Mattel Wanted A Barbie Scene Changed, But Greta Gerwig And Margot Robbie Talked Them Out Of It


Director Greta Gerwig's new film "Barbie," based on the popular Mattel toy from 1959, is due in theaters on July 21, 2023. Trailers depict the title character (Margot Robbie) living in a dream world of plastic homes and smiling friends all named Barbie. Barbie's world is also populated by multiple men named Ken, all of whom adore their Barbie counterparts with unflagging passion. The film is about what happens when Barbie has an existential crisis; Robbie's version of the character seems to be thinking about death for the first time. This causes her pink-colored fantasy world to fall apart, and leads her into the "real" world.

Out here in the real world, of course, Mattel is incredibly protective of its brand. It's unlikely that a multibillion-dollar toy company would license the film rights to Barbie to someone who would do nothing but criticize the toy and her cultural impact on the world. And, to be sure, there is a lot to criticize about Barbie. The doll's unrealistic body proportions have, in some studies, linked Barbie to body issues and eating disorders later in life. Barbie was also clearly rich, living in a mansion, shopping, buying clothes, and often engaging in mindless conspicuous consumption. Since 1959, Barbie has become a default bodily and lifestyle ideal in the American subconscious. Her ideal wasn't always healthy.

Gerwig and Robbie (who also produced) were well aware of the Barbie controversies, of course, but also of the inherent appeal of Barbie's smiling, eternally happy perfection. With "Barbie," Gerwig was keen on capturing both the childlike joy of the character, but also wanted to address some of the doll's long-standing issues. According to an interview with Time Magazine, Gerwig and Robbie briefly butted heads with a Mattel executive over the latter. 

A flight to London

Actress Hari Neff, who plays one of the Barbies, said of Gerwig's script (co-written with Noah Baumbach): "I knew this was not going to shy away from the parts of Barbie that are more interesting but potentially a little bit more fraught. [...] The contemporary history of feminism and body positivity — there are questions of how Barbie can fit into all of that." It seems these sorts of comments were heard by Robbie Brenner, the head of Mattel Films, and he related them to Richard Dickson, the COO of Mattel. Dickson clearly felt trepidation, and, according to the Time article, took a special flight to London where "Barbie" was being filmed specifically so he could "argue" with the filmmakers about its inclusion. Dickson had read the script, and there was a scene which, to the COO's mind, was off-brand.

There are no passages from the "Barbie" script quoted in the Time article, but Gerwig and Robbie recall explaining the scene in question to Dickson. It seems it came down to a matter of inflection and presentation. Gerwig and Robbie performed the scene for Dickson, and he finally understood. "When you look on the page, the nuance isn't there, the delivery isn't there," Robbie said. Their performance was clearly enough for Dickson, as he left satisfied and the scene was left in the movie. 

Five years of Barbie

Gerwig knew what she was doing with "Barbie," of course. Mattel's nervousness about the content of her film was a little strange, given that star/producer Margot Robbie had been working with the toy company since 2018. Mattel's current CEO, Ynon Kriez, even knew her approach and had already approved. Kriez, in true CEO fashion, saw a "Barbie" movie as a smart business move more than anything, but Robbie was happy she was allowed to push the brand while also being creative with the storytelling. Robbie said: 

"Barbie" is part of a push by Mattel to infiltrate theaters with other branded movies that kids might recognize. In April of 2022, Variety reported that a Hot Wheels film is (still) in the works, and Daniel Kaluuya may appear in another feature film based on Barney the purple dinosaur. Mattel is also in pre-production on another "Masters of the Universe" movie, a "Polly Pocket" movie, a Magic 8-Ball movie (yes, really), a 3-D Viewmaster movie, a film where Chatty Cathy meets Betsy Wetsy, and — most baffling of them all — a film based on the card game Uno. 

If even one of these movies is as thoughtful as "Barbie" appears to be, then perhaps we will be getting an onslaught of art and not merely commercials. 

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