The politician has a busy week. She has events at the Capitol and an important bill to sign into law. Like her namesake, who calls the shade her “power color,” she wears a hot pink pantsuit.
The politician is a Barbie doll — one that top aides to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer decided to dress up as their boss and put up on social media this week as the Greta Gerwig-directed “Barbie” movie hits theaters.
Earlier this summer, staffers working for Ms. Whitmer — the Democrat who surprised pollsters with a double-digit victory in the most recent race for her office — began to appreciate the sheer force of Barbie mania that the world is currently in the grip of. Among many, many other marketing stunts: Crocs produced a custom Barbie shoe. Burger King made rose sauce. The Whitmer team members wondered if their boss could benefit from his own connection.
It’s a little random to compare an intentionally female politician to a doll once programmed to despair that “math class is hard” and who was such an avatar for sexist clichés that feminists spent the 1970s waving signs that declared “I’m not a Barbie doll.”
But Barbie also worked as a robotics engineer and ran for president seven times. With the help of Dreamhouse’s large marketing budget, she found herself in the middle of a cultural resurgence.
However, she was never governor. So the Whitmer team decided to give her some state executive experience and get attention for their boss in the process.
Ms. Whitmer’s digital and creative director, Julia Pickett, christened the doll Lil’ Gretch, a takeoff on Big Gretch — A Michigan nickname for Ms. Whitmer, inspired by a local pandemic-era rap song about the governor..
The stunt has the support of EMILY’s List, the Democratic organization dedicated to electing women who support abortion rights. (It does not have the official endorsement of Mattel, the company that makes Barbie. When asked if infrastructure-oriented girls might soon see Governor Barbie on store shelves, a Mattel representative said the company could not share future plans but added, “So fun to know she’s a fan!”)
Instagram users will find this Governor Barbie in tableaux vivants that include her speaking from a podium, signing legislation and “fixing the damn roads,” said Kaylie Hanson, Mrs. Whitmer’s chief communications officer, invoking one of Mrs. Whitmer’s favorite catchphrases. In one arrangement, Governor Barbie is pictured behind the wheel of her Pepto Bismol-colored Chevrolet. The vehicle is manufactured in Michigan, the team tried to point out. Miniaturized pink construction cones indicate road work ahead.
Ms. Whitmer’s name is a fixture on lists of possible 2028 presidential candidates. Her victory in November 2022 was so decisive that it helped turn both houses of the State Parliament blue for the first time in four decades. Such a reputation for coalition building has even led some to whisper about a possible 2024 run, though she has said she will not enter the race. But an ad hoc blockbuster movie collaboration isn’t like eating a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair. It’s on no campaign strategist’s list of presidential demands. So what on earth would force Mrs. Whitmer to do this?
Ms. Whitmer, 51, joined a recent video call to explain. She was wearing hot pink. Lil’ Gretch wasn’t her idea, but she was instantly enthused, she said, having grown up with (and cutting her hair off) a vast collection of Barbies shared with her sister.
“When they showed me the first replay, I thought it was absolutely hilarious,” she said. “This Barbie will sign legislation! She will lead!” That Barbie will get attention too. The education bill that Governor Barbie is pictured signing with his indomitable thumbs is the same one that Ms. Whitmer is expected to sign into law this week.
Critics might raise a skeptical eyebrow (Barbie, of course, can’t). But Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, called the move a “slam dunk.” Social media algorithms do not tend to reward acts of basic governance. She saw in her own data how voters struggle to recall the accomplishments of their elected officials. Those pink construction cones could make an impact, she said. “The TikTok generation is receptive to these kinds of things,” Ms Lake said.
“There will be people who won’t get it, and that’s fine,” Ms. Whitmer said. “We’re going to have fun. We will continue to be fierce and feminine in our fuchsia.”
And Mrs. Whitmer does love fuchsia. Her mother, an assistant attorney general in Michigan, also preferred the shade. “One of her colleagues said, ‘You can’t wear pink going to court,’” Ms. Whitmer said. “And she said, ‘Fuchsia is my power color.'” When her mother died, mourners showed up wearing pink in her honor.
In 2022, Ms. Whitmer made reproductive access a focus of her re-election bid. When she was declared the winner of that race, she celebrated in a $500 hot pink suit from the workwear brand Argent, which produced the look in collaboration with the feminist collective Supermajority. (Pink, in the shade of a hat, then became the unofficial color of the Women’s March.) Argent’s founder, Sali Christeson, said Ms. Whitmer ordered it online herself — “like a normal person.” She didn’t know Ms. Whitmer planned to wear it because the votes were counted that November. It is the brand’s best-selling suit to date.
For her second Inauguration, Mrs. Whitmer again wore fuchsia. To overturn an abortion ban that would have made criminals of doctors who performed the procedure, she wore hot pink. Magenta lipstick is such a staple that she rocked it even when she announced that the FBI foiled a plot to kidnap her in October 2020. She also wore a leather jacket, another signature. “That was the armor I felt comfortable in,” she said.
When Mrs. Whitmer first ran for office, she had to contend with what she called “the Xerox model” for women’s dress — dark suit, white top, pulled-back hair. “You were silenced,” she said, and most of the advice about what women in politics should wear came from men. “There were a lot of strong opinions about being conservatively dressed so that people would listen to your words and not be distracted by your clothing,” Ms Whitmer said. “It’s completely sad. It’s all about women’s rule.”
“It’s the best Whitmer to do this,” said Jennifer Palmieri, who profiled Ms. Whitmer for Vanity Fair. and served as communications director for Hillary Clinton when Mrs. Clinton was running for president. By that, she seemed to mean that it was both witty and hilariously over-the-top.
At the time when Mrs. Clinton was a candidate, “closet was a huge question mark,” Ms. Palmieri said. She recalled debating how to present Mrs. Clinton as a leader without forcing her into a male uniform. She opted for pastel pantsuits and draped jackets.
In 2016, Mrs. Clinton also became a Barbie — which was not her team’s idea. ““Saturday Night Live” ran a parody ad for a “President Barbie” doll modeled after her. A disinterested girl waved the doll away. She tries too hard.
The ad portrayed Barbie as retrograde and Mrs. Clinton as a relic. Other invocations of the doll were more malevolent. In 2014, Wendy Davis, a candidate for Texas governor, was faced with life-sized posters of her head plastered on the torso of a nude Barbie. Title called Ms. Davis “Abortion Barbie”. In 2020, a man carried a Barbie doll hanging from a noose onto the front steps of the Michigan State Capitol and claimed it was Mrs. Whitmer. He also had an ax, which the police confiscated. (“Unfortunately, women leaders see these kinds of attacks so often because of their gender,” Ms. Hanson said.)
“As applied to me, and as that term has been applied to other women, it’s meant to diminish us, draw attention to how we look, sexualize us and distract from our accomplishments, our intellect, our abilities,” Ms. Davis said of the “Barbie” mockery.
Like Mrs. Whitmer (and Barbie), Mrs. Davis is attached to pink. In 2013, she vetoed anti-abortion legislation in the Texas Senate, where she then served. She stood on her feet for 11 hours in pink sneakers. “I have more pink in my closet than you can imagine,” she said. “I’ve heard so many women who have applied talk about this string that we’re put on. And I love the idea of freeing ourselves from those shackles and not being afraid to be fully who we are.”
However, Meg Heckman, an associate professor of journalism and media innovation at Northeastern University, sees risks especially for women who “lean too much” into individual aspects of their characters – not least an aspect that was borrowed from glamourized children’s play. “It runs the risk of being trivialized,” she said, something female candidates have long battled.
Ms. Heckman also suggested that while creating a “popular cultural parallel” to the real-life governor may “subtly reshape the face of political leadership” away from one that is white and male, it may also encode other barriers to entry.
“Barbie is a conventionally attractive, fictional white woman,” Ms. Heckman pointed out. “Who else is left out of the frame?”
In 2021, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation has released an updated guide to running for elected office as a woman. It quoted focus group respondents who said they would advise female candidates to ensure their “dress, make-up and appearance are impeccable.” The foundation’s executive director, Amanda Hunter, said she was surprised to see voters penalize women for even minor perceived flaws, such as wrinkled collars or less-than-clean hair.
In that sad sense, Governor Barbie is actually meeting voters’ expectations. “Voters have a standard of perfection for women,” Ms Hunter said.
Ms. Whitmer — who has actually had a perfect voting record since her first race at age 29 — is serious about her Barbies, but the wink is implicit, Ms. Palmieri said. “It’s like, ‘You want me to look like a Barbie doll, I’m going to take that as something that empowers me, not something that pigeonholes me,'” she said.