Arte and France tv offer two programs returning to the beginnings of the most famous doll in the world.
A closer look at Barbie's history reveals that Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbachhave learned very well about the most famous doll in the world. On the occasion of the theatrical release of the film with Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, two TV channels decided to program documentaries on the Mattel toy. This Friday, August 4 on Arte, we find in particular Barbie, the perfect woman?, directed by the Germans Julia Zinke and Nicola Graef. A little over two months ago, France tv also broadcast And God Created Barbie, a documentary by Julie Delettre and Gabriel Garcia, available until September 5 on the francetv.fr platform.
After watching these two films, the screenplay choices of the authors of Barbiethen take on their full meaning. In the fiction, nothing was left to chance: fairly faithfully, the story matches some of the brand's marketing choices, which therefore had an impact on little girls around the world. Thus, if the discourse of the film can sometimes seem ambivalent, it is mainly because Mattel has been so from the start.
Here are five enlightening facts to keep in mind:
Barbie: the promo is she doing too much?
Barbie, the very first independent adult doll
With the arrival of Barbie on the American market in the 1960s, the very first adult doll appeared. Before that, little girls could only play with dolls. In other words, they could only play mom. From now on, they hold in their hands a miniature woman, in 3D, and can project themselves into their future life other than through motherhood. This was in particular the goal of Ruth Handler, creator of the Barbie doll, whose name was inspired by her daughter Barbara. In the 1960s, this represented a small revolution. Moreover, Mattel executives were terrified of incurring the wrath of conservatives. To reassure them, the tone is set: yes, Barbie is frivolous and attached to her image, but rest assured, it is only for the purpose of accessing marriage.
Despite everything, over the years, Barbie will never become a mother. Instead, she chained professions, sometimes even only reserved for men, starting with Barbie president. Barbie astronaut, researcher or surgeon take over: even before women had access to a bank account, the doll was leading its way to male professions. Moreover, the Arte documentary shows how Mattel has always been surfing on empowerment. Every year, the brand honors women for their careers, and continues to proclaim itself a company for the emancipation of women. This multiplication of positions of power is largely taken up in Greta Gerwig's film, where the Barbies control the pink world and are far from knowing the word patriarchy.
In Mattel's marketing, Ken has always played a secondary role
If Ryan Gosling struggles to find his place in the world of Barbie, it is no coincidence. Any little girl who owns a Barbie knows it: when you invent stories with your dolls, Ken never has the main role of the scenario. The real star is her. From the start, this was the goal of Mattel, who never found it necessary to create a personality for Barbie's companion. On the contrary, in the marketing strategy of the brand, we do everything so that it takes up as little space as possible, and that it gives it all the light. Ken was created two years after her, in 1961, and is named after Ruth Handler's son. It was not until the 1970s that other variants of the character were developed.
Barbie's curvy feet: the fault of 50s stiletto fashion
Barbie, the perfect woman?shows that, despite many evolutions, Barbie keeps its heritage of the 50s. In particular, a few years before its creation, the first stiletto heels, made from a steel rod rather than wood, had just been claimed by the Italians. The greatest actresses had already monopolized these elegant shoes creating slender legs. Result: in the collective imagination, Barbie wears heels in all situations, and it will be necessary to wait until 2015 before the first doll with flat feet appears on the market.
The France tv documentary goes a little further, and highlights three American actresses of the 50s who would have inspired Barbie's physique beyond her feet: Marilyn Monroe, Mamie Van Doren and Jayne Mansfield(“the 3Ms”). The documentary focuses mainly on the latter, who embodied the pin-up model. To achieve her hourglass figure, she had to wear corsets, among other things. Representing much more than a physical appearance, Jayne Mansfield has above all built her entire career around her assertive girly personality. In particular: before Barbie, the actress already lived in a palace all dressed in pink: car, carpet, and even heart-shaped bathtub, widely publicized at the time.
Over time, Barbie has kept the dream body sold in cinemas and pubs. Thus, several decades later, we continue to sell a body impossible to reach without “working” it via cosmetic surgery or the corset. In real life, 1 in 2 billion women would have such a morphology, we are told in the documentary.
In the 60s, Mattel wants to make its brand more inclusive
Like any capitalist company, Mattel has had to adapt to social changes, and learn from its many controversies over the years. In particular, we remember “Barbie pajama party”, a 1965 kit in which a scale and a manual “How to lose weight? Do not eat”. The original model, designated as “stereotypical Barbie” in Greta Gerwig's film, is then declined in a more inclusive way. Mattel begins by marketing a first colored doll, Francy, in 1966. But the first Black Barbie will not arrive until 1980. Subsequently, the brand develops 175 different dolls to mark its inclusiveness. More recently, dolls with more realistic morphologies have appeared on the market, as well as Barbies in wheelchairs, suffering from a skin disease or Down's syndrome. In 2018, Nigerian artist Haneefah Adam also designed the first Veiled Barbie. The Arte documentary recalls that Ruth Handler had envisioned Barbie as a reflection of her time, and therefore wanted her to constantly evolve.
Lilli, the German ancestor of Barbie
Certainly, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach wanted to rely on the historical context of Barbie, from its creation in 1959 (and do it very well by the way). On the other hand, what we don't hear about in the film is what happened before. In reality, Ruth Handler more or less copied a German doll that already existed: Lilli. And yes, Barbie has an ancestor. During a family trip to Europe, the businesswoman stumbles upon a small figurine in the window. Sold with the Build tabloid, it was created in the likeness of a humorous vignette character that appears in the newspaper every day. Extremely thin, with endless legs and an hourglass figure, Lilli is sexy and attractive. In other words, Lilli was created by and for men. In And God Created Barbie, we also learn that she was regularly bought by men, who offered her to women with a saucy undertone. But Ruth Handler does not lose sight of her idea, and intends to make Barbie a softer version of Lilli, intended for little girls. Returning to California, she realizes that the doll is not patented in the United States, and decides to start.