Barbie Has Been Waiting Decades for Her Meryl Streep Moment

Barbie Has Been Waiting Decades for Her Meryl Streep Moment

July 22, 2023

Have you OD’d on all the media attention for WB’s July 21 launch of “Barbie”? It’s understandable, but you have to cut her some slack: Mattel and Barbie have been waiting decades for this moment.

Years ago, Universal homevideo exec Glenn Ross told Variety that U and Mattel had been thinking about films as far back as 2001: “We knew we should make Barbie a movie star. It has to be the same way you would feel when seeing a Meryl Streep movie.”

He was speaking in 2007 about the animated films. The direct-to-DVD films debuted in 2001 and six years later, they had completed nine titles, with each selling more than a million copies.

Mattel exec producer Rob Hudnut added at the time, “We are great believers in the power of little girls.”

As well they should. Barbie has been a money machine for Mattel since her debut in 1959.

But the live-action film — directed by Greta Gerwig, written by her and Noah Baumbach, and starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling — is aiming for a wider audience than just little girls.

In 2007, Variety did a package of stories under the umbrella heading “Barbie: Billion-Dollar Brand.”

Writer Susanne Ault mentioned the live-action film featuring imitators/competitors Bratz, a line of fashion dolls. But Universal and Mattel were not in a rush for their own live-action movie, the article said, “they are intent on protecting the Barbie brand and are picky about the doll’s projects.” 

Mattel senior director of distribution and marketing Barry Waldo said he’d been at the company nine years and “we’ve taken more calls from producers who want to do a Barbie feature than I can count. If we feel it’s the right time, we’ll consider it.”

Variety had mentioned the doll as early as Oct. 19, 1960, when composer Eliot Daniel was preparing an album of Barbie songs.

There were random mentions over the years, including two stories in 1996: Mattel had created a division of Barbies designed specifically for adults, dressing her as Maria from “Sound of Music” and other film characters. There was also a story about the original “Toy Story”; Pixar and Mattel couldn’t agree on a proposal to have Barbie rescuing Woody. (Barbie sat out that film, but she and Ken appear in “Toy Story 3.”)

Variety’s 2007 package detailed the growth of the doll into a mini-conglomerate.

The story read, “Like girl anthropologists, Mattel surveys and watches how they spend their days … The company then uses that information to figure out how best to incorporate Barbie into girls’ lives whether it be with the doll itself or a Website or a movie.”

Aside from the animated made-fors, there was an animated TV series, plus partnerships with Armani, Citizens for Humanity and MAC cosmetics (targeting adult women), for example.

The package included such nuggets as the fact that U.S. girls ages three to 10 owned an average of 12 Barbies; that Barbie had 1,000 licensees (only 85 of them in the U.S.) in 150 countries. And that Vivienne Westwood may be the only designer to have clothed both Barbie and Sid Vicious.

Reporter Ault added, “But Mattel has plenty of fresh Barbie concepts up their sleeves.” Yes, they certainly did.

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