Barbie: Will the movie end the doll's existential crisis in the market?

Much like her character in the movie, the Barbie doll has been facing an existential crisis in the market thanks to electronic gadgets, that have swayed customers away from dolls. Will the success of the movie salvage Barbie's business and help the doll regain its lost glory?

Updated: Jul 28, 2023 12:35:34 PM UTC
Image: Peter Bischoff/Getty Images

Greta Gerwig's eponymous movie about the doll Barbie is more than just a pink riot. The '114-minute thrill ride', replete with gorgeous costumes and spectacular sets, and pastel idiosyncrasies, delves into complex human emotions and the search for individual identity.

A sequence of events forces Barbie out of her 'fantastic pink plastic world' into the real world. Barbie is asked to choose between a pair of pink satin pumps (representing her perfect life in Barbie Land) and brown leather Birkenstocks (symbolising a bumpy journey into the real world). From the hyper-colourful palette of Barbie Land to the real world, Barbie realises her arched feet have become flat, a metaphor for the rough rides that life gives.

The making of Barbie 

In the 1950s, Ruth Handler, 'the creator' of the Barbie doll, noticed that her daughter, Barbara, preferred to play with dolls that resembled adults. At that time, most dolls were made to look like babies. Realising that there was a gap in the market, Handler suggested the idea to her husband, Elliot Handler, co-founder of Mattel, the toy company. This was the birth of Barbie.

The doll was marketed as a 'teenage fashion model', and soon Barbie became the most popular fashion doll. Barbie set new fashion trends, expressing the dreams of young girls. She has often been used to promote the idea that women can be anything—also a recurring theme in the movie. Barbie Collectibles showcase different avatars—doctor, pilot, astronaut, artist, and many more. Mattel has devoted time and money to creating dolls that are culturally unique.

Also Read: Barbie leads the world... but in India, Oppenheimer rules

The 90s saw the introduction of Barbie in India under the 'Expressions of India' series. The 'Soni Punjabi Barbie', 'Sundari Gujarati Barbie' and 'Roopvati Rajasthani Barbie' reflected India's glorious traditions and extravagant colours.

At one point, Mattel claimed that approximately three Barbie dolls were sold globally every second. It was estimated that if every Barbie ever sold were laid end to end, the dolls would circle the world seven times. The success transcended into the 90s pop culture, with the European pop-dance group Aqua's song Barbie Girl that became an instant hit in 1997.


Barbie's life has not been without controversies. Saudi Arabia outlawed the sale of Barbie dolls in 2003 for not conforming to its culture. The Butterfly Art line of Barbie dolls was short-lived because they discovered that the tattoos were toxic.

It was strongly felt that Barbie's presence was negatively influencing young girls' lives. Barbie's exaggerated hourglass figure drew criticism from nutritionists and scientists alike. If scaled into real-life proportions, she would lack the requisite percent of body fat and would be unable to stand on her feet. Her enormous range of accessories and clothes gave rise to the accusation that Barbie encourages young girls to focus on shallow trivia. Parents alleged she reflects a lifestyle that is unattainable for most girls.

Barbie's existential crisis and business realities

Coming back to the film, it revolves around the theme of emotional dilemmas and complex choices. As Barbie navigates the real world, she encounters various obstacles, leading to self-revelation and learning about what it means to be alive.

She faces an existential crisis mired by inner conflicts about her personal identity. The film's message resonates with the audience. "I think we're putting a lot of expectations on ourselves to be everything and do everything and be perfect, which is impossible anyway," said Margot Robbie, who plays Barbie in the movie, in an interview. The film gives a message to let go of one's worries and the endless pursuits of perfection and just enjoy.

Also Read: With 'Barbie', Greta Gerwig scores the biggest opening weekend for a female director in Hollywood

Like her character, the Barbie doll has been facing an existential crisis in the toy market she dominated for decades. The toy market itself has been facing an existential crisis of sorts. With increasing access to various forms of electronic gadgets, customers of dolls have plummeted sharply. Will the movie salvage Barbie's market and help the doll regain its glory?

Through the movie, Mattel seeks to stretch Barbie's product life cycle curve. Mattel's Barbie division has spent $100 million on marketing this year. It also marks the brand's transformation from a toy maker to an intellectual property-driven outfit. Warner Bros. and Mattel entered into over 100 brand collaborations with the movie. From rolling out pink fashion accessories to Barbie Xbox, from Airbnb (Barbie's Malibu Dream House) to Ford (Barbie Pink Ford Bronco), the scale of the marketing campaign is almost unprecedented.

It is a brand-building exercise to keep the doll relevant and embedded in our memories. In the film, Barbie wants to be human—shedding off fake elements of her world and trying to become more normal and relatable. Because Barbie is portrayed more authentically, she connects to our present mental maps. The film is an attempt to retain Barbie's nostalgic value while aligning it with a more existentialist world—bridging the old and new.

The film has successfully captured the cultural zeitgeist, as evident from Barbie-inspired selfies on social media. The marketing blitz has generated enough excitement. Sales of pink products rose sharply. Even Google's homepage turns pink as you search for Barbie. Searches of Barbie accessories are up 271 percent on fashion platforms. Movie hype has already lifted Mattel's share price.

Will the current frenzy, riding on the movie's success, be short-lived, or will it give Barbie the much-needed shot in the arm? A Barbie movie has been in the plans for long, but Mattel was nervous about attaching a face to the doll. Till now, Barbie had no evident human existence. Kids were supposed to project their aspirations onto her blank canvas. Mattel may have indulged in a great gamble by getting a movie made.

Also Read: 'Barbie' marketing blitz hits fever pitch

Although Barbie is still the world's largest-selling toy and one of the most successful products of Mattel, it faces the challenge of adopting a global vs local strategy. Initially, the Indian versions picked up well, but later their sales dwindled. Much to the surprise of the makers, girls preferred to buy the Western version. This was a lesson to learn.

The company seeks to reinvent Barbie at a time where asking questions is more important than the patience for answers and where choices are always either/or. The creator of the Barbie doll, Ruth Handler (played by Rhea Perlman), makes an appearance in the movie when she says, "Humans have only one ending; ideas live forever". At 64 years of age, can Barbie live up to that idea?

The writer is a Professor at the Faculty of Management Studies and Research, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. She’s also the author of Strategic Human Resource Management, Cambridge University Press, University of Cambridge, UK.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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