We've all seen it: Margot Robbie's epic Barbie looks on the red carpet, promoting the much-hyped blockbuster. But is dressing Margot in exact replicas of the doll's famous looks really the slay it was intended to be?
It's true that no red carpet has achieved the pink-tinged stronghold on culture like the Barbie press tour has in the past month. The impact this film has had on fashion, trends and retail has been phenomenal, turning countless brands a shocking shade of pink as they pursued Barbie-adjacent virality.
No doubt this styling moment was a bit of marketing genius that turned Margot into Mattel's product at every premiere event. The nostalgic effect was expertly tapped into in order to tug at our heartstrings, and allow us to forgive the idea that Margot was dressed like a manic 1950s housewife. Seriously, outside of the Barbie context, were any of these looks really that great?
But beyond the actual outfits, dressing a grown woman like a doll is obviously problematic. Margot's red carpet appearances subtly reinforced the historical notion that women are to be on show. In the end, it's the personification of the performative aspect of womanhood. Perhaps it was ironic, for that very reason – but the messaging was lost on the masses as they ate up the looks, covering them with breathless admiration and comparing Margot to the various dolls she and her stylist were referencing.
In addition, dressing the movie's blonde, blue-eyed, Aussie star in Barbie outfits, but not other cast members, only pushed the narrative of the traditional, white-centric doll as the epitome of beauty even further. Why weren't the other stars afforded this marketing opportunity, if the message of the movie is to highlight Barbie's more modern era of inclusivity? Just like in the movie, they were relegated to the background as accessories against the backdrop of the classic, white-washed Barbie trope. They're not supporting stars – they're all Barbie. Or, that is to say, they're meant to be. Then again, the other actors may not have wanted such a strong association to the brand.
Admittedly, the Barbie look feels more true to Margot's "real" character, on the surface at least, considering she's a Queensland girl who embodies everything old-school Barbie is meant to be – but after this press tour she might live to regret the persistent association. The oversaturation of Margot as Barbie leaves us all wondering: where does Barbie end, and Margot begin? Perhaps the other stars were right to avoid the all-pink party.
Narelle Lancaster, Advertising Lecturer at RMIT, noted in a recent Conversation article that, as a marketing strategy, there may be a little more at play here than simply rose-coloured optics: "Although some have criticised Barbie's saturation strategy, it is a very deliberate marketing ploy to revitalise and redefine a brand with a contested position and history. Only a few years back, Barbie was a brand in crisis. Sales plummeted across 2011 to 2015 against the cultural backdrop of a rise in body positivity and backlash against a doll that represented narrow ideals and an impossible beauty standard," Lancaster writes.
"Barbie the film is simply the next step in an evolution to make brand Barbie inclusive... Yet, Robbie Brenner, executive producer of Mattel Films, has explicitly stated that Gerwig's Barbie is 'not a feminist movie'. Indeed, the main character still represents a narrow beauty standard – tall, thin, blonde, white – with diverse characters in place to support her narrative."
In the end, Barbiemania's chokehold on pop culture cannot be denied. But what we do have to interrogate is whether the messages it alleges to promote are genuinely positioned to drive change – or whether they're just lip service in aid of another big brand with a questionable history attempting to make money off the back of a recent push for diversity.
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