Pretty Crazy In Pink


The idea that Barbie is amazingly cerebral and the biggest-grossing film of 2023 (more than $1.4 billion worldwide, or as Warner Bros. jokes, “Barbillions”) is contradictory and a brain-buster.

While brimming with brilliant philosophical (and comical) takes on feminist history, women’s bodies, existential dread, the patriarchy, capitalism, commercialism, and collective trauma, Barbie even managed to top box-office beast “The Super Mario Brothers Movie.”

One of the plot points in that film involves Mario beating Donkey Kong by using a Cat Suit.

How does this happen?

For one, writer/director Greta Gerwig, along with her co-writer husband Noah Baumbach, have made an absolutely modern, wild, uncategorizable film that somehow also brings big, broad, palpable joy to the surface.



Some of it is witchcraft and magic. But there also might be some lessons for advertisers here in creating a communications piece (and Barbie is basically a very elevated two-hour ad) that conquers the world.

Number one: Self-awareness is key. Figure out where the brand has historically fit into the culture, and where it is now.

“Barbie” is so subversive that it’s even mild-to-moderately vicious towards Mattel, its corporate overlord.

In the movie, Mattel CEO (Will Ferrell) is turned into a cartoon villainidiot, wrong at every step, needing to learn lessons while surrounded by his aggressively nodding, absurdly boot-licking, all-white, all-male board members.

Mattel had been trying to make a Barbie movie for years (at one point, Amy Schumer was going to play the blonde plaything.) Eventually, Aussie Margot Robbie (who never put a tiny, pronged-foot wrong while playing the lead character) acquired the IP rights and through her production company, Lucky Chap Entertainment, secured a deal with Mattel and Warner Bros.

Robbie signed Greta Gerwig as director and co-writer with her husband, Noah Baumbach. And they somehow sold Mattel on the idea that it would be smarter, funnier, and more culturally relevant to poke fun at itself, but overall still respect the brand.  In so doing, the couple got complete control of the script, saying they’d walk away if they didn’t.

Granted, this amount of corporate self-awareness is tough for brands to take on, but it’s important if they want to seem refreshingly smart and real.

Pre-sell:  Barbie also had a very expensive (upwards of $150 million) marketing campaign in place for months before the movie opened.

But frankly, the plethora of tie-in deals annoyed me. (Bright fuchsia X-box, anyone?) 

What was great -- and counterintuitive -- was the way Warner Bros. dealt with would-be haters, those turned off by pink, plastic, or fake use of IPs.  First the studio released the opener of the movie, a clever parody of  “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with a towering Barbie in striped bathing suit, as a trailer to set the unexpected tone. So did the deft, attitudinal taglines like, “If you love Barbie, this is the movie for you. If you hate Barbie, this is the movie for you.”

Hope for luck in the timing: The advent of Barbenheimer couldn’t have been planned. But the idea that two big sweeping movies, one about dolls and women, the other about bombs and men, were simultaneously released made for an even bigger motivation for crowds to get back out to movie theaters. (In the end, I thought “Barbie” was smarter.)

Tap into the current psychological mood: Gerwig and Baumbach wrote the script during the early years of COVID.  And that experience infused the story with greater depth and humanity.

For instance, in the middle of a bright pink party, perfect,perky Barbie comes out with the line: “Do you guys ever think about dying?”

Just to get by during COVID, we all had to reconfigure the day-to-day. In the sudden not-knowing, we had to face a reckoning with death and what was important in life.

Like Barbie in HER odyssey, we were desperate to break out of this bubble, and return to our “real” lives. That decision in the film was completely relatable.

There’s much knowingness about our group struggle at the heart of the film. That’s why it inspired communal feelings, for people of all stripes to want to go out and experience it together, in pink-clad unity.

Take the existence of girls and women seriously: I thought the Barbie movie would appeal to teens and tweens, but the shock was that it hit squarely at moms and grandmas, who were inspired to think about their own histories, and how far we’ve come, or not. And in the end, the film wasn’t preaching feminism as much as humanism.

Break the fourth wall: Barbie offers some well-timed, clever subversion in the form of a self-aware, self-correcting announcer/Voice of God, the deliciously plummy-voiced Helen Mirren. At one point in the real world when Barbie cries that she’s “ugly,” Mirren interrupts to say that the filmmakers probably made a mistake in casting Margot Robbie to deliver that line.

Acknowledge how the product is used: One of the most enjoyable parts of the film is how it recognized the way real kids -- boys and girls -- played with Barbie: hacking off her hair, Magic Markering her face and body, leaving her naked -- and, for that matter, cross-dressing Ken.

All this came to light in the film through the character of “Weird Barbie,” brilliantly embodied by Kate McKinnon, who has the scribbled-on face, legs in the permanent “splits,” and, as she adds about herself “smelling like basement.”

 Know everything about your product: The Barbie doll herself is a contradictory as the movie, and the writers understood this, inside and out.

As basically told in the film, Mattel founder Ruth Handler always wanted to give her own daughter Barbara (aka Barbie) an adult doll to dress up. She found Bild Lilli, a doll based on a German cartoon character, in a gift store in Switzerland and had her adapted in a Japanese factory for the American market.

“We tried to make her look less like a German streetwalker”  toy designer Jack Ryan, who came up with Hot Wheels, and also had designed Hawk Missiles, said at the time.

The 10-inch hunk of plastic had marketing in her DNA: Barbie was one of the first toys ever to get promoted with a TV ad blitz. And with that improbable body, she was positioned by the ad agency to sell to possibly threatened moms by making her a “teenaged fashion model” to encourage little girls’ concern with “proper grooming and appearance. “

But here’s the thing: at a hugely conformist time in 1959, when little girls were trained to be junior housewives and Mommies, Barbie never married, never had children. Instead, she had a career, a car, and lived in her own dream house, alone, with not one cleaning implement in sight.

The movie takes these crazy, contradictory, opposing impulses of Barbie’s own 64-year-old back story to create Barbie Land, where the whole sparkly, pink town is made up of single women, including judges, doctors, and a President, enjoying their childlessness and freedom.

Few IPs offer this amount of fire and light, but I’m sure the next one is out there somewhere.

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