Barbie – from conservative to progressive

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By BRUNO FABRICIO ALCEBINO DA SILVA*

Barbie's massive reach has made her a symbol of consumer culture and western beauty standards, exerting a marked influence on young Latin American women.

The cultural industry, including film, plays a powerful role in disseminating values, ideals and stereotypes on a global scale. The film Barbie, produced by Mattel, LuckyChap Entertainment, Mattel Films, Heyday Films, NB/GG Pictures, is a relevant example of this phenomenon, with the massive marketing campaign on social networks and other media (TV, radio, newspapers, etc.).

The large number of people dressed in pink in cinemas and streets, and the interaction of people with the content of the film that premiered on the last 20th in Brazil, reinforce an impressive interaction with the screens. Even the president of Colombia, Gustav Petro, and his deputy, Francia Márquez, became targets of criticism and memes by opponents and conservatives, after the release of a video with excerpts from the Barbie doll movie to mark the country's independence, celebrated on July 20.

All these factors express the influence of the United States on global culture, including the Latin American continent. In this article, we will analyze how Barbie, a doll that emerged at the end of the 1950s to exalt a type of Anglo-Saxon beauty of the blonde, tall, modern and always in fashion woman, is transfigured to sensitize a globalized, plural and ethnically varied market, modernizing her discourse for a cosmopolitan feminism.

Even so, the character is used as a subtle tool to reinforce certain elements of North American culture, perpetuate stereotypes in the culture of the global South, and possibly impact political relations between the United States and Latin American countries. One could accuse the new Barbie of anything but being conservative. Evidence of this is the fact that she has become the target of criticism from the extreme right (Bolsonarismo) and Brazilian neo-Pentecostals when addressing themes such as inclusion, personified by one of the versions of Barbie played by a transsexual actress and the emphasis on femininity and empowerment female in barbieland (fictional world where Mattel characters dominate), as opposed to the patriarchal power of Western society, disturbing the public conservative[1] .

In view of this, “progressive neoliberalism”, according to Nancy Fraser, justifies the advances of progressive agendas and the maintenance of market interests in the cultural industry, that is, an alliance between social movements and the financial sectors, including Hollywood. follow.

The new Barbie and the fragility of perfection

The film Barbie arrived in theaters with great expectations, but it goes far beyond a showcase to sell dolls. Directed by Greta Gerwig, the 1h 54m comedy/adventure features Margot Robbie in the role of the stereotypical Barbie, and by exploring the magical world of barbieland, the film addresses sensitive issues and questions the stereotypes imposed by the Barbie culture itself.

The story follows the daily lives of the different Barbies from barbieland, who live in harmony, focused on parties and choosing clothes. However, the protagonist begins to reflect on her existence and realizes that her perfect life may not be as real as it seems. She decides to explore the world as it is and is faced with issues of violence and unattainable standards of beauty, which are far from the plastic perfection of the Barbie universe.

The representation of the characters is one of the strengths of the film. By exploring the diversity of professions and characteristics of Barbies from barbieland, the work is inclusive and represents different life trajectories (with Barbies occupying the positions/functions of president, diplomat, doctor, physicist and Nobel prize winner, lawyer, Supreme Court judge, etc.). This is in line with an important dialogue with sexual diversity and minorities, showing that everyone deserves to be seen and respected.

The film also addresses issues of bullying and violence, especially when the main Barbie arrives in the real world and is faced with hostile situations and mockery for her appearance and lifestyle. These experiences reveal the difficulties faced by many people, especially teenagers, who have to deal with oppressive standards imposed by society. The anti-footprintbullying of the film is an important message that empathy, respect and acceptance are fundamental to create a more inclusive and tolerant environment.

Furthermore, by exposing the hypocrisy of diversity and inclusion in dolls, the film criticizes exacerbated consumerism and the unrealistic standard of beauty. He questions the idea that it is enough to include a few different representations (pregnant Barbie, Plus size, black and Asian and etc.) to solve social problems, showing that the change must be deeper and truer.

The approach of the executive team of the company Mattel, composed only of men, is also a criticism of the superficiality of the representations and the patriarchy, which appears in the film as an antagonism to the perfect world of barbieland. This underscores the importance of having more diversity in the creation processes, ensuring that different perspectives are considered to create more complex and realistic characters.

The protagonist of the film, when confronting the real world, is faced with issues of violence and unreachable beauty standards, facing hostile situations and mockery for her appearance and lifestyle. The doll is even called a fascist by one of the supporting actors, this reflection on oppressive standards and the need for empathy and respect resonates with the criticism of aesthetic fascism present in the cinematographic work. Fascism is often associated with intolerance, authoritarianism and the exclusion of those who do not fit established standards. According to Eugênio Bucci: “It's amazing how even this extreme criticism has found a place – and an honorable one – within the narrative. The luxury doll, although ordinary, is really fascist. But she doesn't want to be anymore. She wants to grow up. She wants one happy end in the show that never ends”.

Therefore, Barbie stands out as a work that goes beyond doll advertising and presents important themes for today's society. It dialogues with sexual diversity, minorities and the excluded, while reinforcing a strong anti-gender message.bullying, becoming a relevant and significant production in its social approach. Transcending clichés becomes an intelligent critique of Barbie's standards of beauty, representation and consumer culture, making it a relevant and impactful work.

The presence of Barbie in Latin American culture

The Barbie doll, created by Mattel in the United States in 1959, has become a global icon of Western culture. Its dissemination in Latin America occurred in an expressive way, and Barbie soon became a reference of beauty, fashion and aspirational lifestyle for many girls in the region. Barbie's massive reach, boosted by aggressive marketing campaigns, has made it a symbol of consumer culture and western beauty standards, exerting a marked influence on young Latin American women's self-esteem and body perception. However, the new film tries to unmask this construction of perfection and beauty standards that are unattainable for the majority of the population.

Cultural Stereotypes in the Barbie Movies

Over the years, Barbie doll has explored different cultures and countries, including some Latin American-inspired versions (see image 1) such as the Brazilian Barbie, wearing a costume representing Carnival, the Argentine Barbie with tango costumes, the Mexican Barbie with typical colorful dresses or wearing the traditional “traje de charro” and the version of the Venezuelan doll, with typical dance costumes from the country, known as “El Joropo”.

Image 1 – Collection dolls Dolls of the World, representing Latin American culture (Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela, respectively)

Source: Mattel reproduction/disclosure

However, it is necessary to critically analyze how these representations can perpetuate stereotypes and cultural simplifications. Sometimes Barbie films, prior to the 2023 release, especially the animations, portray Latin American countries in a generic way (and indirectly), emphasizing superficial elements such as folk dances, lush beaches and exotic fauna (such as films: Barbie in The Island Princess [2007] and Barbie and the Three Musketeers [2009]). These representations may neglect the cultural, historical and social diversity of Latin American countries, contributing to a reductionist view of the region.

Influence on the foreign policy of Latin American countries

The film industry is a powerful tool for soft-power, and Barbie movies can have subtle effects on US relations in Latin America. The representation of a behavior that could be called liberal-progressive – in allusion to progressive neoliberalism, coined by Nancy Fraser – in films can contribute to a positive perception of the West as a land of tolerance and democracy, associating the USA with ideals of modernity , progress and consumer aspirations.

However, it is important to recognize that US influence on Latin American culture is not unidirectional. Latin America also has a rich cultural diversity that influences global culture. Furthermore, the presence of Barbie in Latin American countries can also be seen as an expression of the globalized consumer culture and the power of multinational companies. But it is necessary here to differentiate national cultures from cultural industries, in the sense of Adorno and Horkheimer.

The concepts of soft power (soft power) and hard powerr (raw power) coined by Joseph Nye Jr. in the book “Bound to Lead: the Changing Nature of American Power” [1990], may explain the phenomenon of the film Barbie globally, and especially in Latin America. Initially, it is necessary to consider the definition of power for Nye (2002, p.30) as: “the ability to obtain the desired results and, if necessary, change the behavior of others to obtain them”. Therefore, brute power is related to traditional forms of power execution, such as military and economic forces, while soft power acts more indirectly, seducing and attracting through values, ideologies, culture and lifestyle. O soft power seeks to win minds and hearts to positively influence the perception of a country on the international stage.

In the context of Latin American culture and US influence, the film industry, including the Barbie movie, is highlighted as an essential tool of US soft power. Through Hollywood studios, screenwriters and producers promote and disseminate North American values ​​and models (showing advances and setbacks in local culture and society), which can influence the culture and perception of viewers around the world, including the Latin America. We can observe this reach in the opening weekend of the movie “Barbie” (2023) in the region (see table 1), with a substantial collection of more than 53 million dollars (about 250 million reais).

Table 1 – Gross revenue in Latin America in the opening weekend (20/23 to 07/XNUMX)

MarketRelease date OpeningGross Balance
Argentina20 July 2023US$ 4.600.000US$ 4.600.000
Brazil20 July 2023US$ 17.600.000US$ 17.600.000
Colombia20 July 2023US$ 4.442.404US$ 4.442.404
Mexico21 July 2023US$ 22.691.954US$ 22.956.841
Peru20 July 2023US$ 3.700.000US$ 3.700.000
Total-US$ 53.034.358US$ 53.299.245

Source: Own elaboration based on data from Box Office Mojo.

The soft power of the United States, through the dissemination of its culture through cinema, television programs and music, plays a significant role in global cultural homogenization, as the rapid and wide dissemination of information through the Internet and the ease of access leverage your potential. Hollywood productions, in particular, have a strong presence in Latin America, and the influence of these films can reinforce American stereotypes and behavioral patterns in the region (or deconstruct them).

However, it is important to consider that just as US soft power influences Latin American culture, Latin America also has its own cultural wealth that can exert global influence. The exchange of values ​​and ideas is a two-way street, and Latin American cultural diversity also contributes to shaping the international perception of the region.

So in the movie Barbie, we can notice that the society of barbieland mirrors some characteristics of American culture, reflecting a stereotyped and idealized view of that country. The parties, the extravagant lifestyle and the glamorous professions represented by the various Barbies are examples of how American culture is portrayed and romanticized in the work. This representation may inadvertently reinforce American stereotypes and behavioral patterns in the minds of the audience. However, the new film takes a more progressive and inclusive look, challenging this trend of cultural homogenization and stereotype reinforcement. By presenting a wide variety of Barbies, with different ethnicities, skin colors, cultural backgrounds and body patterns, the film seeks to represent the diversity of contemporary society in a more authentic and inclusive way.

The cultural industry and the unidimensional society in Latin America

The cultural industry, a concept developed by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment [1944] and the one-dimensional society, a theory elaborated by Herbert Marcuse in The One Dimensional Man [1964], can be related to the concept of soft power and Hollywood films and their influence on Latin American culture.

cultural industry and soft power

The cultural industry, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, is a culture and entertainment production system that seeks to standardize and homogenize human experience, reducing it to consumer goods. This process leads to the creation of a mass culture that not only reflects but also shapes people's mindsets, creating a false sense of freedom and choice but actually limiting their ability to think and act critically. This cultural standardization contributes to the dissemination of soft power, as it promotes values, ideas and lifestyles that can attract and influence people around the world, making them receptive to the culture of the producing country.

O soft power, as discussed earlier, refers to the ability to influence and attract other countries through cultural, ideological, and economic means rather than military or economic coercion. The cultural industry is one of the main forms of soft power exercised by the United States, because its productions, such as the film Barbie, music, TV programs and other entertainment content can reach global audiences, including Latin America, and disseminate values ​​and ideals that promote a positive image of the United States and its culture.

One-dimensional society and US influence on Latin American culture

One-dimensional society, as pointed out by Herbert Marcuse, refers to a society in which thought and culture are controlled and manipulated by dominant forces, such as the cultural industry, government and corporations. In this society, people are alienated, become passive consumers and do not question the status quo. The cultural industry, with its standardized productions, contributes to this unidimensionality, limiting the diversity of ideas and perspectives and reinforcing dominant values ​​and beliefs. According to Marcuse, “while capitalism and technology developed, advanced industrial society required increasing adaptation to the economic and social apparatus and submission to ever-increasing domination and administration. As a result, a 'conformity mechanic' has spread throughout society. […] the individual lost the initial features of critical rationality (ie, autonomy, dissent, the power of denial), thus producing a 'one-dimensional society' and a 'one-dimensional man'” (KELLNER, 2015, p. 15 -16).

In the context of US influence on Latin American culture, the one-dimensional society can be observed insofar as the spread of a globalized consumer culture, based on American values ​​and ideals, can reduce cultural diversity and local expression in Latin American countries. Latin America, that is, the loss of local critical rationality. However, in contemporary film Barbie there is a significant change in this scenario. Through a huge variety of Barbies, of different ethnicities, colors and body patterns, the film embraces diversity and seeks to represent today's society in a more inclusive way. The inclusion of a transsexual actress, Hari Nef, playing the medical Barbie, is a clear example of how the film seeks to represent and give visibility to the LGBTQIA+ audience, opening space for a discussion about representation and inclusion in cinema and society.

This approach represents a positive step forward as it challenges traditional stereotypes and moves beyond the one-dimensional view that Barbie has often represented in the past. By including diverse characters and presenting stories that reflect the reality of different social groups, the new film “Barbie” stands out as a more sensitive and up-to-date work, capable of dialoguing with a society that is increasingly aware of the importance of diversity and representativeness.

In view of this, the theories of the cultural industry and the one-dimensional society of Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse can be related to the concept of soft power and the influence of the film Barbie (with a new inclusive and representative footprint) and American culture in Latin America. The cultural industry plays a significant role in the dissemination of soft power of the United States, promoting American values ​​and lifestyles on a global scale. However, this influence can contribute to a one-dimensional society, limiting cultural diversity and local expression in Latin America.

It is critical to be aware of these mechanisms of influence to promote a more critical and reflective understanding of international culture and politics. The cultural industry itself sees the need for changes and advances in the rights of minorities and dialogue with the general public, diverse and multifaceted, and that is precisely what Barbie's new cinematographic work delivers.

There and back again

the cultural industry mainstream it may appear inclusive and progressive, but still follow a dominant cultural and commercial logic. We can see this in the movie Barbie, some consider the work a “reckoning” and a “retraction” regarding the negative role that the doll played in the playful education of girls for decades.

Indeed, the entertainment industry has a history of tackling important social issues by incorporating relevant themes into its productions. However, many times, these productions still follow a narrative structure that emphasizes individualism and consumption, while superficially addressing more complex social issues, this is precisely the “cat jump”, attracting the general public and sublimating the entire commercial chain involved. in the works.

As for Barbie, the issue of business and the millions of dollars involved around the brand is unquestionable, Mattel's shares rose 18% in the last year. In June, the advance was greater than 15% on the Nasdaq, while Hasbro, a competitor of the company, had an advance of only 4,75% of its assets in the same period. This is a central question to be addressed when discussing the cultural industry and its apparently progressive productions. On the one hand, we have a film that seeks to bring representation and inclusion, challenging stereotypes and promoting more progressive values. On the other hand, Barbie remains a commercial product, part of a great marketing and sales strategy, which aims to generate profits for the companies involved, either at the box office, as we have shown above, and/or licensing (of clothes, shoes and even food like the network fast food, Burger King, with the Barbie combo).

This tension between progressive ideals and commercial interests is a complex issue to consider when analyzing the influence of the cultural industry. The film Barbie it can be a genuine attempt to evolve and adapt to current times, reflecting broader societal concerns and values. However, there can also be a concern that, by addressing important issues, it could be a way to capitalize on consumer trends and the quest for a more positive brand image.

The important thing is to recognize that the cultural industry, including cinema, is a complex combination of artistic, commercial and social elements. When analyzing productions such as the Barbie movie, it is necessary to critically assess both the content presented and the context in which it is inserted, taking into account commercial motivations and artistic and social objectives. This allows for a more comprehensive and critical view of cultural influence and how film productions can impact people's perceptions.

However, even with these changes, it is relevant to question to what extent the cultural industry is genuinely interested in promoting diversity and inclusion or if it is just responding to market pressures and changes in social perceptions, we can find the “gotcha” precisely there. This does not mean that the film cannot be appreciated for its positive messages and its attempt to move towards diversity, but it is essential to be critical of the intersection between the film's message and the cultural industry's commercial interests.

In short, the internal dialogue about the limits and contradictions of the cultural industry is fundamental for a complete analysis. The cultural industry is not homogeneous, and its productions can contain progressive and commercial elements at the same time. The challenge is to analyze these nuances and understand how culture and commerce are intrinsically connected in this globalized entertainment scenario.

“Progressive neoliberalism” and its impact on culture

We can see a connection between the hegemony of the cultural industry and the prevailing economic system. “Progressive neoliberalism”, according to Nancy Fraser (2018), is described as an alliance between the main liberal currents of the new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, environmentalism and LGBTQIA+ rights) and the prominent financial and symbolic sectors of the U.S. economy. USA (Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood).

It is important to highlight the concepts of distribution and recognition for the American philosopher: “The distributive aspect conveys a view on how society should allocate divisible goods, especially income. This aspect speaks to the economic structure of society and, albeit obliquely, to its class divisions. Recognition expresses a sense of how society should bestow respect and esteem, the moral marks of delight in association and belonging. Focused on the status structure of society, this aspect refers to its status hierarchies” (FRASER, 2018, p. 45). In a way, culture and economic capital are at different poles.

From there, this connection is significant because it highlights how the entertainment industry, including Hollywood, is involved in this alliance. The progressive-neoliberal bloc combines expropriative and plutocratic economic aspects with a liberal-meritocratic policy of recognition. The distributive component is neoliberal, aiming to liberalize and globalize the economy, which has led to financialization and deindustrialization, negatively impacting the working class and middle class while benefiting the richest.

On the other hand, the progressive-neoliberal bloc adopts a superficially egalitarian and emancipatory recognition policy, seeking to attract progressive social movements to the cause. O ethos of diversity, empowerment, post-racialism, multiculturalism and environmentalism was adopted, but interpreted in a manner compatible with neoliberal economics, which contributed to the legitimation of these policies. It is precisely this appropriation that the American cultural industry makes, capturing the main issues of the moment and transforming it into something tangible for the general public, the film Barbie is one of many instances of this expression.

Finally, this analysis can be applied to the film Barbie, where we can identify an attempt to address important social issues, such as representativeness and diversity, but still inserted in a commercial context that aims to promote the brand and profitability. Just as “progressive neoliberalism” sought to repackage its economic policies with progressive rhetoric to achieve hegemony, the film may have adopted a more inclusive discourse to appeal to a wider audience while remaining part of the cultural industry. mainstream, subject to commercial and profitable interests.[1]

*Bruno Fabricio Alcebino da Silva Bachelor of Science and Humanities from the Federal University of ABC.

References

ADORNO, TW; HORKHEIMER, M. The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mystification of the Masses. In: Dialectics of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Editores, 1985.

FRASER, Nancy. From progressive neoliberalism to Trump – and beyond. Politics & Society – Florianópolis – Vol. 17 – No. 40 – Sep./Dec. from 2018.

KELLNER, Douglas. Introduction to the 2nd edition. In: MARCUSE, H. One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Sao Paulo: Edipro, 2015.

MARCUSE, H. One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Sao Paulo: Edipro, 2015.

NYE Jr., JS The American Power Paradox: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go Alone. Translated by Luiz Antônio Oliveira de Araújo. Sao Paulo, Ed. from UNESP, 2002.

NYE Jr., JS Bound to Lead: the Changing Nature of American Power. Basic Books (AZ); Revised ed; nineteen ninety.

Note

[1] I am grateful for the suggestions and fundamental collaboration of Gilberto Maringoni.


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