This story is part of Ensemble's doll week
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie has infiltrated pop culture in a manner that surely has marketers laughing all the way to the bank, but the much hyped film isn’t the first time dolls have captured the zeitgeist.
Decades before Ken-ergy was screen-tested, doll aesthetics and vernaculars have found their way into our homes, turns of phrase and wardrobes. Below, our round up of pop culture’s pitch-perfect doll moments.
“I would totally watch a movie about Barbie realising she's a toy and having an existential crisis,” is the top comment on this genius five year old SNL skit that I have rewatched maybe 55 times.
Written by Julio Torres of Los Espookys fame and starring Donald Glover as one of three marketing interns suggesting captions for Barbie’s Instagram, it is a darkly funny spoofing of the inanity of social media marketing and the tight control of corporations like Mattel. I’m actually convinced that this skit partly inspired Greta Gerwig’s “do you guys ever think about dying” line in the film, and that it will have similar dark and knowing undertones.
It all builds to a depressing crescendo with Glover reflecting on Barbie's realisation that she's simply a cog in a corporate machine: “I overheard a woman at the supermarket say the strangest thing. She said, ‘there goes Barbie. Poor thing, she doesn’t know she’s a toy. Created by a corporation. Silly thing has never wondered where the car or the house came from’. And the truth is, I’d never thought of those things, until today. Today is the first and very last day of my life.” Dark!
Other SNL Barbie skits worth watching: Britney Spears as younger sister (or is that daughter?) Skipper, and a 2005 skit starring Paris Hilton about the doll’s Dreamhouse. - Zoe Walker Ahwa
Doll Parts and Kinderwhore
“I am doll eyes, doll mouth, doll legs. I am doll arms, big veins, dog beg,” Courtney Love sings in Hole’s 1994 single Doll Parts, written about the unrequited romance she found herself in with Kurt Cobain. Following their first encounter Love sent Cobain a heart-shaped box scented with perfume and a porcelain doll stuffed with three dried roses.
“It was about a boy, whose band had just left town, who I'd been sleeping with, who I heard was sleeping with 2 other girls,” Love explained in 2020. Lyrically dealing with themes of rejection (“he only loves those things because he loves to see them break”), the angsty anthem took on more tragic meaning after Cobain's death.
Love’s fragile and slightly unkempt appearance and overt displays of feminine rage also came to typify the kinderwhore aesthetic that saw exaggerated feminine elements of dress to the point of subversion. This interplay between notions of innocence, sexuality and gender norms have gone on to be explored by a multitude of fashion designers, with Hedi Slimane, Batsheva and Marc Jacobs amongst them. - Tyson Beckett
Aunt Sally in Worzel Gummidge
Growing up in the early 80s there was only one glamorous, fashionable and iconic doll I stanned for and that was Aunt Sally. Played by the late Una Stubbs, I was obsessed with everything about her; her beauty (obviously) but also her hair, makeup and clothing.
Sally was Worzel Gummidge’s girlfriend, although it was a pretty manipulative relationship – Sally was no dummy, despite her wooden appearance. She could only come to life in the scarecrow’s company and she’d use that to plot her escape, only to be foiled by the presence of humans, in which she’d find herself inexplicably turned to wood, often in the most humiliating of circumstances. - Rebecca Wadey
The Simpsons did it first
Like many facets of contemporary pop culture in the 90s, The Simpsons nailed their satirical dissection of the doll. In the 1994 episode Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy, Lisa grows frustrated with the sexist phrases that her talking doll spouts (“Thinking too much gives you wrinkles”) so sets out to create her own, more realistic doll that instead models aspirational ambitions for girls.
The story line was inspired by Mattel’s 1992 Teen Talk Barbie that garnered criticism for broadcasting phrases such as “Math class is tough” – and closer to home, paralleled the feminist reasons my own mother gave me for denying me my own Barbie doll.
Riffing on the consumerist appeal of the shiny and new, Malibu Stacy’s creators in the episode squash Lisa’s attempt by releasing a new doll: just a cheap reissue, with a new hat. Also of note: The depiction of Waylon Smithers, a then closeted gay man, as a near obsessive doll collector. - TB
Valley of the Dolls
"I'm scared. I've forgotten how to sleep without dolls. I can't get through a day without a doll."
In the context of the iconic and extremely camp 1967 film and 1966 novel by Jacqueline Susann, 'dolls' are pills – the uppers and downers that help the three main characters cope with the darkness of showbiz and being a woman in the 60s.
According to Vice, they're "a reference to how they cling to the drugs, the way a child might become inseparable from a cherished toy doll" – encapsulated by pill-popping Neeley O'Hara's various tantrums along the way. "I want a doll! I want a doll!" - ZWA
Doll check-in, doll check-in
The language of queer culture has been embraced (some might say co-opted) by the mainstream, with people embracing phrases like 'sis', 'slay' and 'mother' – all with roots in ballroom vernacular (led by Black and Latinx trans women). 'Doll' or 'the dolls' is another such phrase, used by some trans-feminine women to describe themselves and/or their friends. (For some New Zealanders it may also conjure very different images of that thickly accented aunty who greets those she likes with a friendly 'hi doll').
There are some high profile examples of those who have embraced the phrase as a reclamation of the traditional and often conservative ideals of femininity. On TikTok, Devin Halbal, known as @hal.baddie, has built a community who adore her for her many catchphrases, including "doll check-in, doll check-in".
And actor Hari Nef, who features in the new Barbie film, shared the trailer with the story behind her casting, writing on Instagram:
"Identity politics and cinema aren’t my favorite combination, but the name BARBIE looms large over every American woman. Barbie’s the standard; she’s The Girl; she’s certainly THE doll. Me and my girlfriends – okay, yeah, me and my other transgender girlfriends – we started calling ourselves ‘the dolls’ a couple of years ago, though the phrase stretches back into the language of our foremothers in the ballroom scene. ‘The Dolls.’ Maybe it's a bid to ratify our femininity, to smile and sneer at the standards we’re held to as women.
"It’s a joke, of course; we throw our voices: ‘the do-o-lls!’ But underneath the word “doll” is the shape of a woman who is not quite a woman – recognizable as such, but still a fake. ‘Doll’ is fraught, glamorous; she is, and she isn’t. We call ourselves ‘the dolls’ in the face of everything we know we are, never will be, hope to be. We yell the word because the word matters. And no doll matters more than Barbie.'" - ZWA
Barbie is a DJ
Barbie’s symbiotic relationship with the musical world extends far beyond Aqua’s school disco anthem Barbie Girl. Barbie herself has had many musical careers: in the 80s she fronted a band called The Rockers which competed with Hasbro’s Jem doll line, and a long line of musicians have had versions of their own Barbie released.
Her influence on music doesn’t end there. Nicki Minaj’s fan base are referred to by a series of Barbz adjacent names, and in 2012 Marina and the Diamonds released Su-Barbie-A, a musical interlude that uses the original instrumental of their earlier song Valley of the Dolls plus sampled clips from The Stepford Wives. Meanwhile icon Dolly Parton’s 42nd solo studio album, a return to her country roots after an amble into pop music, was cheekily titled Backwoods Barbie. - TB
Jasper the doll
If you are on a certain feral and extremely niche side of TikTok, your FYP would recently have been bombarded with a husky voiced, defaced Barbie doll screaming, “Hey guys”.
I don’t know why, but she has 1.1M followers; she is the epitome of a very weird TikTok account that goes viral for perfectly encapsulating the chaos of the moment. Jasper’s most popular video is one where she’s interrupted while making a video, screeching “What?! I’m making a video.” This is dollcore at its most meta. - ZWA
Trixie Mattel’s Decades of Dolls
I once spent hours watching this YouTube series from one of my favourite drag queens, Trixie Mattel. Made during the chaos of lockdown as a guided tour of her private and extensive Barbie collection, it’s all very pink and silly – but the best part is Trixie’s genuine excitement for the fashion dolls. As she explains in her first video, “You’re basically collecting snapshots of American history: the hair, the fashion, the makeup, the careers they’re dressed up as.”
As a 1984 child, my favourite video is, of course, looking at dolls of the 80s — which Trixie describes as “the decade that Barbie starts to completely separate with reality - her 👏 outfits 👏 are 👏 psycho 👏” — followed by the poufy gowns of the 90s.
Trixie’s entire brand is high-pink, high-camp, from her doll-like makeup to her pink wardrobe and Palm Springs motel that’s basically Barbie’s dream house. I’m surprised they haven’t made more of her and her following in the marketing for the film, though maybe it’s all a bit too close to home for the very controlling Mattel. Trixie also has a dreamy makeup line, Trixie Cosmetics, and one day I will buy one of her heart shaped hand mirrors. - ZWA
Dolls on screen
The killer looks of the pussy bow wearing M3gan and Squid Games’ Young-hee had audiences in a chokehold in the past few years, but reanimated dolls have loomed large over our screens for much longer.
In Life-Size, the 2000 TV movie, Lindsay Lohan plays a girl whose doll (played by THE Tyra Banks) is transformed into a real person. Back in 1987 it was Kim Cattrall coming to life in the film Mannequin, this time as an Egyptian woman whose spirit inhabits a shop mannequin (no, actually). Basically explorations of what happens when dolls become sentient ain’t new doll. - TB
Barbie’s ultimate closet
The recent run of branded clothing or accessory collections, available from Typo, CottonOn, Peter Alexander, Aldo, Crocs, Oodie and more, proves that Mattel will slap the Barbie logo on almost anything. But the fashion doll has had several high-fashion moments over the years, with designer dolls made in the likeness of Karl Lagerfeld, Vera Wang and Diane von Furstenberg, and brands like Dior, Coach, Burberry, Jean Paul Gaultier and Bob Mackie creating ensembles.
One of the most authentic luxury fashion/doll partnerships came in 2015 from Jeremy Scott at Moschino, who released an entire collection inspired by Barbie — the show featured model Charlotte Free rollerblading down the runway in a pink athleisure suit, and other cartoonish looks. In 2019 the brand dressed Kacey Musgraves for the camp-themed Met Gala as a life-sized doll in a pink leather dress and blonde wig; she committed to the bit by arriving in a matching hot pink corvette.
More recently, another plastic doll icon took a turn on the runway, with Loewe’s fall 2023 collection featuring molded leather jackets and skirts – what designer Jonathan Anderson described as “like Playmobil”, and clearly inspired by Polly Pocket. - ZWA
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.