Review: Barbie Nation


This history of the Barbie Doll opens with a scene from a Barbie convention. An elaborate Barbie Doll in a custom dress is being auctioned off. It goes for $4,250 and the buyer, in her own Barbie inspired clothing, is ecstatic. From there a montage continues from Barbie being discussed by drag queens in San Francisco, an anti-Barbie crusader arguing with the owner of a Barbie shop, to a stylized film title: “Barbie Nation,” made up like a drive-in theater marquee, complete with a Beach Boys-like background song about… Barbie!

This is the opening to the 25th Anniversary Director’s Cut of a 56-minute-long documentary about the creation, the history, and the cultural impact of the Barbie Doll.

We are introduced to Ruth Handler, founder with her husband Elliot, of Mattel Toys, and the “mother” of Barbie. She tells the story of how she noticed her daughter and her friends playing with paper dolls – but always grown-up paper dolls. She also describes her own feelings of unease as she developed breasts. Out of this came her desire to create three-dimensional adult shaped dolls for girls, toys that would help them get used to the idea of becoming adult women.

While on a trip to Germany in the mid 1950s, when Mattel Toys had already been in business for two decades, she came upon an adult-oriented version of what she’d been thinking of: this statuesque doll was a saucy high-end call girl named Lilli. In 1959, the American version of Lilli, now named after Ruth’s daughter Barbara, was introduced and became an overnight success. Later came Ken, named after Ruth’s son, Kenneth. Over the years, other dolls were added and eventually dolls with other skin tones, hair and facial features. They became THE iconic American dolls, and entered the cultural landscape.

Of course, anything in culture can breed a subculture, and Barbie has done that. Just as the original Lilli doll was intended for German men, Barbie appeals to men today – men who collect her, men who make clothing for her, men who pose her in a variety of dioramas and act out Barbie social adventures. Even men who swallow Barbie heads for sexual gratification or pose Barbie and Ken (with added custom genitalia) in S/M/B poses. Barbie dolls or parts thereof incorporated in works of art. Barbie collectibles as a business. Barbies as voodoo dolls. And so much more.

If the idea of the Barbie Doll has ever intrigued you, or if you are interested in the stories behind it, this short documentary is for you.


Director: Susan Stern
Writer: Susan Stern
Producers: Trish Harrington, Susan Stern
Cinematographer: Fawn Yacker
Editor: Elizabeth Finlayson
Music: Ed Bogas
Runtime: 56 minutes
Availability: VOD, June 27, 2023

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