Barbie and Ken – infantilization for the masses
The woke Hollywood publicity machine is cranked up to hypersonic to promote a return to childhood
“Being young today is no longer a transitory stage, but rather a choice of life, well established and brutally promoted by the media system.” – Jacopo Bernardini, University of Perugia, Italy
The literal answer to why a new mega-budget Hollywood Barbie feature film will hit theaters in July 2023 is that with over one billion Barbies sold worldwide in 150 countries, there is a potentially limitless audience waiting to be herded into local Dolby powered octuplexes at $12 to $30 per head, not to mention lucrative merchandising opportunities.
In 2018, following Marvel’s lead, Mattel created a film division and hired Oscar winning producer Robbie Brenner to “…bring beloved toys to screen” in order to “tell stories with authentic voices.” This starts with Barbie.
The political answer is that the celebrity filled, $100 million “live action” film reflects a decades long regression of Western culture into woke infantilization. Through their rainbow casting and choice of a cartoon aesthetic, Barbie’s all white Gen X & Y producers are speaking to what they perceive to be a new mass audience of “adulescents.”
The plot is secondary to the underlying socio-political production ethos of the film. Both the thematic and visual languages of the movie are taken directly from corporate DEI manuals (DEI=Diversity, Equity & Inclusion). The condescending woke lecture is given lavish Hollywood blockbuster treatment to spotlight the film’s over the top inclusivity, described by one critic as its “awkward diversity.” If the Barbie movie had an official emoji, it would be a self-satisfied smirk.
But first a bit of Barbilicious history to understand why this doll matters.
Barbie is a 64 year old product cum cultural phenomenon with over $15 billion in global sales since 2012. In 2020, during the first year of the Covid pandemic, with kids locked indoors, Barbie sales surged, reaching a five year high of $1.35 billion. It is Mattel’s best selling product. Barbie’s moment has arrived, and she is being retooled for the post-pandemic, climate pre-apocalypse, gender fluid moment.
Mattel’s marketing of Barbie has always striven to be in alignment with the cultural moment. Over seven decades, Barbie has morphed into a multi-ethnic collection of Barbies, each packaged with an appropriate wardrobe as lifeguard, astronaut, surgeon, Olympic athlete, TV news reporter, veterinarian, rock star, pilot, diplomat, rapper, presidential candidate and many more.
Barbie has an official biography, a lengthy genealogy of family and friends, a vast multimedia empire of books, apparel, cosmetics, video games and streaming television content. Andy Warhol created a painting of Barbie in 1986 that sold at Christie’s in London for $1.1 million.
Modern Barbie has become a kind of global lux brand. Her 50th birthday in 2009 was celebrated by “overflow crowds” at Mercedes-Benz Fashion week in New York. A coterie of impossibly tall and thin runway superstars modeled Barbie fashions by 50 haute couture designers, including Vera Wang, Calvin Klein, Bob Mackie, Christian Louboutin, Badgley Mischka and Tommy Hilfilger, who gushed:
“Barbie is the quintessential American icon. She represents a woman's first experience with style, transcending generations and cultures; she holds a special place in the fashion world and is an inspiration to many designers.”
A year later, in 2010, designer Stefano Canturi created the most expensive Barbie ever sold at auction for $302,500, featuring a necklace made with emerald-cut Australian pink diamonds.
During the Covid pandemic, Mattel created a line of Barbies modeled on first responders as part of their #ThankYouHeroes Program, giving free Barbies to the children of first responders for every doll or “playset” sold.
Today, there are nine Barbie body types, 35 skin tones and 97 hairstyles. There are trans and drag Barbies (the latter modeled on RuPaul), “differently abled” Barbies with hearing aids or in wheelchairs, a hijab wearing Islamic Barbie and Creatable World Barbies touted by Mattel as “the world's first gender-neutral dolls.”
And now Hollywood is jumping on board with a $100 million “live action” all star feature film being distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures. Barbie is scheduled for theatrical release in July, but a non-stop publicity campaign has already begun, with social media memes proliferating like fungi. A preliminary “teaser-trailer” generated 18 million views in its first week on YouTube.
Why now? What the hell is going on?
AS KIDS TURN ON BARBIE, ADULTS EMBRACE HER
A 2006 study in Developmental Psychology, found that girls aged 5 to 8 who were exposed to traditional Barbies had lower self esteem and poorer body image than girls in comparison groups.
Other studies found that children often engaged in “torture play” and “anger play” with Barbies. This included hitting Barbie & Ken against the wall, stabbing them, cutting their hair, burning them and leaving them out in the snow. Girls made comments such as, “They are all perfect and it’s just too much,” and “they should make a fat one.”
In response to the toddler backlash, Mattel introduced a “fashionista” line of Barbies featuring various body types classified as curvy, petite, tall and original. The rest is doll history. Today there are 460 Barbie types for sale on Mattel’s website. The company’s first transgender Barbie was created in 2022 as a tribute to actress Laverne Cox, who worked closely with Mattel on every detail of the doll and its wardrobe.
A Mattel spokesperson noted that trans Barbie “gives fans of all ages the vehicle for self-discovery with limitless possibilities. We're proud to highlight the importance of inclusion at every age."
Behind the scenes, the Barbie movie production team (Lead actors, producers, & writers.) is completely white. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling star as Barbie and Ken, with salaries of $12.5 million each. Ms. Robbie also has back-end participation as a co-producer.
On the screen, the list of stars in the film reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood diversity in 2023: Dua Lipa, Ana Cruz Kayne (Supreme Court Justice), Issa Rae (President), Kingsley Ben-Adir, Kate McKinnon, Michael Cera, America Ferrera, Will Ferrell and Dame Helen Mirren as the film’s narrator. Plus the Beach Boys playing the BarbieLand soundtrack.
No wonder it cost $100 million.
Barbie is expected to gross at least $250 million in box office revenue, assuming a good opening weekend response from critics and fans. If it takes off, it could be much higher. If not, it could be a historic box office flop.
BARBIE FOR ADULESCENTS
Mattel’s website showcases their Corporate Purpose.
“We empower the next generation to explore the wonder of childhood and reach their full potential.”
This is also the raison d'être of the Barbie movie. Mattel’s corporate existence is centered on catering to children. It should be no surprise that the movie is aimed at a newly dominant demographic of heavily infantilized adulescents who are now the highest spending and most sought after market for both consumer goods and prepackaged consumer politics.
Commenting on the mass infantilization of Western culture over the past two decades, sociologist Simon Gottschalk says:
If you regularly watch TV, you’ve probably seen a cartoon bear pitching you toilet paper, a gecko with a British accent selling you auto insurance and a bunny in sunglasses promoting batteries. Sure, it makes sense to use cartoon characters to sell products to kids.
But why are advertisers using the same techniques on adults? To me, it’s just one symptom of a broader trend of infantilization in Western culture.
Abraham Maslow has suggested that spontaneous childlike behaviors in adults aren’t inherently problematic. But some cultural practices today routinely infantilize large swaths of the population.
We see it in our everyday speech, when we refer to grown women as “girls”; in how we treat senior citizens, when we place them in adult care centers where they’re forced to surrender their autonomy and privacy; and in the way school personnel and parents treat teenagers, refusing to acknowledge their intelligence and need for autonomy, restricting their freedom, and limiting their ability to enter the workforce.
Renowned political theorist Benjamin Barber, author of “Jihad vs. McWorld,” noted the same regressive cultural shift more than a decade ago.
Pop-cultural journalists depict a new species of perennial adolescent – kidults, rejuveniles, twixters, adultescents – the consequence of a powerful new cultural ethos of induced childishness, an infantilization closely tied to the demands of consumer capitalism in a global market economy.
The question is whether not just democracy but capitalism itself can survive the infantilist ethos upon which it has come to depend.
Turbocharged by officially sanctioned 24/7 fear porn, this infantilization accelerated to a historic new level and turned vicious (“our patience is wearing thin”) during the Covid pandemic. The adulescents broke into warring tribes (masks, vaccines, distancing, schooling, etc.), looking more like Chucky, the serial killer doll from the Child’s Play movie franchise, than sober citizens.
French sociologist Robert Ebguy and US poet Robert Bly both detailed a descent into mass infantilization more than two decades ago.
In “La France en Culottes Courtes,” (France in Short Pants, 2002) Ebguy described what he saw as “adulescents” regressing into the “sweetness of childhood” to avoid dealing with the harsh realities of a world that had spun out of their control.
“I take refuge in a cozy cocoon with my comforts, my soft toys, and I go out to find the others when I want. Or, if I'm more paranoid, I lock myself in a bunker that cuts me off.”
Covid quarantine was not a jarring change for millions of people already living in “cozy cocoons” of their own making.
In his 1996 book “Sibling Society,” Bly characterized Western society as a kind of permanent food fight among a generational cohort of equal but squabbling siblings.
We defeat ourselves by the simplest possible means: speed. We see what’s coming out of the sideview mirror. It seems like intimacy; maybe not intimacy as much as proximity; maybe not proximity as much as sameness.
When we see the millions like ourselves all over the world speaking a universal language that computer literacy demands, our eyes meet uniformity, resemblance, likenesses, rather than distinction and differences. Hope rises immediately for the long-desired possibility of community. And yet it would be foolish to overlook the serious implications of this glance to the side, this tilt of the head.
There is little in the sibling society to prevent a slide into primitivism, and into those regressions that fascism is so fond of.
The new Barbie movie, almost irrespective of what befalls our heroine once she is cast out of BarbieWorld into the “real world,” is a sign that the ever tenuous project of adulthood has been rejected a priori by the film’s Hollywood producers in favor of faux-adulthood and DEI virtue signaling.
In a disservice to the authentic value of diversity, the film’s empty talking points are echoed by producers and actors alike. It is designed to showcase people of “different shapes, sizes, differently abled—all under this message: You don’t have to be blonde, white, or X, Y, Z in order to embody what it means to be a Barbie or a Ken.”
Pew Research reports that so called Millennials and Gen-X consumers spanning ages 23 to 54, comprise the largest spending bloc in the US with 137.3 million people who also happen to be the most avid moviegoers.
The political implications are paradigm shattering. In a February 2023 analysis, the Brookings Institute concluded that “The Millennial generation is the largest in American history” and “Younger voters should be a source of electoral strength for Democrats for years to come.”
In this cultural context, Barbie is a political experiment. The failure or success of the movie at the box office may well be a harbinger of a significant cultural-political shift driven by the enormous 23 to 54 year old generational cohort.
The IMBD listing for the film says that Barbie is going to have a “full on existential crisis” after being cast out of BarbieLand. She may not be the only one.
The same color palette.