah Baumbach. The movie can be whatever you want it to be. As long as there is no clear (political) message, girls and their parents of all persuasions will continue to buy the doll. The film saved “Barbieland” from being obsolete, old-fashioned and politically incorrect. And now, there’s a stand dedicated to Barbie dolls and accessories in the German supermarket near where I live in Berlin.
There is a deep story behind Barbie—the success story of the daughter of Jewish immigrants to America who had a good idea, inspired by a German product, that indeed wielded great influence on the place of women in society. But that’s the stuff of books.
Handler’s spirit in the film comes through not only in the portrayal of the mentor/mother relationship with her plastic daughter but by its business savvy, led by a fellow Jew. Her idol will now be immortal—thanks, in part—to a brilliantly smart and brilliantly stupid movie.
A version of this article originally appeared in German in www.Achgut.com.