This story is part of Ensemble's doll week
It’s Barbie week! Ahead of the film’s release on July 20, we’ll be exploring the complex history of dolls, from iconic pop culture moments to nostalgic childhood memories and the season’s hyper-femme fashion.
The Ensemble team has been anticipating the film since it was announced way back in 2019 that Greta Gerwig would co-write and direct, and that obsession reached new levels of hysteria when the first behind-the-scenes images, of Barbie and Ken rollerblading, were released last year.
It has sparked plenty of conversations about our own histories with the doll, with half of the team – a millennial and a Gen X – not allowed one as a child, and the rest, growing up doll obsessed. So we sat down to talk about it, and unbox our fascination with the iconic doll that shaped our childhoods.
Rebecca Wadey, co-founder: We are gathered to talk about Barbies. Who here had a Barbie?
Zoe Walker Ahwa, co-founder, and Lara Daly, publishing coordinator: Yes!
RW: Favourite Barbie memory?
LD: Mine would probably be going with my mum to this random suburban lady's house who made Barbie clothes, and getting handmade outfits made. My mum tracked her down; I think they were cheaper than buying actual Barbie clothes.
ZWA: I thought I had lots of Barbies growing up, but I talked to mum about it and she reminded me that actually, I did not. The one I do distinctly remember having was the Jem and the Holograms rip off, Barbie and the Rockers. It came out around 1987, I believe, and was tied in with a TV show.
RW: What did she do? What was her vibe?
ZWA: She was a rockstar. She was peak 80s: she had big hair, and this amazing little white leatherette mini skirt with a purple belt. My sister and I also had the actual Jem and the Holograms dolls – but the Misfit characters, the naughty girls. I had a very 80s toy childhood: My Little Ponies, Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, Cabbage Patch Dolls which I still have in storage at mum’s house. What era was yours Lara, 90s?
LD: Yeah, it would've been the 90s or 00s. But I only had one Barbie. I don't remember what one she was. Now that I think about it, my strongest doll memory is my friend up the road who had Bratz dolls; her parents bought her all the Bratz, and we would spend hours after school in her room playing with them and dressing them up. That was the early 2000s, I think I have a bit of a stronger Bratz memory…
Tyson Beckett, style reporter: A generational divide.
ZWA: Definitely generational. Rebecca and Tyson, you didn’t have Barbies growing up, which I am fascinated by. Why were you not allowed one? Did you want a Barbie?
TB: Yes, to the point where when I was six I stole one of my friend’s Barbie dolls because I didn't understand why I wasn’t allowed one. One day mum was mowing the lawns and she found it. I'd hid it in the garden because I knew that stealing was bad. But I just really wanted this doll. I got in so much trouble. I had a friend over to play at the time and the play date got cancelled very dramatically.
ZWA: Did your mum ever explain properly why – because it was anti-feminist?
TB: I think she thought it was vapid or silly. But when you’re a kid, you just know that it’s something that all your friends have and that you don't. I think I did get one for my next birthday, but weirdly, I never really cared about it after that.
RW: I never had one because mum thought they were anti-feminist and perpetuated bad body image stereotypes. I did have a Sindy or Daisy doll – I can't remember which one.
ZWA: How were they different from Barbie’s portrayal of stereotypes?
RW: The measurements were a little more… realistic. She didn't have the large breasts [of Barbie], and she had a ‘normal’ sized waist and legs.
I didn't understand that all my friends had them and I wasn't allowed. I will never forget one year, all I wanted for Christmas was a Barbie who's hair changed colour. I wrote Santa so many begging letters and I was so good because that was what I wanted. My friend wrote to Santa in the same class, asking for a trampoline – a way bigger present. And Santa got her the tramp, and I got like, an orange, a book and a towel. I was devastated. I thought ‘I’ve been good, I did everything you wanted of me Santa!’
Mum had done Knitwit classes – the sewing classes for housewives of the 80s – and she made all our own clothes, and she made our Sindy or Daisy dolls clothes. I think my earliest doll memory was playing with mum’s childhood dolls: big, proper porcelain dolls. We’d put nail polish on their eyes, and chop off their hair.
ZWA: The alternative dolls are interesting – I had forgotten about Sindy! Rebecca, you touched on the connection between Barbie and harmful body image. What’s everyone’s thoughts on that?
TB: I remember mum being like, ‘if that was a real woman, she wouldn't even be able to stand up’. And I'd think, ‘she's not real! She's a toy’.
LD: My mum never really had that conversation with me. Barbie was just of such unrealistic proportions that I never clocked that; I never was like, ‘oh, do people look like that?’ It was just fake: she was a fake doll with crazy hip joints.
RW: I mean, she was perfectly waxed too.
TB: Yeah, she had her name stamped all over her vagina. I remember being obsessed with that.
RW: Tyson went straight to her vagina.
TB: Yeah, honestly I do think it was some sort of forbearing sign of queerness. “Maybe the Barbies would kiss?”
RW: Mum didn't believe in having that kind of stereotype around. But then, I look at her dolls from when she was a child that we played with and they were weird proportions. They were like babies, but those proportions are wrong.
LD: If you had a daughter would you let her play with Barbies?
RW: Yeah man, I’d buy her anything she wants. I'm all about capitalism.
TB: Yeah I reckon.
ZWA: Yes 100%, if she wanted one. Or if a little boy wanted it. I’m not into the idea of, ‘you playing with this means you’re not a feminist.’ It enrages me. Would you?
LD: Yeah obviously, because I have grand plans to make a dolls house and fill it with miniature things.
RW: I bought a dollhouse for my boys. I tried to get them into all this stuff and they never really did. I would have loved to have bought them a Barbie. But I would've been like, “see how Barbie's skin’s so smooth? Real people have hairs and pimples!”
ZWA: …You would’ve been a Barbie buzzkill. [all laugh]
I’m into how it’s all purposely ‘wrong’ and fake – which they’ve talked about in the press for the movie. Greta Gerwig has mentioned what she described as ‘authentic artificiality’, and it plays into that idea of hyper aware fakeness, which Barbie was and is.
It is interesting: why are we, four smart, feminist women, so obsessed with this character and movie that is purposely fake?
RW: I think for me, it's because Greta Gerwig has done it. I wouldn't be as obsessed with this movie if it was like, Michael Bay or you know…
ZWA: …Amy Schumer, who was originally going to do it.
RW: I was desperate for a Barbie and went and played with them with my friends. It's like when I tried to stop my children playing computer games when they were at primary school. They would just find friends whose parents would let them and go to their house after school. That was me, with Barbie. But I never partook in any other Barbie activity: I never watched any movies, TV shows. I never bought any Barbie books, colouring books. I was only about the doll.
I think that the only thing that's brought me back into this, and justified the obsession, is that intelligent take from Greta Gerwig. Seeing what was considered play back then piqued my interest, and having someone more intelligent than me unpack it.
LD: For me, playing with Barbies was probably the first time I could imagine myself as a grown woman. My Barbie, most of the time, was the teacher. She would be the teacher to all of my toys and run classes and structured lessons.
RW: She was smart!
LD: She was smart, and it was a way to kind of live out or imagine what your grownup life would be, basically. That's very mesmerising when you are little.
TB: I think it's that escapism too. You were living out your hopes and dreams through the dolls: ‘what would it be like if I was Barbie and this was all real’. There’s that appeal, but not in cartoon form – the live action part plays a role too.
ZWA: It's also this thing of Barbie being silly, girly… and therefore, dismissed.
But I also just love the aesthetic. I have always been very into that toyishness. The Barbie Dreamhouse – heaven – that pairing of pink and purple, the purposely unnatural colours.
That's also what I'm interested in from the movie: how that [aesthetic] starts there and will trickle down into design trends. It’s the opposite of this beige minimalism that we've had for so long, which is so boring. In saying that… I am kind of getting over the intense marketing around it.
RW: The commercialisation! [all laugh]
RW: Obviously, we've gone through Covid, civil war in the US basically, really horrible economic times. Bleak. Depressing. So this new Barbie is like joy personified.
LD: I just hope that it's funny.
RW: I don't care so much about it being funny. I want it to almost be a bit bleak.
ZWA: Same! I want it to be sickeningly sweet and darkly funny.
TB: Really? See, I don't wanna think too much, ever.
ZWA: I know you’re joking, but that does sort of relate to the recent chatter around the ‘reclamation of bimbohood’ – ‘no thoughts, just vibes’ type thing. There is more self-awareness, but it does remind me a little of toxic noughties raunch culture.
I remember being obsessed with this probably now problematic book [released in 2010] that was literally called Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism and featured a Barbie on the cover…
I think the movie will be very conscious of its ‘bimbo’ history and try to subvert or reposition it. But… is all of this really subverting the patriarchy, or are we just being blinded by pink marketing and embracing it in different packaging?
RW: I mean, regardless of how intellectual Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie make this film, and how earnestly they do try to subvert the patriarchy, at the end of the day it’s a capitalist vehicle, right? Just look at all the merch that’s being spun from it. And ultimately capitalism IS the patriarchy.
That said, I remember when Top Gun was finally released post-Covid and everyone was crediting Tom Cruise for saving cinema. I would love Barbie to blow those box offices out of the water.
This story was published during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023. Barbie and other films would not exist without the labour of writers and actors.