In Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster film Barbie, Mattel’s doll, incarnated by Margot Robbie, is awoken from the mindless contentments of life in Barbieland by troubling existential thoughts.
Barbie climbs into her pink convertible and, after adventuring into the “Real World,” learns not only how women are controlled by the patriarchy, but also their potential to grow.
Barbie has been acclaimed for its feminist politics. The film critiques patriarchal thinking and understands that Barbie is a source of empowerment for girls,
often reflecting their career ambitions — think of Surgeon Barbie, Naval Officer Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, and President Barbie.
At the same time, Gerwig (who directed and cowrote the film) pokes fun at the doll’s exalted and idealized femininity.
Of course, Mattel can safely accommodate such criticism; it does nothing to damage the megacorporation’s public image.
As of Aug. 6, the film has grossed more than $1 billion in global box office ticket sales.
Market analysts forecast that Barbie should generate about $100 million in revenue for Mattel this year, which also includes toy sales and product licensing.
My concern is that Gerwig’s feminism is morally compromised when her art serves to enhance Mattel’s profitability.
The women whose welfare I have in mind are not those afflicted by Barbie-induced body dysmorphia,
but workers who have had to subject their bodies to meeting Mattel’s production quotas on Barbie doll assembly lines in Guangdong Province, China.
Poverty drives women from rural provinces in China to work and live within the factories Mattel and other large toy companies use to subcontract production.
According to China Labor Watch, these factories either lack a union or unions exist but are inoperative, and protective labor laws can be ignored.
Gerwig’s edgy jokes about gender norms are irrelevant to women condemned to the mass production of Barbie dolls,
where the din of machinery is unrelenting, eyes and skin are exposed to harmful chemicals, and sexual harassment is routine.