Barbie’s pink heels took the world by storm From the storm last summer. The biggest box office hit of the year, Greta Gerwig’s barbie With a gross of $1.3 billion, it became one of the only female-led films to be ranked in the top 20 highest-grossing films of all time.
But long before Margot Robbie entered the Barbie Dreamhouse, another Barbie movie attempted to address the cultural phenomenon that is Mattel’s no-nonsense doll. barbie nationCreated by Berkeley alumnus Susan Stern in 1998, it was the first film to show our tumultuous relationship with the doll, heralded as both a feminist icon and its complete opposite. In the documentary, Stern explores Barbie Jesus worshipers and Barbie fetishizers, fanatical Barbie collectors, and Barbie body dysmorphia protesters.
Twenty-five years after the film’s debut, California Stern, BA ’74, to talk about her own Barbie story, what the doll means to her and society, and why Barbie is so pink. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
let’s go Get started with your own Barbie story. How did you come to this topic?
I was born in 1953. The first Barbie came out in 1959, so I had her. I was a Barbie defiler from the beginning. I was exactly like Greta Gerwig’s “Weird Barbie”: I cut off the ponytail of my 1959 Number One Barbie, and it turned out that the hair was only attached to the sides of the skull, so her hair just fell out in front of her. The face was gray and she was completely bald. It was shocking and horrifying.
I don’t really remember playing with it or thinking too much about it after that, until I had my own daughter at age 35. I never bought a Barbie doll for my daughter. I was and still am a feminist, but my philosophy of parenting and life is not to ban things. That’s why it never came to my mind to stop my daughter from having Barbie. I think it was a cousin who gave my daughter Barbie dolls and then, as I like to say, you put them in a closet, you open the door, and suddenly you’ve got 20 of them. They reproduce.
My daughter, Nora, wanted to play this game called “Jealous Barbie” where one Barbie was jealous of another Barbie. And so, of course, I gave her the feminist lecture: ‘Women don’t need to be jealous of other women.’ And that’s when he said his great line about tolerance: ‘Mom, why don’t we play what I want to play first, and then we can play what you want to play.’ So my late husband and I played Barbie with them. We all made really weird Barbie doll games, and when I talked to other people about it they started telling me their own Barbie doll stories – and each one was weirder than the next.
By this time, I had become a journalist after (completing) my degree (in journalism) at UC Berkeley. I was in the broadcasting program at City College in San Francisco and I had the idea of making a movie about Barbie. No one had made a documentary about him. I asked Mattel and they said, ‘No, not only are we not making a movie about Barbie, but you’re also not going to make a movie about Barbie because Barbie is a sacred icon. You can’t put a face on him and you can’t put a story behind him because he’s just a blank slate for kids to show their dreams.’
Of course, the rest is history. I made my movie, and he now made his movie.
TeaThe first scene of your film says, “What follows is not authorized by Mattel.” how did it end?
Mine was definitely not authorized, and I was afraid. barbie nation Documents that, in the 1990s, Mattel was suing (over intellectual property). They sued Aqua (the group behind the hit single Barbie Girl), they sued all kinds of people who were satirizing Barbie and people who were part of Barbie’s huge fan universe. I was afraid they would sue me.
But then I met the Mattel people at one of these unauthorized conventions organized by Barbie fans, and we just got into it. He started collaborating with me, to the extent that he sent me reels of old Barbie commercials. I could not believe it.
I got it in writing that they were giving me this reel, and they were giving me permission to use it. They allowed me to come to Mattel headquarters and interview their PR people. I tried to get an interview with Ruth Handler (inventor of Barbie) at a convention she was attending, and she declined. I said, ‘Okay, can I follow Ruth as she goes from one interview to the next and film her doing it?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ And then (his scheduled interview was cancelled). So I got the interview and we actually hit it off. He invited me back to his penthouse in LA, and that’s how I got incredible interviews with Elliot Handler, Ruth, and their daughter Barbara Handler.
You started out as a Barbie defiler. Did your feelings change while playing or filming with your daughter?
Nora once said, ‘Mother, you are also infected with the disease of gender discrimination, like we all are.’ I think this is true. I wasn’t particularly concerned that Barbie was giving my daughter an unrealistic sense of body image and beauty because the entire culture gives you a distorted sense of body image and beauty. No one can escape from this. I guess you just have to learn to scoff at it. We never took it seriously in Nora’s Barbie play. There was always this tongue-in-cheek element to it.
In your film, Ruth says that Barbie should have been plain. But now, Barbie has gone all pink.
It’s true—if you look at the 1959 Barbie I have, she has a serious slant. she is not beautiful; She is a bit scary looking. And she wasn’t wearing any pink.
My theory is that she became increasingly pink at the same time as she was put into more male-dominated fields. So as soon as she was allowed to become an astronaut, a politician and a doctor, she too became pink. It’s almost a way of making her less dangerous as she takes up male-dominated professions.
How did it all come together into one theme for the documentary?
The message for me was the power of creativity and the fact that humans can create a life that is unique from the most manufactured things. To me, that message is even more important now that we are facing AI. What is left to be human? Although I know AI can be programmed to create all kinds of interesting art, I hope there remains something special about human creativity.
Do you see value in turning Barbie into a better movie?
i love greta gerwig barbie Movies. I think this is a powerful feminist film disguised in a pink fluffy dress! I mean, friends my age were saying to each other, ‘Dude, can you believe we didn’t know you could say the word patriarch without wearing overalls?’ The word patriarchy and what Greta Gerwig said seemed very radical barbie The movie got it right.
And I thought it was a really deep movie. I mean, the movie ends up on this idea that to be human, which is better than being a doll or a machine, you have to face uncertainty.
There are a lot of people who say this is a huge brand opportunity for Mattel. I’m really curious if that would be true since it was a movie for adults. I don’t know yet whether this will result in a lot of sales or not. Yes, it was a marketing opportunity, but I think it’s important to realize that all culture is a marketing opportunity. This is perhaps most insidious when you don’t feel you are being sold something. Our culture is always selling you something.
barbie nation It is available to buy or rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and YouTube. barbie Expected to reach max this month.