You know about the movie. Now let’s talk about the name.
In July, as I walked past yet another store display of bubblegum-pink merchandise, I overheard a 60-something woman talking to friends.
“I hated being called Barbie in school! You have no idea what a trial that doll was for us Barbaras.”
It was the Summer of Barbie, a whirlwind of art and commerce that spawned a thousand think pieces. Filmmaker Greta Gerwig made a musical comedy blockbuster out of feminist theory, and in the process pulled off an astonishing name transformation. She upended the social meaning of the most commercially controlled and gender-stereotyped name in America. The new Barbie that emerged speaks volumes, not just about gender but about our changing views of names and identity itself.
In 1959, the Barbie Doll revolutionized the toy industry. Earlier dolls were modeled on infants and children, with the assumption that girls would play at being mothers. Toymaker Ruth Handler’s brainchild was a grownup fashion doll, suitable for living out glamorous fantasies. Handler named the doll Barbie after her own daughter, Barbara.
To understand how the name Barbie sounded at the time, we have to roll back generations of social and stylistic change. In 1959, America’s top girls’ names were Mary, Susan and Linda, and Barbara wasn’t too far behind. The nickname Barbie was a fun, carefree name on the rise. It suggested dreams that were more Beach Blanket Bingo than Father Knows Best. That suited a doll who threw parties in her dream house and drove a convertible rather than feeding babies.
The name’s popularity peaked in 1964, then plummeted. Within decades most parents considered Barbie unimaginable as a baby name. It was simultaneously too girlish and too old. With real girls named Barbie a distant memory, the doll took control. The name and the brand became one.
Barbie on the Brink
A year ago, Barbie stood as shorthand for a whole web of restrictive gender norms. It stood for the aggressive boy/girl division of American toy stores, and by extension American childhood. For the treatment of women as sexual commodities. For our unrealistic and white-centered beauty standards. For the idea that femininity is defined by beauty, fashion, shopping and pink.
A sampling of popular song lyrics tells the tale:
“I’m a blonde bimbo girl in a fantasy world” (Barbie Girl, 1997)
“I won’t be no stick-figure, silicone Barbie doll” (All About that Bass, 2014)
“I’m a **** Black Barbie
Pretty face, perfect body
Pink seats in the ‘Rari” (Black Barbie, 2016)
Any other possible meaning of Barbie, the name, was obliterated. Then Barbie, the brand, took a huge, cinematic leap.
The Barbie movie opens in the candy-colored dream world of Barbie Land. All around us, happy women are living their best lives. They’re athletes, diplomats and scientists. They’re black and white, thin and fat, with legs and with mermaid tails. But the diversity comes to a screeching halt at names. In Barbie Land every day is a great day, and every woman is named Barbie.
Since everyone is Barbie, names no longer function as we know them. They are not personal identifiers. Each woman is recognized instead by her societal role, her accomplishments, or her unique characteristics and talents. There’s a utopian freedom to the idea: casting off labels applied by others and being known for what we make of ourselves.
Yet shared, common names are the opposite of what we want in the real world today. Parents seek out distinctive names, hoping to set their children on a path to success and make them feel special. In fact, the uniform naming may be our first sign that Barbie Land is no girl-power utopia. Can the Barbies really be anything they want to be if they have to be Barbie?
We soon learn that a Barbie by any other name would not be the same. Not so sunny, not so successful, not so accepted. We know this because of another Barbie Land denizen, Allan.
Allan is the resident outsider. He’s a one-off, a doll introduced in 1964 to be Ken’s buddy then immediately discontinued. In Barbie Land, Allan lingers awkwardly on the edge of male gatherings made up entirely of Kens. He’s not quite part of the Ken crowd and not quite sure if he even wants to be.
Why is Allan on the outside? It’s not because he looks different; all of the Kens look different from one another. They have different styles and interests, too, if not as ambitious as the Barbies’. And Allan can wear all of Kens’ clothes! No, Allan only became an outsider because he was named Allan.
The singleton identity that makes Allan a misfit also turns out to make him more human. All of the Barbies, despite their varied accomplishments, essentially share a single personality. So do all of the Kens, right down to their favorite Matchbox Twenty song. Allan is uniquely himself, and thus the only one who yearns to escape Barbie Land with its handcuffs of conformity. Barbie’s ultimate journey is to find her own individuality as a human and a woman.
Barbie vs. Barbie
The real-world image of Barbie seemed set in stone, immovable. The movie version hit our culture like an irresistible force. The result was a transformation.
Goodbye, “blonde bimbo girl in a fantasy world.” The film’s feminist outlook radically shifted Barbie’s place in our gender discourse. Its shrewd humor also made the brand cooler, vastly expanding its audience. The image of the doll merged into a vision of personal autonomy rooted in fun and sisterhood; a confidently feminine feminism.
The change went further than an ideological makeover, though. The name Barbie became a statement of identity. The filmmakers encouraged that with a marketing blitz centered on the phrase, “This Barbie Is…”. Posters featured members of the cast with their Barbie Land roles: “This Barbie is a mermaid,” “This Barbie is President.”
Then they invited the public to put themselves in the picture with a “Barbie Selfie Generator.” Anyone could become a citizen of Barbie Land, defining themselves however they wanted to be known. The campaign became a viral sensation and helped fuel the film’s cultural conquest. We can all be Barbie!
But wait. In the movie, isn’t Barbie’s great triumph becoming human? She even asserts her own dignity by using the formal name Barbara. So why are we humans so eager to be “This Barbie”?
Maybe we want a world where women hold the power. Maybe we just want a pink convertible and the ability to float rather than fall. Or maybe a clue to our Barbie dreams lies in the way the Barbies embrace their shared name.
The universal name isn’t just a joke for the Barbies—it’s a bond. The warm attachment we all feel toward our own names extends outward. The residents’ greetings of “Hi, Barbie! Hi, Barbie! Hi, Barbie!” are the comforting chorus of common ground and mutual understanding.
Our own society has lost a lot of common ground over the past generation. News and entertainment have splintered into countless subcultures, and our name culture has splintered too. The typical American baby now receives a name that’s uncommon nationwide and concentrated in specific communities. Even within a given community or subculture, we’re actively striving to name as differently from each other as possible. Many American kids growing up today will live the opposite of the Barbie experience: they will never meet another person who shares their name.
We chose to give up our baby-name common ground for a reason. We collectively decided that greater individuality and self-expression were well worth the tradeoff. The downside is one more step away from social cohesion, one more reason so many people feel alone.
“Hi, Barbie! Hi, Barbie! Hi, Barbie!” Imagine being so welcomed, so connected, so seen. Then imagine crowning that connection with your own personal identity of choice. Creating your own personalized Barbie selfie promises a fleeting moment of having it all. Of fulfilling the impossible, contradictory dream so many of us harbor: to stand out and fit in. To be individual and part of a whole. To be our own unique, messy, authentic selves and be accepted by everyone. To be a Barbie and be human.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to the Name of the Year discussion. I look forward to your insights every year!