by Manu SharmaAug 31, 2023
Since her launch (or birth) on March 9, 1959, Barbara Millicent Roberts, or Barbie, has created waves. From serving her purpose as a toy to eventually transforming into a collector’s item. The terminology of this obsessive commodification of a toy has always been in tandem with the contemporary language of pop culture. We have seen Barbie as a trend, we have seen 'Barbiemania' and now we are in the age of 'Barbiecore''. One of the distinctions, with Barbiecore, is perhaps its aestheticisation and adapting Barbie-isms as a lifestyle.
Barbiecore found its footing with director Greta Celeste Gerwig's recently released Barbie— a Hollywood blockbuster that was initially met with eye-rolls and eventually social media memes. The Barbiecore fetishism that followed the initial announcement is no doubt a consequence of a well-thought-out marketing campaign, that used both traditional and guerrilla marketing to integrate the signature Barbie Pink (PMS 219) colour into various aspects of design—from pink couture collections (launched in anticipation of the various pink carpet premier), to furniture and interior design collections. Numerous newsletters have found ways in everyone's inboxes with suggestions on how to 'expertly decorate one's home' or listicles of objects that can be bought to fulfill one's Barbie dream.
In a Barbie World
Imagine a world designed primarily for women; drawer handles that can be worked easily with long nails, floor finishes that are ideal for high-heeled shoes, and all dresses have pockets. That is what the world-building of 'Barbie Land' proposes in all its pastel and plastic allure. Since the 90s there have been various conversations about the strange proportioning not only of Barbie herself but also of the objects in her world as compared to her own body. This is perhaps one of the missed opportunities in the film; the possibility of exploring the potential of a women-centric world-building universe. It might seem like an odd comment considering Barbie’s world seems to be pretty well-defined. However, with this real-world film as opposed to previous animations, cartoons, and toys there is the possibility of building a habitable space, that is pastel and not plastic.
Imagination. Life. Creation.
Gerwig’s Barbie Land actually creates very interesting philosophical inquiries into the epistemology and ontology of its existence. The storytelling narrative aside, the film finds an interesting balance between not taking itself too seriously while also offering an enquiry on commodity fetishism. The film is no doubt the first of what is sure to become another cinematic universe, with an entirely new range of merchandising that would partner with designers, brands, and institutions. So, does Barbie Land exist to expand the toy manufacturer Mattel’s merchandising or is it the result of an exploration of an already existing mini-verse? The launch of the numerous character dolls and the Barbie Movie Mega Dreamhouse might suggest the former is true.
An exploration of the existing Barbie universe was explored in a 2016 exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, in Paris. With over 700 Barbie dolls, display over 1500 sqm, in tandem with works from the collections of the Museum, Barbie’s Lives was not an expansion. This exhibition highlighted Barbie's own historical development and how her own evolution has mirrored the cultural evolutions of society. One of the key moments the exhibition does manage to showcase and the film does not, is the transformation of Barbie as an embodiment of the American way of life into a more universal figure. The movie, its story and narrative, the world-building, and its entire context are extremely rooted in the Americanisms of Barbie's origins and her consequent commodification.
Pastel Plastic Party
With every new career, with every new version, and every modernisation that Barbie has embodied through her fashion and styling, has come an updated playset of offices, kitchens and homes. This eventually evolved into the creation of Barbie's Dreamhouse, an ever-evolving set of attachments in which Barbie could live and work. Much like her fashion, the homes have been updated in tandem with every new modern comfort. These homes are always distinctly Barbie's possession, a fact that is explored in the movie as well. These homes also embraced their role in challenging stereotypes. Simple yet playful aspects such as slides instead of staircases, and stickers that indicated the large kitchen and home office, she could do it all, these homes adopted all the new dreams and ambitions of contemporary life.
Barbie's Dreamhouse has always evolved and changed based on the times she was living through. Mattel Creations' limited run book Barbie Dreamhouse: An Architectural Survey captures 63 years of Barbie's architectural explorations—from her first cardboard studio to her COVID-19 pod. It was the first architectural study offered, of the Barbie Dreamhouse. Featuring interviews with celebrated architects, designers, and artists such as Princeton professor Beatriz Colomina, Smithsonian's curator Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, and interior designers Kelly Wearstler and Rafael de Cárdenas, the book consisted of a style and critical analysis. Here lies another disconnect between the archive of Barbie's world and the Barbie Land in the film.
It would be hard to conclude an investigation into Barbie's world without venturing into Philip K Dick's escapist roleplaying short story The Days Of Perky Pat. What Dick's story reveals is the importance of how a toy, especially an idealised doll such as Barbie, can fuel the imagination and become a portal of escapism from one's current life. While not directly referenced, it is hard not to read into the similarity between the two. Written in 1963, the story was penned only a few years after the introduction of the original Barbie doll, while the Barbie movie is far more pop culture-friendly and optimistic, it does have elements of fantasy and escapism. Perky Pat's accessories are just as extensive as Barbie's. There is a need to collect and build a repository of the accessories, almost as if they have actual use for the doll. Almost as if the buyers or the collectors are going to use these accessories themselves. The correlation between the film, Barbie's history, and the idea of collecting said archive, is bound to keep expanding and growing, especially with what is sure to be a Barbie cinematic universe