She’s everything and everywhere

An epidemic of hot pink seems to have infiltrated South African malls and shopping centers with the release of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie at the close of July. If your Instagram and TikTok accounts look anything like mine, the infamous doll has found its way into every corner of my social media accounts. “Barbiecore” especially has seemed to have gone viral, with every shade of pink you can think of and ultra-feminine clothing inspiration saturating both instore and online. 

Barbie is the moment. She is not just everything, but everywhere. Once criticized for promoting unachievable and shallow ideas of femininity and body image, Barbie has seen a pivotal rebrand in recent years. The range of dolls has moved on from a white, blonde, blue-eyed caricature of America’s Sweetheart to include Barbies of different races, body types, and even includes dolls with disabilities! 

The Barbie doll has always been whoever you want her to be since her release in 1959, be it an astronaut, teacher, doctor, princess, or even a pilot! Barbie’s boyfriend, the Ken doll, also took a stand against gender norms at the time with his release in 1961. While Barbie was empowering young girls to be anything they wanted to be, Ken was standing on the sidelines (a literal accessory to Barbie) fully devoted to being nothing but an ultimate supporter for his bae. While Barbie was out being whoever she wanted to be, Ken was quite happy to be a “first man” alongside his leading lady, Barbie. 

While Barbie has certainly had her fair share of criticism since her release, the same cannot be said for Gerwig’s film. Barbie is fast on its way to becoming the movie of the year, with some critics calling it a “dazzling achievement”. Amidst Barbie’s brilliant marketing strategy, audience and critically loved reviews, and even my own internal five-year-old self positively fit to bursting with elation, it should be that I have not a complaint against this year’s Barbiamania. 

However, I can’t help but ponder South Africa’s romance with American pop culture. While I will be the first to admit that I too engage regularly in American media, films, news and politics, the Barbiamania which is infiltrating South Africa is something which provides an interesting concept to unpack: Does the Barbie brand hold any relevance to a South African audience?

I find it a strange dichotomy that the Barbie, a doll which is classically a representation of American cultural ideals of beauty and white feminism, has any market value to a country such as South Africa where the original doll (and still the most recognizable of the brand) does not even look like 80% of the population? Further, one Barbie doll today can cost over R1000.  That’s more than the stipend nearly 50% of our population receives in the form of social grants each month.  

Discussing Barbie with black youth, many of them don’t feel a strong urge to partake in Barbiecore or even watch the film at all. “I grew up playing with those dolls,” says one youth, “but for me it wasn’t so special [as the media makes it out to be], it was just a doll. Probably the only interest as a black person [you would have in the film] is if you like the…lead actress.” 

Critically looking at Barbie even with her diversified rebranding, she still ultimately represents an ideology of the “American Dream”: You can be anything or anyone you want to be. This archetype dangerously teeters into the abyss of western white feminism. White feminism, also known as “girl boss feminism” tends to only apply to privileged western white women who focus on equality gained through capital means. Further, it does not consider the intersectionality of feminism. One of the major challenges feminism struggles with is intersectionality. Racialized sexism is a much more complex experience which is not so easily solved with a mantra of “girls can be anything they want to be”.

Tell us: are you part of the Barbie mania – and why or why not?

Read about body shaming here.