When posters for the Barbie film hit social media, the internet went crazy. In what has to be one of the most successful marketing stunts in years, the official film posters that allowed people to create memes by uploading themselves as a Barbie or Ken turned Instagram into sea of hot pink. It was inescapable.
The film’s tagline is “Barbie is everything” and with every shot of Australia’s own Margot Robbie as Barbie and actor Ryan Gosling as Ken going viral upon release, it would appear that, more than six decades after she was invented, Mattel’s 29cm doll is, in fact, everything.
Mattel and writer/director Greta Gerwig know this: nostalgia is bankable. Few things capture people’s attention and hit them right in the heart than memories of happy childhoods – filtered or real.
Of course, there comes an age when children stop playing with Barbies. One day they pack up their dolls, mini shoes, dream houses and campervans for the last time. When I was a kid, these collections were either ceremoniously passed down to a younger sibling or cousin or sold for a tidy sum at a garage sale.
But there are those who can’t let go of the plastic fantastic bubble-gum pink form of escapism the doll and her universe provided. I am one of those people. My collection is still intact, boxed up on a high cupboard shelf where it’s sat for decades. I have ’80s icons including Peaches ’n Cream and Rocker Barbie, and the ’90s crazes such as Totally Hair Barbie and Happenin’ Hair (apparently her tresses were very important in that era).
In the noughties I had aged out of the target market but moved into the more adult world of collector dolls. I acquired Barbie as Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch on a stopover in Singapore, Barbie as Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s at Harrods in London, a comically Aussie Barbie commemorating the Sydney 2000 Olympics at David Jones, and a Gone with the Wind Barbie I practically snatched out of the hands of a sales assistant in New York’s FAO Schwarz toy shop.
Then came the fashion collaborations. Everyone from Christian Dior to Karl Lagerfeld dressed Barbie, and as a student aspiring to work at a fashion magazine I needed these in my collection. They wore clothes from the runways that I could only dream of. I was a woman possessed when it came to tracking down the Versace Barbie. The doll wore a gown from the 2003 Versace Barbie was the last doll I bought.
In my mid-twenties, I packed away my collection for good, preferring to spend my money on the kinds of designer shoes and dresses Barbie wore, which I could finally afford. Ruth Handler, the businesswoman and mother (of, yes, Barbara and Kenneth) who invented Barbie in 1959, said on the 40th anniversary, “Barbie was designed to fill a girl’s need for role playing, so she could work through growing up, exploring her dreams and future.”
For some of us, that took a little longer. For others, the opportunity wasn’t there to begin with. Since Barbie burst onto the scene, she’s been highly criticised for perpetuating unrealistic body standards and missing the mark when it comes to diversity. Change certainly took decades but Mattel has listened and learned over the years.