Gerwig is full of references and influences, many of which she orchestrated to make the film “authentically artificial,” with everything “fake, but really fake” — apparent and yet palpable, palpable, like playing with a real toy. She called Peter Weir, the director of “The Truman Show,” to ask how “to implement something that is both artificial and emotional at the same time.” She tried to channel musicals like “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” which she says do the same. Many of the special effects were based on the analog techniques of 1959, a year chosen because that’s when Barbie made her debut. The mermaid Barbies we see splashing behind Jeff Koons-esque plastic waves are lifted from a platform like a see-saw. The blue expanse hovering over Barbieland is not a green screen; it is a vast background of a painted sky.
“Barbie” has a larger scope, budget and potential audience than any of Gerwig’s previous work. This was part of its appeal: Gerwig grew up, on purpose. And yet she remains focused on baby-stepping characters into adulthood. (Her next project is a Netflix adaptation of the Narnia universe.) The protagonists she played in “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” - collaborations with Baumbach – would probably make snide remarks about a Barbie IP blockbuster, but they also was to find out who they were. So were the heroines of Gerwig’s directorial debut, “Lady Bird,” loosely inspired by her own Sacramento childhood, and her follow-up, “Little Women,” based on her favorite children’s book.
“Barbie” is also a coming-of-age story; the maturing figure just happens to be a grown piece of plastic. “Women” would have been a good alternate title for it. Same with “Mothers and Daughters”, working title for “Lady Bird”. For Barbie, as in both of those other films, growing up is a matriarchal thing. It’s something you do with your mother, your sisters, your aunts. Or, in the case of Barbie, with the women who went through your product history.
In the beginning, was Ruth Handler, eavesdropping on her daughter, Barbara, playing with paper dolls. As little Barbie Handler and a friend dressed the cutouts in different outfits, they imagined their careers and personalities. Her mother’s rather feminist-sounding insight was that there were no three-dimensional dolls that let girls explore being grown women, only baby dolls that encouraged them to practice motherhood.
Handler and her husband, Elliot, already ran Mattel, a toy company they founded in their California garage in 1945. She ran the business, and he invented the toys. Her proposal for a non-baby doll stalled until, while traveling in Switzerland, she found a possible prototype. The Bild Lilli was a new toy, modeled after a blonde vixen from a West German cartoon, that could be used to accessorize an adult’s car, like Playboy silhouette mud flaps. Handler brought some home as a proof of concept. Manufacturers, retailers and even Mattel weren’t sure mothers would buy their daughters a toy with such a va-va-voom figure, but the company was advised by a famous Freudian marketing consultant that moms could be neutralized if they thought Barbie was teaching exactly behavior They might not like her sexual precocity, but they would put up with it to have her model leading femininity.