Anyone who hasn’t seen the “Barbie” movie or any of its related content splattering pastel pink all over the Internet, probably isn’t paying attention. The movie just blazed past all box office records as Warner Bros.’ highest-grossing film ever, standing at over $1 billion at the global box office and surpassing “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.”
“Barbie” has been a breakaway commercial success for its parent company Mattel, just like the Barbie doll itself. Barbie, introduced to the world in 1959 by Jewish entrepreneur Ruth Handler, was one of the first dolls aimed towards girls that depicted women as autonomous, financially independent and capable of any job—Astronaut Barbie, President Barbie, Doctor Barbie, and so many more—at a time when most women were only expected to be wives and mothers.
However, Barbie has also been heavily critiqued as a highly sexualized figure, promoting an unrealistic and unattainable body image for young girls. Despite her controversy, Barbie is a top earner, driving about a third of Mattel’s $5.2 billion in profits in the past year and taking the place of top-selling doll in the world.
The movie finds its rhythm exactly within the feminist tension embodied by Barbie. The film, starring Margot Robbie and directed by the up-and-coming Greta Gerwig, is a vivid visual experience that contains explicit and witty commentary on patriarchal society. The main character, “Stereotypical Barbie,” seems to be trying to make things right for the damage she may have caused to young girls and take back her power as a feminist icon—without ignoring the complexity. “Barbie” is also the most successful film directed by a woman in box office history.
Despite its enticing content, especially to millennial women who grew up playing with Barbies, the film may actually just be a brilliant advertising campaign for Mattel. Ten years ago, Barbie sales were seriously suffering, endangering the entire future of Mattel. This was due to a rise in online shopping, resulting in the closure of toy stores, as well as a vocal feminist movement condemning Barbie as a bimbo upholding damaging beauty standards. Mattel brought in Israeli-born businessman Ynon Kreiz as CEO to save the day.
Kreiz brought a revolution. He rebuilt Mattel as an intellectual property-driven company, meaning that the company would no longer just sell and market toys, but rather use a wide platform for promotion, including its own movies, television shows, plays and even theme parks. Mattel Films was founded, partnering with Warner Bros. after several attempts with other studios, for their initial attempt at an internal toy movie.
Kreiz is adamant that the film is not just about selling toys. “This is about creating quality content, creating an experience with societal impact that people would want to watch,” he told Variety Magazine. “We’ve been selling toys before we made movies, so we’re not dependent on that.”
Although “Barbie” contains a self-deprecating portrayal of the company as erstwhile villains, it is clear that the film has certainly paid off for Mattel. Not only has their line of movie-inspired Barbie dolls gone viral, but Mattel also has a slew of new movies in the works. Fourteen movies are currently in development, featuring the iconic toys Polly Pocket (directed by Lena Dunham), Hot Wheels (directed by J.J. Abrams) and more. The profits model is tried and true, beginning with Hasbro’s multi-million dollar Transformers enterprise with Paramount Pictures, and most recently with Warner Bros.’ 2014 “The Lego Movie,” which cashed in at over $450 million. “Barbie,” however, is the ultimate model—the movie successfully promotes the toys, and vice versa.
With all its eye-catching glamor and tongue-in-cheek social commentary, “Barbie” is not only a cultural moment—it’s a cash cow for Mattel, and a harbinger for what's to come in the newfound romance between toys and movies. “Barbie” is cinema, but it’s extremely effective marketing too.