Podcast / The Time of Monsters / Aug 13, 2023

It’s a Barbie World—but Is That a Good Thing?

On this episode of The Time of Monsters, Tarpley Hitt on the mixed messages of Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

It’s a Barbie World But Is That a Good Thing? | Time of Monsters with Jeet Heer
byThe Nation Magazine

Barbie has smashed through the glass ceiling. Greta Gerwig’s new movie based on the popular Mattel doll is the big summer film of 2023. It’s made more than $1 billion –the first time that box office benchmark has been reached by a film directed by a woman. This popular success is all the more notable because the movie deals explicitly with feminist critiques of patriarchy. 

Barbie has generated an enormous public debate, but not everybody wholeheartedly loves the movie. I think the best piece of writing on the film was written by Tarpley Hitt for The Nation. Hitt, a writer and editor for The Drift who is working on a book about the Barbie doll, described the movie’s feminism as “muddled.” I sat down and talked to Tarpley for an enlightening discussion about this year's buzziest blockbuster.

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(Selcuk Acar / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Barbie has smashed through the glass ceiling. Greta Gerwig’s new movie based on the popular Mattel doll is the big summer film of 2023. It’s made more than $1 billion—the first time that box office benchmark has been reached by a film directed by a woman. This popular success is all the more notable because the movie deals explicitly with feminist critiques of patriarchy.

Barbie has generated an enormous public debate, but not everybody wholeheartedly loves the movie. I think the best piece of writing on the film was written by Tarpley Hitt for The Nation. Hitt, a writer and editor for The Drift who is working on a book about the Barbie doll, described the movie’s feminism as “muddled.” I sat down with Tarpley for an enlightening discussion about this year’s buzziest blockbuster.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

From McCarthyism to Citizens United | The Time of Monsters
byThe Nation Magazine

The mathematician Chandler Davis, who died in 2002 at age 96, was one of the notable victims of the second Red Scare. In 1960, Davis was sentenced to six months in prison for refusing to answer questions about his membership in the Communist Party. Davis’s lawyers defended him with the innovative legal argument that the First Amendment barred such questioning. While Davis lost in the courts, his legal battles were still an important effort in a larger battle to extend the parameters on political speech. Davis’s story is told in a new book, The Prosecution of Professor Chandler Davis by Steve Batterson. Siobhan Robert’s obituary for Davis ran in The Nation.

On this episode of The Time of Monsters, I talked to journalist Doug Bell, who knew Chandler Davis, about this book and Davis’s larger place in history. We take up the history of anti-communism and how it has limited free speech, the legal philosophy of Alexander Meiklejohn, and the reactionary Supreme Court's use of the First Amendment to expand corporate power.  

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This transcript was computer-generated and may contain errors.

[00:00:00] Jeet Heer: The old world is dying. The new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters. With those words from Gramsci, I welcome you to the Time of Monstrous Podcast sponsored by the Nation Magazine. Usually on this podcast we talk about politics and the sort of various monsters in the political field.

[00:00:20] But it’s summer people are going to see movies. And I think for, in this podcast and perhaps a few of the upcoming ones, we’re gonna like look at we what’s out there in the cinema and the biggest movie of the summer. Is Barbie based on the Mattel toy directed by Greta Gerwig already a distinguished filmmaker.

[00:00:39] It has become a phenomenon. It’s on track to make more than a billion dollars worldwide. Gerwig has become the most successful. Female filmmaker in history with doing a movie that has a woman character in the lead and is like, like a real blockbuster. And it’s generated an immense amount of discourse because this is not.

[00:01:01] Just your run of the mill, sort of, you know, toy movie based on an existing ip. I, I think to her credit Gerwig put in a lot of sort of concerns about feminism the place of Barbie and culture. And it’s a. We can quibble with the film in many ways. But I, I wanna start by saying, you know, like this is a movie that has real originality and voice and a lot of thought went into it, but, Having said that not everyone is pleased.

[00:01:32] Later on I’ll discuss my own family’s reaction to the movie, but I, I, I wanna bring in a, a voice of someone who I think wrote the best single. Review of the movie. It happens to be for the Nation magazine, but I, like, I’d be praising to this guy, you know, even if it appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

[00:01:51] So it’s my guest this week is Tarpley hit she’s a writer and editor at The Drift and she’s working on a forthcoming book about Barbie called Barbie Land, the Unauthorized History. So first of all, thank you for being here. Thank you so much for having me. So let’s let’s just start by saying you overall impressions of the movie and then we can, you know, go into like some of the details.

[00:02:14] Tarpley Hitt: Cool. I mean, this sort of goes without saying, but it, the bar for new movies right now is so low that I think it’s worth acknowledging that like, this movie is genuinely fun. It’s like bizarre and original and we’re, you know, still talking about it multiple weeks after the premiere. So there’s something to be said for that.

[00:02:35] But I, I found. And they, it’s also so funny, like there’s, there’s a real, a a funny movie can get away with a lot in my book. But what I found to be so bizarre about the movie is that it’s so clearly trying to get you to feel something. It wants you to love these toys. I think Gerwig in one interview said like, I want you to feel like I did at dinner with my family, like coming out of a warm embrace or something to that effect.

[00:03:03] And that very much translates from the script. And so coming up against this like clear desire from the filmmaker that you feel something you’re sort of left with these not entirely people, like characters where you’re sort of, it, it’s unclear exactly how you’re supposed to feel about these characters, and I found that in general to yield some strange results.

[00:03:28] Jeet Heer: Yeah. No, I, I, I think in your review you sort of bring out how muddled the movie is and I mean, I think one way to think about this is that there were sort of contrary impulses that were at work. I mean, this is like the authorized Barbie movie, right? Like, you know, the Mattel Corporation, you know, which is in a business of selling Barbie dolls.

[00:03:48] You know, like made this movie or you know, made the financial arrangements that made this movie possible. But then you had Gerwig as a filmmaker who is very much bringing her own, you know, concerns into the movie. And, you know, as a filmmaker, she’s someone who’s very concerned with this issue of sort of, Girlhood, which is what can be seen in her previous movies lady Bird and little Women.

[00:04:10] This, you know, like what does it mean to be a girl? How do girls come of age? And she sort of brings that concern. And it’s a movie that’s also coming at a time where, you know, like gender is a huge polarizing force in politics that the the Republican right, has really embraced the kind of, you know, under Trump a kind of, you know proud toxic masculinity.

[00:04:31] And that has, you know, there’s been a kind of counter wave of opposition, you know, in the form of the Me Too movement and a sort of resurgent feminism. And so I think all these things are going into the movie in very, like, interesting ways, but they, they, they don’t tug in the same direction.

[00:04:46] Like they’re, they’re actually pulling at each other. So do, do you wanna talk a little bit about that?

[00:04:50] Tarpley Hitt: I mean, I’ve seen a lot of people call it like the most feminist blockbuster ever made and like, you know, oh, this is like a huge win for feminism, et cetera. And I think to, to the ex, it is a neat portrait of contemporary feminism in that it’s kind of not sure what it is.

[00:05:05] It’s you know, it’s commercial, but it’s empowering and, you know, she can have all these jobs, but she can be ordinary. And there’s that huge monologue about how impossible it is to be a woman. But it’s not exactly clear what the politics of this film are, sort of like contemporary feminism. And so I think that’s interesting.

[00:05:24] It, Mattel has always sort of towed a delicate line when it comes to. Feminism itself like Ruth Handler, the c e o, who’s portrayed in the movie as like this sweet grandmother figure in real life was very much not a feminist, even though she was a c e o at a major corporation for the second half of the 20th century.

[00:05:48] But she would say in interviews like, you know, yeah, I don’t think women really have. The business acumen for you know, executive positions, even though she had one. And Mattel would sort of. Move slightly with public opinion, but in this very careful way where it was about empowerment. The 1985 famous 1985 tagline is, we Girls Can Do Anything, but it would not say the word feminism and or anything that that might entail.

[00:06:19] And I think that you see that in the movie where Gerwig has gone public and said like, oh, this is a feminist movie. And a lot of people have said that, but the movie doesn’t. Totally. Have a clear idea of what that is or yeah,

[00:06:34] Jeet Heer: yeah. No, no. I, I think, I, I think that’s right. I mean, in some ways it’s a sort of contradictory positions of particularly liberal feminism, like as one sees it in the United States.

[00:06:44] Being torn between sort of, you know, a desire for individual advancement, but also, you know, like a kind of social critique. But then also, you know, as with liberalism, a kind of belief that like large parts of the existing social order are already okay. You just need to sort of have more mobility within that.

[00:07:03] And so I think these are all things that like, kind of, you know, tug in different directions. And they get yeah, they, they get a different degree of salience. I think one point about, you know, the ambiguity of the feminism which I think your review really brings out is the, the role of Ken. And I, I think that’s kind of worth talking about, and I, I’ll say this as like a film viewer and as a, a parent.

[00:07:28] My my family has had this kind of ambiguous relationship where when my, I have three daughters, ages 12 and then two twins who are eight. And when they first saw the trailer, they were not enthusiastic. And I, I was a bit surprised by that ’cause at least a 12 year old had a Barbie phase when she was younger, but they didn’t seem, think the news was for them.

[00:07:46] But then they heard after the movie was released some of their friends had seen it and really liked it. And it is a real phenomenon. So, you know, they were kind of talked into seeing the movie and when they saw it, they were again, kind of backtracked away. They, they kind of, you know, weren’t sure like what exactly this movie’s about, but one thing that came.

[00:08:07] Clearing their viewing is they really liked Ken and the, they liked Ken more than Barbie and like to in the sort of weeks since we’ve seen the movie they continue to sing the Ken song. And Ken is the character that they talk about about a movie that otherwise they say like, well, you know, we actually really preferred Elementals and we really preferred the Kraken movie among other summer kids bear.

[00:08:29] So. It is odd that like, you know, Ken is the character that really dominates the, you know, this putatively feminist movie

[00:08:39] Tarpley Hitt: it comes back to that, like the movie really wants you to feel something for these dolls, right? And they, they say as much explicitly, but then when you look at the raw material of what each character is given, like it’s, Ken is the person who has all the most interesting arcs, all the best jokes like he’s this natural underdog.

[00:08:57] We see him. He ha he has the unrequited love arc. We see him like, you know, he’s he loves Barbie and she doesn’t love him back. There’s just so much that makes Ken feel like, to the extent that a doll that lives in this alternate universe that where everything is perfect, Ken feel real, Ken is that Ken’s that guy.

[00:09:15] And so there’s just this sort of emotional confusion where it’s like, damn Gosling, stole the show. And so yeah, that, that was just kind of interesting to me. But it’s not a quite, it’s not an exact neat script flip where it’s not like he’s exactly the woman and we’re supposed to feel like he’s the underdog.

[00:09:36] ’cause eventually, In the first half of the movie, he, you see how all these ways in which the Kens sort of have this hor horrible, sad existence. And then halfway through the movie, they’re supposed to become the bad guys, where they’re running the rev, the rev revolution to overthrow Barbie land. And they’re somehow even worse, even more evil than the Mattel executives which just felt like a, a not totally.

[00:10:03] It felt like an, a weird emotional choice there where we, he’s the natural sympathetic figure who then becomes the bad guy and then at the end he’s sort of like given a modest win, but not no real change and supposed to be happy with that.

[00:10:20] Jeet Heer: Yeah. No, no, it is so weird because I like emotionally it you, you do sympathize with Ken and I, like I said, I I, I was really struck by this, just by watching it with my daughters that, you know, he’s a character.

[00:10:32] And it’s partially because of, you know, the performance as well. Like, I think Ryan Gosling does this crazy, you know, sad puppy. Ken sad eyed puppy Ken which is very sympathetic. But, but, but, and also, you know, It doesn’t map on perfectly, but there is a way in which he does play the woman’s role.

[00:10:51] And you know, I think an argument that people make on behalf of the film is that it’s Aly satire. Because what you see in Barbie land is a patriarchy but reversed. And that you’re supposed to See how Ken suffers and that this is what women suffer in the real world. But it doesn’t quite work because then Ken leads, as you say, no, not just a revolution, it’s a coup and it’s a January 6th coup.

[00:11:13] So are we supposed to say like, well, the January 6th coup was justified. I mean, I, in some ways, you know, you could say this is the most pro January 6th movie that we’re likely to see on Hollywood.

[00:11:24] Tarpley Hitt: Absolutely. Absolutely.

[00:11:26] Jeet Heer: But then, yeah, yeah. So, so, so again, that gets at the sort of the the muddle of the movie.

[00:11:32] But maybe a muddle of like a feminism that I think your earlier point about like not knowing what it wants or is very pertinent because. One reason why Ken is so sympathetic is that he, he’s allowed to have desire, right? He’s allowed to, he’s allowed to like, want Barbie, even though he’s like a sexless doll without genitals.

[00:11:51] He still, you know, he wants something from Barbie and she doesn’t, right? And, and, and then he wants social change, you know, and she is like So, so we’re, we’re given a, a portrait where like, you know, men have needs, desires, agency you know, a will to change. And women in the form of Barbie exist in a sort of confused like, well, I’m unhappy, but I don’t know why and I don’t know what I want.

[00:12:17] Like, anyways, I’d like your thoughts on that. Like, do you think that’s fair? That, that he gets several desires. No, no, I mean, that, that, that, that, that you think that’s a fair characterization of the movie? That it’s a movie where men have desires and agency and like women are just left in the state of like generalized dissatisfaction of not having desires.

[00:12:38] Tarpley Hitt: Yeah. No, I to I totally agree. And I mean, Barbie is, is the stereotype. Barbie is the straight man. I think is how she that that, I would imagine that’s how they conceived of her, but her straight manness is so straight that there’s just like, you know, she has no clear motivations besides this sort of like general malaise and wanting to feel real.

[00:13:01] Whereas Ken’s motivations are so clear, you know, he wants Barbie to like him and to be able to vote

[00:13:07] Jeet Heer: that. That’s right. Although I, I mean, I guess, I mean, it’s interesting because that that desire to be real, like. You could create a narrative arc archive of it. You know, it’s the Pinocchio story, right?

[00:13:18] Like you have the doll and it’s this I created human image, but it, it, it wants to exist in the real world. I don’t know, like emotionally how much that resonated. I, I know that, I mean, it really comes through at the very last scene of the movie, which I won’t spoil for people who haven’t seen it yet, but, Like, did that resonate with you?

[00:13:39] Like, like, like the sense of like, you know, Barbie’s, this doll and she wants to be real. Like, I, it seemed like more, to me it seemed like more like an idea than like a narrative that worked. But I’d be curious though, what, what you think.

[00:13:51] Tarpley Hitt: Yeah. I mean, I think it could have worked, but I didn’t understand why she wanted to be real.

[00:13:55] Mm-hmm. Like the real world was not exactly kind to her, you know? And Barbie land seems pretty chill.

[00:14:03] Jeet Heer: Yeah, yeah. No, exactly. Yeah. Well, why would, except that, I mean, well, you know, one could say that like, you know, existing as a creature without genitals, a human without genitals is maybe not the greatest thing.

[00:14:17] And if you were given like, sort of like sexual desire or you know, like some sort of romantic interest, which Ken has, but she is not allowed to have like, like that seems like a real like double standard or like what and it really sort of like limits her character. Like, like you can understand like, okay, I’m gonna give up the eternal life of being a doll where the frailty of humanity because I can have sex.

[00:14:40] Right? Like, that actually makes sense. Right. You know, I can have romantic relationship and family life and, and also passion like that, that I think that’s a compelling story, but that’s not quite the story we’re given.

[00:14:52] Tarpley Hitt: Yeah, you can almost kind of feel the movie being hemmed in by other people’s expectations and sort of living up to the not unsteadily sexist legacy of Barbie, where I think there’s a version of this movie where Barbie would’ve wanted to have a real relationship and would’ve wanted to be able to experience like, you know, romantic love.

[00:15:11] And that could’ve been the motivation that she has for going to the real world and becoming real. But the thing about Barbie is that she’s never had a. Plus one. I mean, her plus one has been only a plus one. He is just can, and that was like one of the only feminist things about Barbie was that the, her boyfriend was the a sidekick.

[00:15:33] And and so you can feel the script being like, she can’t end up with a man. We we’re avoiding that trope. Right. And so and so I, I did kind of appreciate that on, on some level, but it also sort of s you know, In the void of having romance be the thing that leads you to the real world. It’s like, what do you want from it?

[00:15:55] Let’s, there’s so many other options, but, but I didn’t feel like I got any,

[00:16:00] Jeet Heer: yeah, well, or I mean, it doesn’t have to be, I mean, I, no, that’s a really great point. I mean, I, I can see that you don’t want it to be like, Barbie ends up with a guy, but I mean, there’s so much more to like being an embodied woman than just like, you know, being a girlfriend, right?

[00:16:14] Like, like, You know, like, you know, what is it in the real world that Barbie could want that she doesn’t have? And I think that there are probably a lot of things, you know, and it doesn’t necessarily include like, you know, a permanent partner, but it could, could just be like, you know, the thrill of being in social life and, and of having different part, many different partners and it doesn’t have to even be a man, right?

[00:16:34] Like, like one can imagine an ideal you know, rv that has a different type of Barbie movie where she is given those desires or, or sees things in human life that is, that is missing in hers. But, but, but yeah, that, that’s not what this movie gives. I think that you’re you’re the, the last point that you made, like, like that that is, it’s hemmed in is very right.

[00:16:54] And it might be hemmed in because of the sort of, you know, this is a preexisting intellect, intellectual property, and there are these Barbie rules, you know, that don’t quite make sense, but they are the rules of the Barbie universe. And so that might be a good occasion to talk about Yeah. Some of the origins of Barbie and the sort of, you know, contradictory messages that have come out and especially since you’re doing, you know, like a, a biography.

[00:17:18] So, do, do you wanna talk about a little bit about where Barbie comes from? Sure.

[00:17:23] Tarpley Hitt: So Barbie starts in Germany. Basically there was a, there’s a, there is a tabloid called Build X Tongue, which is sort of like the daily mail of Germany. It’s one of the top most subscribed to your newspapers. And it has sort of a, a, a sort of sensational emotional, slightly conservative bent to it.

[00:17:44] And in the fifties that paper was going to print, it was gonna be this sort of, you know, post-war West German tabloid based on British tabloids. I. And and then when it goes to print, they have a blank space on the second page. And so last minute they have to scramble and fill something in.

[00:18:04] And Axel Springer knows this cartoonist, Reinhardt Botin, who just draws a sort of fast doodle and it’s this. S you know, thin blonde woman who likes rich men, and she’s like visiting a psychic. And she says, do you know the address of it? A tall, handsome, rich man. And this was just supposed to be basically a page filler.

[00:18:25] But so many people wrote in and it became like this very popular public face of the newspaper. So it turned into a daily cartoon, but not just a daily cartoon. Like there would be models of the, of Lily, that was the cartoon’s name, bill Lily. On, you know, newstands and kiosks and all this merchandise.

[00:18:45] So she becomes sort of like the mascot of this paper. And eventually a doll. And so that’s the doll that Ruth Handler encounters in 1956. And she buys one, sends it off to Japan, basically has them reproduced in exactitude. There’s some minor, minor changes, but it’s mostly to the way the plastic is manufactured.

[00:19:08] And, and what they do with it, the injection molding techniques. And so the one that appears on the American market in 1959 is very similar. If you look at the tune side by side, it’s, you can tell that this is a more than inspired by the German doll.

[00:19:24] Jeet Heer: I’ll just say like, Lily based on your account, and I, I look at some of the cartoons is very much a sort of, you know male objectified view of women.

[00:19:32] You know, if it’s, it’s a fifties, so it felt a little bit like maybe a less curvy Marilyn Monroe, you know, as, and especially the Monroe of like how to marry a millionaire, right? The kind of, you know, dit see woman that’s like, you know, looking to Know she’s sexy and wants to use that sexiness to, you know, gain male attraction.

[00:19:51] And it’s also in some ways, you know, like you see a lot of the cartoons that ran in Playboy by people like Jack Cole and whatnot. I have a very similar aesthetic. And so, so it is, it is something that like, you know, like in the German form is like appealing, I think it seems like, like to men and to you know, men who a sex doll for men.

[00:20:12] Tarpley Hitt: Okay, so that is a, it’s in, there’s a lot of debate among Bill Lily historians about whether Taxol is appropriate. Yeah. And I initially used the term myself, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not quite right. Okay. Okay. So it’s this. You know, she’s definitely this, you know, Marilyn Monroe, thin, Marilyn Monroe character who’s obsessed with rich men, and she, all of her, you know, captions are about men, about, you know, getting money in some way and the doll that is later produced is totally like men buy it.

[00:20:47] It’s a bachelor party gift. It’s something you. You know, you’re meeting your friends at a tennis game. You bring a build lily and a tennis skirt. This was a, that was an actual thing, and it was like a joke. Mm-hmm. But, but it’s, but the way that kind of woman would’ve registered to German audience at the time, it was like actually kind of rebellious in that the personality of Bill Lily was sort of modeled on the amec American secretaries who were there.

[00:21:17] With the, like American troops and it was sort of this alternate mode of being a woman. It seemed to represent this alternate mode of being woman con contra, the, you know, rubble women of the PO post-war era and the sort of like Hitler values, the, the three Ks like kitchen. Yeah. And what, what’s the third one?

[00:21:38] Jeet Heer: Yeah, I, I don’t know. But I mean, there’s that very domestic ideal of the sort of bookish, you know, mother that we know from your sort of Nazi iconography of, you know, surrounded by the little blonde kids and in the kitchen, right? Like, yeah.

[00:21:52] Tarpley Hitt: Right. So much like Barbie who is this like, you know, Objectively speaking, not like, not a, not a totally feminist icon, right?

[00:22:02] She’s obsessed with shopping. She had that little book that said How to lose weight. You know, she, there’s so many things to quibble with in terms of how Barbie renders an idea of femininity. I. But at the same time, you know, she never, she never has kids. She’s never married. She has all of these own jobs.

[00:22:19] You know, she, she goes to the moon before most Americans could get credit cards. And Bill Lily was sort of similar, where it’s not by contemporary standards, a feminist portrayal of womanhood. At the same time, it was kind of out of sync with how women in German media were portrayed at the time, and that’s part of what fueled her popularity.

[00:22:41] Jeet Heer: Yeah. No, that’s so interesting. I mean, there’s a way in which there was that sort of fifties culture, which one also sees in sort of like Playboy and Barbara Reich wrote about this like wonderfully in her book in the Hearts of Men this sort of fifties culture that is a, a revolt against domesticity and, you know, like, you know, is an embrace of the freedoms of consumer society.

[00:23:01] And on the one hand, like it was initially geared towards men but it spoke toward dissatisfaction with that sort of more traditional or constricted lifestyle that eventually also spoke to women. So, so I, I, you can kind of see there’s you know, contradictory messages that so often in popular culture, right?

[00:23:19] Like you’re both sending messages of conformity. But also messages of rebellion to appeal to like a diverse audience that might have itself conflicting desires, so, right. Yeah. So, so, okay. Okay. That’s so, so Lily was not, a sex doll, I, I retract my characterization of her, but, but it, it shows which the ways in which, you know, things that might, you know, in the fifties, like even Marilyn Monroe herself, like things that, you know, to 21st century eyes might seem sexist.

[00:23:48] Were also also a form of liberation against forms of re oppression that we don’t necessarily experience or remember in as a lived experience.

[00:23:57] Tarpley Hitt: Right. And, and that said, she was still in advertisement, but yeah. One other thing that’s kind of interesting about her is the, in the short arc that she had in the late fifties she goes through a lot of the same phases that Barbie would later go through over the course of seven decades.

[00:24:11] And one of which is that in 1958, her popularity culminates in a movie. That was as big a phenomenon. I mean, not as big, nothing’s as big as this phenomenon, but almost as big where there was like a cross country audition process to find a woman who looked like Bill Lily. And one random actress named Ann Smyrna was spotted in a grocery store.

[00:24:35] And she becomes this like mega celebrity. And this movie you know, it translates to like little girl in the big city. Is the, the, the, the feminist politics there, there, you know, it’s, it’s limited, but but she is like, you know, an action figure, like an action star. She, she does, you know, martial arts and solves mysteries and saves the day.

[00:24:57] It is a bad movie though.

[00:24:59] Jeet Heer: Okay. So I I, I, we won’t be recommending that movie. But, but it, it is curious that it, it exists. So, so I, it seems like I, I mean it is interesting though that, you know, like, Lily was like, you know, made for like adult men, you know you know, we can acknowledge a kind of ambiguous figure in the sort of gender messages being sent out, but still, that’s the audience.

[00:25:21] And then like, you know, like, you know, by the late fifties, like all these American girls kind of take up Barbie as, as their model like, well, like what are, what do you think young girls are kind of seeing in Barbie that like, you know, makes her the huge hit that she is in the fifties and sixties?

[00:25:40] Tarpley Hitt: So when Barbie first launches, it’s kind of a bust. Mm-hmm. They’d way over ordered and it sort of peters out. But it, as soon as school gets out that summer in 1959, they start selling the hotcakes. And, and Barbie comes this mega phenomenon. And, and the question of like, why Barbie over all the other dolls is, is sort of the question like, there’s so many dolls.

[00:26:05] Why is this? The doll that has become arguably the most famous doll in all in the history of civilization. And I think it’s a couple things. One is that Mattel really had an early grasp on the power of, of marketing. So in the fifties, a lot of toy marketing, all of toy marketing happened in print.

[00:26:30] And. Mattel realized in 1956 that TV was going to be like the medium of the, of the next step, few decades, and so they spent way more than they should have. They, they spent some. Like 20% of their annual budget on this gamble to partner with the Mickey Mouse Club where they would blast out advertisements in between TV segments.

[00:26:54] And that was like really radical at the time. A lot of you know, ad activist groups were furious because it was the first, one of the first times that televised advertisement was directed at children. And so that was one thing. It turned out to be a, like a real gold mine for them. But and then, but then the other thing was they realized, they took what they, the handlers referred to as the razor blade theory approach to marketing.

[00:27:23] The idea of being that Gillette doesn’t just, Gillette will sell you a razor once, but then for the rest of your life, you’re buying the heads. Mm-hmm. So I think they figured out pretty quickly that they or they figured out a way to make a doll where the doll is just the entry point into a constant.

[00:27:41] Series of purchases where you’re, you’re not just buying Barbie, but you’re buying her clothes, her outfits, her accessories, her dog, her horse, her dream house, her Corvette, you know? And so it becomes this like o open door to a world of you’re just spending a ton of money at Mattel. And GI Joe actually comes out two years after Barbie and is modeled on a similar idea.

[00:28:03] They were like, we, how do we replicate this sort of open-ended purchasing scheme, but for targeted at boys. So they rebranded as action figure and introduced a similar kind of idea to the marketplace. So I, but so I think that Mattel figured out really early how to market. Then I also think that this, this blankness of Barbie, the fact that she has so little context made her infinitely reproducible in different contexts.

[00:28:33] So if a. Rival doll came out, they, Mattel could just release a Barbie that was doing that and you could have the Barbie doing X, y, Z activity as opposed to this new doll that you’ve never heard of. So for example, there was a, in the nineties this toy company rival called Kenner was trying to sort of carve out a portion of the fashion doll market and they introduced a pageant doll and they’d licensed the rights to some.

[00:29:01] One of the pageants, miss U s A, miss America, I, I forget one of them, but they they introduced this pageant doll to the marketplace, and Mattel immediately comes out with a pageant, Barbie immediately and then, and then get, they get into a legal conflict over copyright infringement and Mattel wins.

[00:29:18] So they, they’ve mastered this ability to like, oh, you think your new doll can do something? We have this very basic blank canvas doll, and we’re gonna have her do that also.

[00:29:29] Jeet Heer: Yeah. Wow. No, that’s I, I, I’m glad you mentioned these sort of like, economic aspects. I, I think, I do think, you know, in the sort of idealized world of discourse, like, you know People tend to forget the very basic fact that this is like a consumer product you know, being put up by a huge corporation.

[00:29:44] And that that’s sort of setting the sort of dictating a lot of the terms which what the doll and its interpretation exists as a sort of final thing. Maybe we can say a little bit something about Ruth Handler, the sort of executive who, you know, was instrumental in creating Barbie and is a character in a movie.

[00:30:03] Played by real Pearlman. In your review you kind of mentioned that, you know, like the The way that, that she sort of cast is a very you know, trying to make her into a like a Walt Disney or Stanley figure. Like, you know, like someone who’s benign public face to this enterprise in the heart of the, enter the creative heart of this enterprise.

[00:30:24] But Ruth Hadler’s a very interesting and complicated figure. Do you wanna just like, briefly say something about her?

[00:30:29] Tarpley Hitt: I mean, she was a really complicated figure. I, it, it’s interesting that they framed her as the creative heart of the company because she was always the business mind. Mm-hmm. Her husband Elliot was the creative mind.

[00:30:41] Yeah. And so there’s so many. Slight misconceptions of her. One is that in the movie she’s painted as this sort of like sweet, ethereal, grandmotherly figure who, you know, despite all the, you know, perverse values of the, of corporate priorities is the real, like human beating heart of, of the, you know, Barbie machine.

[00:31:03] And that. Is just not true. I mean, she is, was a fascinating character. She was like, you know, funny and, and biting but, you know, not sweet. She was by all accounts, like a brutal boss, a terrifying force to contend with. And one who was charged had, was charged for fraud and for false accounting practices.

[00:31:27] In 1978, she was indicted. But basically in the, in the, you know, early seventies Mattel had been growing at this you know, as crazy rate for years and the, the, their growth started to slow and then they started to do poorly and their, the, you know, sort of top executives were implicated in this scheme to sort of make it seem like Mattel was doing better than they had been.

[00:31:53] So it was, it was pretty straightforward fraud. But Ruth Handler gets off really easy. She gets a suspended sentence and just community service. And she has to start a, a charity which, which had some absurd acronym that was, it’s spelled people. But but so she was just kind of way, had way too many rough edges for the kind of sweet and, and almost A disservice to her overly simplistic character who sort of laughs like, ah, yeah, I’ve got problems with the I R S, but then is just, has Barbie’s best interest at heart?

[00:32:28] Jeet Heer: Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, I mean, it’s also very gendered, and this might be one of the most subtlest ways in which the movie reinforces their traditional gender norms. Yeah. Casting, you know, this hard edge businesswoman you know, who’s like, you know, really, you know corporate capitalism. In its most raw form, and it could be by some lights, a feminist hero in that way.

[00:32:50] Like, you know, you know, pioneer of women in the boardroom, but recasting her as this benign creative grandmother who like, you know, has a heart. Whereas the men don’t like the, the, I mean like, you know, there’s definitely some gender politics there. I’d say.

[00:33:04] Tarpley Hitt: Definitely, I mean, I also thought the way they portrayed the Mattel executives was so bizarre.

[00:33:10] Mm-hmm. It was, it felt so not fleshed out to me. Where on the one hand, I, I think Gerwig felt she needed to make fun of Mattel because otherwise people would write off the movie as a commercial, which they were gonna do anyway. But but, but as a result, she couldn’t exactly land on. Figure out what they were, whether they were good or bad.

[00:33:31] ’cause on the one hand, like everything, almost everything they say is like sort of unsteadily sexist. But then when Ken starts to take over Barbie land and Ken toys in the real world start doing well, there’s this bizarre moment where Will Ferrell, one of his assistants says, oh, we’re still making the same amount of money.

[00:33:49] Why do we care if Kens are taking over Barbie land? And Will Ferrell gives that weird speech about how he’s like, you know, the brother of a niece, of a mother, which is actually kind of funny, but but then for some reason he actually does care.

[00:34:02] Jeet Heer: Yes. Yes. He’s just shown us like we could, the Mattel executive is shown as being like, you know, we wanna actually do something for girls.

[00:34:09] And that’s, that’s our concern, not just money. And then also like what weirdly offsets it. I mean, you’re right about the, the way. Mm. There it is a comedy and there’s a lot of humor and some of it’s unset, but he also says, you know, like, I care about young girls, but not in a bad way. You know? It’s like, I, I admit, like, I laugh.

[00:34:27] It’s a funny line, but it’s also a bit of an unsettling line. Like, just in It’s weird. Yeah, it’s very weird. But I, I sort of a co, I mean like a hamper like seems to be such an interesting like, character, like the real ler. As against this, you know movie creation. And you know, like I can almost imagine to bring in the other big blockbuster of the summer, you know, like an Oppenheimer type movie.

[00:34:50] You know, first you have the creator of the bomb, now you have the creator of the bombshell. And just as Oppenheimer, you know. That’s good. That’s good. Might have had like you know, like ambiguous or. Understandable motivations in terms of, you know, wanting to just make sure America got the bomb before Nazi Germany.

[00:35:09] But then he came to realize that he’s unleashed something on the world that’s like, you know, truly monstrous and will have like, you know could. Destroys doll. I mean, that’s kind of true of Barbie as well, right? Like, you know, like you could kind of see like, you know, like if in the fifties it gave girls a doll that, you know, like is very active and, you know, part of is not domestic and not defined by motherhood.

[00:35:31] But, but then, you know, like it’s a plastic doll that, you know, you wrecking huge, like ecological disaster on, on on humanity. So, yeah, I, I, I. I, I, I would say that if there is another Barbie movie, I, I, I want it to be an Oppenheimer style film about Ruth Hamer. And also in both cases the I mean, Oppenheimer came at the contradictions of sort of Jewish assimilation.

[00:35:57] Being a, you know, very assimilated German, Jewish American. But then, you know, confronting the, the wasp power structure that by the early fifties decided, you know, like, well, some of these Jews are like a little bit too left for us. And suffering McCarthyism and, you know, like half by herself, like, you know, like being this, you know Polish Jewish American who create, you know, Uses this like German model to create like, you know, like I have to say, one of the most Aryan dolls imaginable.

[00:36:25] Yeah. There’s, there’s some interesting contradictions there, but, oh, definitely. Yeah. Do you, do you wanna write a, a Ruth handler biopic.

[00:36:32] Tarpley Hitt: I mean, I think she has, well, I, I, I didn’t love Oppenheimer, but I did think it was that they, they. The ambiguity about how you’re supposed to feel towards him, I thought was, you know, there were so many ways in which it was conveyed just meticulously.

[00:36:46] And I think that handler has so much backstory that would let itself to that kind of ambivalent portrayal. That the movie this movie could have done, but it would’ve been too complicated and would’ve made it more her story. But she’s, she’s definitely ripe for a biopic.

[00:37:03] Jeet Heer: Okay. So if anyone out there is listening, Hollywood finish the strike.

[00:37:06] We’re not gonna like scab, but the, we have a, we have a pitch here. You contact tarp, hit at the drift or via the nation and Have your people talk to our people. So, so again on that note, I wanna thank Tarpley for, for being on this podcast and for this really fun conversation about Barbie.

[00:37:25] Tarpley Hitt: Thank you for having me. It was so fun.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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