Now that Barbie is a character in a major Hollywood movie, many, it seems, are trying to take advantage of her popularity. Not everyone, however, is agreed on what Barbie represents to girls and women — or that posting her likeness on social media is a good idea, even if there’s a good intention behind it.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is promoting a dark-haired version of Barbie dressed in a pink pantsuit that looks a lot like her on her social media account. The Michigan State Parks, Trails and Waterways Twitter page shows two Barbies bird-watching.
And the Michigan State Police had posted a blonde Barbie in a blue uniform with a shield who is “ready to serve.”
The post was recently deleted and there was a new tweet that explained why: the State Police said it “values the contributions of our female members and out of respect for them we have removed our previous post about Barbie.” Friday, the State Police told the Free Press it had nothing to add to that.
What role should Barbie play in a #MeToo era? That’s hard to say.
It might seem like a contradiction for the governor, the boss, to embrace Barbie — and her love of pink outfits — while the state police pleads contrition for offending some of its troopers. But Barbie is a toy that, after all these years and attempts to re-invent it, is still causing controversy.
Big breasts, big ambitions
By now, the story about Barbie is well known.
Barbie was imagined by Ruth Handler in the early 1950s. She wanted to model a doll on adult women, instead of a baby, in order to help young girls imagine what they could be when they grew up. She named the doll Barbie, after her daughter Barbara.
Handler’s inspiration came from a German doll called Bild Lilli, who was created to be a sexy trinket for soldiers during World War II. Bild Lilli was based on a comic strip about a big-breasted, tiny-waisted, pinup girl.
From its conception, Barbie battled a complicated duality between her purposefully and overtly sexual appearance and empowering stand on women as an independent and capable force. While the modern woman may relate to Barbie’s struggle with society’s expectations of her, the doll’s dual purpose has created intense debate.
Barbie was criticized for her oversexualized and unrealistic body by feminists and conservatives.
And after declining sales in the early to mid 2010s, the dolls got a makeover.
She now comes in many different shapes such as “petite,” “athletic,” “curvy,” and “original,” but the body expectations her figure reinforces to girls is often viewed as problematic and, some say, even potentially damaging.
Margot Robbie’s take
During her press tour, Margot Robbie, who plays Barbie in the movie released Friday, defended the doll and its creation. She also commented on society’s perception of Barbie.
“First we made Barbie, and we loved Barbie. And then we hated Barbie,” Robbie told IGN Entertainment in an interview about what the toy represents. “And now I think we’re realizing, or I’m realizing, it’s not about Barbie, it’s about us.”
In 2019, Robbie also played Kayla Pospisil, a character who is sexually harassed in the movie “Bombshell.”
Robbie told Vogue magazine Barbie “is sexualized,” but “she should never be sexy.” She said people project sex onto her, adding: “Yes, she can wear a short skirt, but because it’s fun and pink. Not because she wanted you to see her butt.”
The actress also described Barbie’s influence.
“Barbie went to the moon before women were allowed to have credit cards,” she said. “Barbie did all this stuff at a time when women did not have any financial autonomy in their lives, and surely that infiltrated our collective minds in some way and made us go, ‘I want my own car, I want my own house, I want to do whatever job I want to do.’ “
Whitmer’s political gamble
Whitmer, 51, is getting some political benefit to the Barbie association on social media and with state and national publications, like the New York Times, writing about it. The Times even tells the backstory behind why Whitmer likes pink, or fuchsia. Her mom, an assistant attorney general, called it her “power color.”
The governor’s doll, the Times said, has been dubbed Lil’ Gretch, a play on Whitmer’s nickname, Big Gretch.
The Times, however, said it was “a bit of a gamble to intentionally compare a female politician to a doll once programmed to despair that ‘math class is tough’ and who has been such an avatar for sexist clichés that feminists spent the 1970s brandishing posters that declared ‘I am not a Barbie doll.’ “
Perhaps, the governor is trying to appeal to girls, now women, who grew up with a Barbie that its maker, Mattel, marketed as a someone who could do anything, with 150 or so careers on her resume. Among other things, Barbie is a nurse, doctor, aerobics instructor, pilot — and, as the state police pointed out, a police officer.
In a recent Tweet, a smiling Whitmer is holding her look-alike doll, which even has a necklace with a pendant in the shape of Michigan.
“When I first ran for governor, someone said to me: ‘Just promise me you’ll show up as you are. Don’t dim yourself because of what other people think and feel, be who *you* are,’ ” the tweet says. “I’ve carried that message with me through all the ups and downs.”
That doesn’t settle the controversy, but it offers another viewpoint: It’s up to you to decide Barbie’s role.
Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or email@example.com.