Buckle up for a Barbie summer, beginning with the reissue of this 1998 documentary, before Greta Gerwig's upcoming star-studded Barbie extravaganza. Barbie Nation: an Unauthorized Tour is directed by Susan Stern, and originally appeared on PBS. This director's cut includes new footage.
Barbie Nation is a biography of sorts of Ruth Handler, who with her husband Elliot founded Mattel Toys in 1947. Ruth is credited with "inventing" the Barbie doll in 1959, as a way of relieving young girls' anxieties about their budding breasts. She says she wanted to three-dimensional-ize the paper dolls her daughter played with (slap some plastic on it?) but her true inspiration came from encountering an "adult" fashion doll called Lilli in a toy store in Germany. Lilli, unlike typical American dolls, was long-legged and bubble-bosomed. Ruth Handler appropriated her and launched a revolution. By 1997, one billion Barbie dolls had been sold to impressionable children (compared to 130,00 of the Lilli doll, whose production was halted in 1964).
Barbie is, of course, an icon. She is more than just a multimedia franchise built around a fashion doll. To many she, as one interviewee puts it, "recreates an era when things were passive and compliant and there wasn't much violence," i.e. the 1950s (or our perception of it). But she's had her share of controversies as well, several of which are chronicled in Barbie Nation. She’s been personalized, personified, crucified, pierced, tattooed, voodooed, and ingested to serve specific bents. As the narration tells us, "Barbie has penetrated America's gut," in every sense of that phrase.
Ruth Handler participated fully in the making of the film and may have provided some impetus in getting it made. By the time of its release, she had left Mattel and moved on. I won’t tell to what but suffice it to say that breasts are a recurring theme of Barbie Nation.
A lot has changed in 25 years; Barbie Nation is prescient in many ways, not least by having boasted a mostly female production crew. Director Susan Stern is an investigative journalist whose other films include The Self-Made Man (2005) and Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez (2021), about the Zap Comics cartoonist to whom she had been married. Her documentary style is straightforward and newsy for its time. The narration is stilted but sparse. Ms. Stern lets the subjects speak for themselves, and the result is a lot of fun.
Back in 1998, Barbie Nation: an Unauthorized Tour cast light on above -- and underground cults that worship Barbie, and predicted LGBTQ+ trends that have since become familiar. It's a swift kick in the pop culture: even as a "director's cut" with added scenes, its runtime is just under an hour.
Barbie Nation: an Unauthorized Tour. Directed and produced by Susan Stern. 1998, director's cut with additional footage 2023. A Bernal Beach Films production. Available Video on Demand. 56 minutes.