This summer has been plastic fantastic as Barbie-mania swept the world. The self-titled film has grossed over $1bn, cementing director Greta Gerwig as the only woman in history to have directed a billion-dollar film and inspiring the portmanteau ‘Barbillion’. Of course, this iconic doll has never needed an introduction – her reputation has always preceded her.
Barbie is a cultural phenomenon, but her public image hasn’t always been favourable – historically, she has been criticised for promoting unrealistic beauty standards. With her legacy spanning over sixty years, reshaping Barbie’s reputation was no easy or small feat. Yet, the film didn’t just manage to achieve this; it completely upended the public’s perception of what she represents. By boldly acknowledging the past, and renewing her powerhouse brand with new messaging, Barbie’s reputation as we knew it was transformed.
A Barbie-licious Trojan horse
Strong brand imagery speaks for itself, and as the film’s promotion began, Barbie’s image seemed to be as bubblegum pink as ever. Plastering her brand everywhere – and generating those associated feelings of childhood nostalgia – was the hook to begin reshaping her reputation; nothing was pink without purpose. A real-life Malibu Dreamhouse and a Pink Burger were two of the endless collaborations that sparked Barbie fever. It was even reported that the amount of pink paint used in the film’s set designs caused a worldwide shortage.
With the public’s attention captured, trailers and clips were phased in teasing surprisingly feminist messaging as Barbie journeyed from the matriarchal Barbieland to the patriarchal “real world”. In interviews, cast members highlighted how Barbie was originally made to inspire girls into pursuing careers and financial independence, making her a feminist role model.
Breadcrumbing this messaging was a reminder that Barbie was created as a force for good; maybe the public had been too harsh on her. But a reputation cannot be reshaped by simply sweeping criticism under the carpet. For Barbie’s reputational revamp to be a success, the brand needed to acknowledge its less-than-perfect past.
Addressing the pink elephant in the room
The Barbie trailer featured a surprising message: “If you love Barbie, this film is for you. If you hate Barbie, this film is for you”. When the film finally released, the public flocked to the cinema in their pinkest finery – I, of course, was one of them. The anticipation had reached a fever high, and audiences sat with bated breath.
The trailer’s trace of self-awareness at Barbie’s past reputation unfolded into a full-blown acknowledgement tinged with shock tactics. As she ventures into the “real world”, she believes she has made a positive impact on women’s lives. Instead, she harshly learns of her poor reputation, with teenage character Sasha even calling her a “fascist”.
To spotlight Barbie’s past in such a direct manner was shockingly bold, but like everything else, it wasn’t without purpose. Yes, public perception vilified Barbie – but it wasn’t unjustified. Barbie was created to inspire girls, but she’d missed the mark and her reputation had paid the price. As audiences were wondering how on earth maker Mattel allowed this scene to play out, the film moved into its final phase of her reputational overhaul.
Bringing Barbie to life (literally)
When reshaping a reputation as infamous as Barbie’s, authenticity is non-negotiable. It implies honesty and integrity, and a determination to not have her future impact replicate her past.
Barbie’s emotionally charged pièce de resistance came at the very end: the doll holds creator Ruth Handler’s hands and takes her first breaths, interspersed with a montage of real women and girls. In this moment, Barbie – a plastic and inherently inauthentic doll – is humanised. Suddenly, she is no longer an unreachable idea of perfection; she is just like every other girl and woman. And she is for everyone.
To highlight Barbie’s past reputation without actually doing anything about it would’ve been in poor taste – audiences would’ve been left with the shock factor, but no substance. Instead, the blend of heritage brand imagery and powerful message reverberated through cinemagoers. Barbie had entered a new era.
There’s no doubt that Barbie, and its promotional rollout, were engineered to reshape the doll’s image. The film was somehow everything and nothing like I expected it to be, but it’s no surprise that this gargantuan reputational overhaul was a success. Whilst its long-term impact is yet to be determined, this summer affirmed that, love her or hate her, it really is Barbie’s world – we’re all just living in it.