Money  /  Film Review

Barbie and the Problem of Corporate Power

Stars of the movie about an iconic Mattel toy are on strike. Both the company’s history and Barbie’s plot illuminate how powerful corporations really are.

It’s clear that Barbie wants to leave its audience with some high-stakes messages about feminism, which end up sounding a bit outdated. But wouldn’t it be silly to expect anything else? Criticizing Barbie for its corporatized feminism is less compelling than seeing it for what it is: the tale of a corporate pivot. And all roads in the film lead back to Mattel. From the Mattel corporate executives following close on Barbie’s heels telling her to “get back in the box,” to one character’s quip to “blame Mattel, they make the rules,” the “real world” in the film is still one in which the corporation controls everything—and that’s the whole point.

The movie’s explicit message, that being a woman in an unfair world is a complicated thing, culminates in Gloria’s suggestion that perhaps Mattel should sell an “Ordinary Barbie,” to tell women that they are enough—which an executive confirms would sell well. “You are enough”—this is not just the mantra for an individualist feminism that Mattel can sell, it’s a version of Mattel’s mantra to itself.

Ultimately, the motivating mechanism of the plot—where a Mattel employee transfers her unhappiness to a formerly worry-free doll—succeeds in making a small suggestion: Barbie is not insulated from the feelings of a worker she doesn’t know, and her existence in the real world is determined by Mattel’s decisions. While the film may not be able to criticize Mattel in the end, it reaffirms a central truth: it’s a corporate world—we’re all just living in it.

In short, Gerwig’s film is an allegory for the changing cultural economy of the 21st century: how a product can cross from one realm into the other to confront and adapt to a new reality. Filmmakers are grappling with a claustrophobic horizon of what stories can be told, how, and by whom, due to the expanding power of media companies and the corporations that court them. Barbie is a perfect expression of this new era, in which corporations seek to rebrand the nostalgic products of the recent past, and movie studios work with them to repackage old ideas for the mass market.