Last December, the teaser trailer for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie riffed slyly on the style and vibes of no less than an alpha-male than auteur Stanley Kubrick; here was a dolled-up Margot Robbie as a literal monolith looming over a group of young girls and compelling them to smash their toys in a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The sight gag doubled as a statement of artistic aspiration: it hinted that Gerwig—who wrote Barbie with her husband Noah Baumbach—was trying to craft her blockbuster debut into a step up rather than a sell-out—and also to remake the long-standing Hollywood trope of movies as glorified toy commercials in her own whimsical image.
When 2001 came out in 1968, there was no demand for ape-man plushies or talking HAL dolls, but by 1982—when Kubrick super-fan Steven Spielberg hid the title character of E.T. in plain sight amidst a gaggle of stuffed animals—the demand for cutely reproducible non-human characters had taken hold of the industry. In a high concept decade where the most successful movies were the ones that could be efficiently repackaged across a variety of platforms, producers were suddenly measuring commercial potential in terms of Saturday morning cartoon spin-offs or action figure sales. Meanwhile, the contemporaneous explosion of the home-video market meant even more opportunities to exploit kid-friendly intellectual properties—or create new ones.
For the most part, the adaptations of the ‘80s spoke to alpha-male aspirations: G.I. Joes, He-Men, pizza-scarfing Ninja Turtles. The most potentially profitable protagonist remained on the cinematic sidelines until 2001, when Mattel’s in-house entertainment division released the computer-animated feature Barbie in the Nutcracker on VHS and DVD. The cartoon sold three million copies and earned over $150 million dollars for its studio, yielding a series of fairy-tale sequels. For decades, fans had wondered when the most iconic doll of the 21st Century would be ready for her theatrical debut; with these test runs out of the way, it seemed like an official Barbie movie was just a matter of time.
Of course, there had been a significant Barbie-themed movie back in the 80s, just not one for the doll-buying demographic: Straight out of Bard college, Todd Haynes crafted the forty-three minute DIY indie classic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) which portrayed its subject’s tragic life through the use of modified Barbie dolls. Produced and distributed outside mainstream channels, Superstar was an obvious provocation, using a character already indelibly associated with debates over female body image and gender essentialism to embody a real-life celebrity beset by anorexia. Here was pop-cultural satire carved with a (literal) razor’s edge.
A few years later, in 1994, The Simpsons spoofed the media frenzy over a controversial “Teen Talk” Barbie doll programmed to deliver bon mots like “math class is tough” via the classic episode “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy,” in which the show’s resident idealist bumped up against the sexist legacy of her favorite toy. “Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl,” chirps dead-eyed Malibu Stacy, cheerfully indoctrinating a generation of underage consumers; in response, Lisa Quixotically lends her name to a doll with more progressive values. (“She’ll have the wisdom of Gertrude Stein and the wit of Cathy Guisewite!”)
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