Opinion: From Barbie to Buffy: The Evolution of the strong female lead
If 2023 had a colour, it would be pink – more specifically, Barbie pink. Our Facebook timelines have been adorned with fans of the Mattel icon, snapped on their phones in a life-sized Barbie box found in every UK cinema.
If it was every girl’s dream to be Barbie, that wish has been fulfilled as theatres have been decked out with various pink hued memorabilia – awakening the little girls (or boys) within. The movie, starring the impossibly beautiful Australian actor Margot Robbie, asks the fundamental question to the audience – ‘Doesn’t Barbie represent impossible beauty standards and mindless consumerism?’.
Not so, the body that has inspired surgery, embodied the white, blonde beauty standard held as a pin up to women for the last century has been turned on it’s (plastic) head. Mattel, who have dubbed Barbie their ‘own Ironman’, have cleverly combined a theological premise within a money-making machine – crafting a hot pink planar coplanar.
This juxtaposition is not a contemporary one, despite the blatant hubris of fans for Mattel’s ‘originality’. The message is a powerful one, and a point neatly covered by the plucky mention of Robbie’s blatant beauty during the film’s primary directive – a prevailing speech on the triple burden of womanhood by Gloria (America Ferrera).
Female figures across pop culture have often existed within intermedium, rarely have they been ‘ugly’ or even ‘average’. Take 90’s legend Sarah Michelle Gellar, who’s role as Buffy the Vampire Slayer was designed to morph the helpless, platinum tressed cheerleader in horror films into a tour de force who fights back.
Sex Symbol Pamela Anderson was shown as a tough-talking tomboy in cheesy 1996 flick Barb Wire and Lara Croft’s 3D uni-boob seemed to double with each game release (a must for any budding archaeologist who wields weapons).
Audiences are showing their willingness to swerve from the status quo of Hollywood – as demonstrated by a demand for ‘Weird Barbie’ (Kate McKinnon). The birth of Weird Barbie (who is still beautiful but happens to have shorn hair and is covered in crayon), also spawned an idea that even something held up as an ideal can be stripped down, ruined and deemed desirable.
But how long will the Barbie effect last? Cynics will say clever casting and Greta Gerwig’s even smarter script will only serve to keep the wheels turning in the $7.56billion Mattel machine – giving truth to the question of Barbie’s real role for women. Gerwig’s words serve to inspire, but ticket sales serve to line the pockets of the men at the top. The same men shown in the film, sitting at a table, tossing around ideas on how to make even more money.
A glance at Mattel’s website shows many variations of the doll (most of them with the golden waist to hop ratio) including a set of collectible ‘inspirational women’ Barbies so you can own your very own Maya Angelou(which I have proudly displayed on my own shelf). There’s a Barbie in a wheelchair, a Plus Size Barbie, many Barbies who are black (but let’s face it most of them are white).
So has the Barbie film awakened a fantastic, plastic dream? Or served to perpetuate one – the idea that it’s ‘ok just to be a woman in a world run by the patriarchy’?
One could say that the grungier, overtly sexual feminist role models of earlier decades had more gumption – but personally for me, it was refreshing to see someone vulnerable.
Robbie as stereotypical Barbie had no special talents (unless cheekbones count) and was confused about her place in the world. The film ends with a visit to the gynaecologist, profound in it’s own way, and Ruth Handler telling the protagonist that she ‘never needed permission’ just to be herself.
Most women do wander through reality, wondering if they are good enough. We aren’t slayers, tomb raiding alpha women toting firearms or busty blondes navigating dystopian hellscapes – we’re just trying to muddle through life; wondering if we are doing a good enough job as mothers, wives, in our careers.
The majority of us are stereotypical Barbie (without legs for days) – living in an interstitial space full of expectation, ones we often feel we fall short of. We also need to see the gynaecologist from time to time.
So despite the feeling for some that devil corp has sold us buckets of hot pink lies in order to purchase a small island of Indonesia, Gerwig and Robbie’s message cannot be ignored. And it’s pretty cool that they used one of the most powerful companies in the world as a vessel to do it.