Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Decoding Barbie’s Radical Pose

Illustration by Tim Enthoven

The “Barbie” movie glides over the history of dolls as powerful cultural objects.

In Barbieland, as envisioned in “Barbie,” the writer-director Greta Gerwig presents a world where positions of power are held by female dolls such as a Black President Barbie and a Filipina American Supreme Court Justice Barbie. Indeed, in the pink landscape of “Barbie,” all the jobs are held by women, and the Dreamhouses are owned by them, too; the Kens are mere decoration until one of them catches a glimpse of men’s lives in the Real World. But, by making patriarchy the villain of the story, the movie glides over the decades in which Mattel, the company that makes Barbie, waffled on racial representation and the depiction of women’s professional roles. “The Barbie world you see in the film is Malibu Barbie from 1971,” Rob Goldberg, the author of the forthcoming book “Radical Play: Revolutionizing Children’s Toys in 1960s and 1970s America,” says, “but, in reality, the racial diversity of the Barbie character wasn’t there yet.”

Goldberg’s book describes how toys became political during the sixties and seventies—from Lionel Corporation’s toy trains’ embrace of anti-violence rhetoric to wooden figurines that allowed children to assemble families more complex than a husband, wife, and two kids. American culture was convulsed by Vietnam War protests, Title IX disputes, and the Equal Rights Amendment debates, and toys were enlisted in the fights for empowerment and equity by women and people of color. Gerwig’s film builds upon, but only occasionally acknowledges, sixty years of attempts to use the popularity of Barbie to advance a more complex agenda than sun, fun, and lots of pink. That’s too bad, both for the historical record and for the new buyers of Barbie that the film’s success will attract. As Goldberg writes, the nineteen-sixties forced toy-makers “to publicly reckon with, perhaps for the first time, their status as entrepreneurs of ideology.”