It has been recently reported that Amy Schumer is in talks to play the lead role in—and add rewrites to— an upcoming movie based on the Mattel toy brand Barbie.
Schumer will play a character who lives in Barbieland, among all of the various Barbie characters beloved by doll collectors (there are dolls covering over 180 careers). In a fish-out-of-water story reminiscent of films like Splash and Big, Schumer’s Barbie gets kicked out, basically because she’s not perfect enough, is a bit eccentric and doesn’t quite fit the mold. She then goes on an adventure in the real world and by the time she returns to Barbieland to save it, she has gained the realization that perfection comes on the inside, not the outside, and that the key to happiness is belief in oneself, free of the obligation to adhere to some unattainable standard of perfection.
I’m a big fan of the new “all sizes” Barbie dolls that came out earlier this year—and I also liked Schumer’s movie Trainwreck—but this Barbie movie kind of sounds way too “on the nose” as a critique and “rehabilitation” of the doll line.
Certainly, Barbie has had problematic aspects since her creation in 1959. The direct inspiration for Barbie was a 1950s German doll called Bild Lili. And that doll was based on this adult comic strip:
Many of the “Lili” strips involve her being ogled by guys…I mean, that’s pretty much the entire strip:
So Barbie’s origins are pretty adult, complete with the objectification of women:
And we see this all the way to the present day, albeit more or less in a more sanitized form:
So if Mattel wants to really change Barbie’s image, the first thing they could do is make the doll into something that looks more age-appropriate for the little kids (I’m talking 4-11 at the most) who still play with her. And by that, I think something more along the lines of the American Girl line:
Instead, we have 35-year-old Amy Schumer playing Barbie:
Which, you know, I get it…she is a major movie draw. But who exactly is this movie being made for?
Is it being made for them:
Or is it being made for adult women with an axe to grind against “Barbie” as an icon? Is this movie, in effect, an “apology” for Barbie? Is this a movie about Barbie, or is this a movie about Schumer’s problems with Hollywood?
Again—not saying there hasn’t been flaws regarding the image Barbie has projected over the years. But to walk into making a film like this with a very specific lesson in mind—the lesson being pretty much the driving plot force of the entire movie—the danger is that the movie becomes just that lesson.
So it’s possible that Schumer pulls off the Barbie flick and it becomes another Lego Movie. It revitalizes the brand and makes Barbie relevant again.
Or, it becomes another Jem and the Holograms, another case where what exactly appealed to the theoretical audience demographic(s) was somewhat misunderstood.
Then, there is the highly likely possibility that this film becomes “politicized,” Ghostbusters-like, even before it is made. This could potentially create a cycle in which trolling happens, leading to the moviemakers & Schumer becoming more and more defensive, leading to more trolling, leading to the moviemakers & Schumer becoming even more defensive, leading to more content in the actual film that “responds” to the trolling, which leads to more trolling, which leads to more defensiveness, which…
And I guess that’s where the ultimate problem is for me.
I find the controversies around these types of films—controversies which are driven by both sides—to be incredibly exhausting. As funny as I have found some of Schumer’s work, I think she is also a very divisive figure and that casting her as “Barbie” is pretty much calculated to cause controversy. But I guess that’s what really “sells” in today’s culture, isn’t it?
See, I’m learning.