A Close-up shot of a blonde barbie looking past the camera. She is against a blue background.
Image Credit: Ekaterina79 on istock.com

On the pink carpet at the July 13 Barbie film premiere in London, Margot Robbie made one thing clear: “I’m very much in support of all the unions.” She added that as a member of SAG-AFTRA—short for the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, a union representing around 160,000 media workers worldwide—she was “absolutely” in support of the imminent strike. Just hours later, SAG-AFTRA’s demands had still not been accepted by the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers (the negotiating body representing the corporations behind the entertainment industry), so the glamorous press tour for the highly anticipated summer blockbuster went back into the box. 

Barbie may be one of America’s emblematic cultural exports, but the toy’s production has only ever happened overseas.

Everything about Barbie’s publicity so far—from Robbie’s referential press tour outfits to the millions being made from brand partnerships—is a profitable testament to the cultural power of the Mattel corporation. The movie seems to be trying to be more than just a toy commercial; reviews call it a “saga of self-realization” and “a picture that both promotes and deconstructs its own brand.” Its status as recycled intellectual property points out how corporations control life not just in Barbieland but in the real-life movie industry and beyond.

Life in Plastic, Not Fantastic 

Barbie may be one of America’s emblematic cultural exports, but the toy’s production has only ever happened overseas. Mattel was cofounded by Ruth Handler and her husband in 1945, and she had already pitched the idea of a grown-up doll to Mattel’s executives when she came across the perfect prototype in Germany in 1956. Mattel began manufacturing Barbie dolls in Japan in 1959 when the country’s economic struggle right after World War II made labor cheaper. 

As Japan’s economy experienced a quick recovery when the government aggressively invested in manufacturing to produce new technologies—in industries including iron, cars, and chemicals—Mattel’s factories moved to parts of Asia where labor was more inexpensive, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. As those economies also gained ground, Mattel continued its search for the cheapest labor possible to make its plastic toys.

In the 1980s, the company experienced mounting financial troubles after trying to branch out into electronics and other kinds of toys—leaving Barbie to bear the weight as its moneymaker. In 1984, venture capital firms invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Mattel to keep the accompany afloat; three years later, the company hired the consulting firm McKinsey & Company to streamline operations and forecasted layoffs both in the United States and abroad. Squeezing manufacturing labor overseas became a brutal fallback strategy to eke out a profit. In 1988, Mattel closed both Barbie production plants in the Philippines and laid off 4,000 workers in response to a strike by the Mattel Workers Union, which was protesting the first plant’s closure. Just the previous year, the union had successfully negotiated pay raises for workers to around five dollars per day.

Mattel continued to relocate to countries with lower labor costs, including China, and Barbie dolls continued to be its highest-grossing product. In 1996, NBC’s Dateline sent undercover journalists into Mattel’s Indonesia factory, alleging that the company was exploiting child labor. In the decade following, Mattel tried hard to clean up its image, but came under fire again for its overseas manufacturing standards in 2007, recalling 19 million toys—including Barbies—that contained lead paint and strong magnets.

In a book published the same year, Eric Clark highlighted the “unimaginably awful” conditions of the Chinese factories making toys for Mattel and Hasbro, where workers were losing fingers, working 80-hour weeks, sleeping in cell blocks, and making pennies. “The crux of the problem is this: by demanding that their supplier produce goods at ever cheaper prices and demanding deadlines, the toy industry is almost forcing them to act illegally.” 

Discoveries of labor violations in Chinese factories producing Mattel products continued well into the 2010s. The brand, which blamed its performance on the “fickle tastes of children,” also had to respond to plunging demand amidst a cultural landscape that saw its star as an outdated and sexist symbol by offering dolls in different colors and sizes. But the corporate strategy around manufacturing remained consistent: in 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported that Mattel paid a typical worker $6,300 dollars per year in 2017, and was forecasting further restructuring in the following year.

Since bringing on Ynon Kreiz as CEO in 2018, the company has pivoted hard to remake itself: “We used to think of ourselves and present ourselves as a manufacturing company,” Kreiz told the New York Times. “The specialty was: We make items. Now we are an I.P. company that is managing franchises.” The movie deal was inked not too long after, with a string of other Mattel products up for adaptation, including Barney, Polly Pocket, and Hot Wheels. Barbie’s comeback was too good to pass up, and it has yielded millions of dollars in retail partnerships so far: trademarked shoes, ice cream, watches, and more.

The US corporation behind one of the world’s best-selling toys is, like many industries, a horror story of corporate pressures exploiting overseas workers—dependent on low wages, dangerous conditions, and tax evasion to stay profitable. While the film after its most popular product does not represent this history, it portrays a world in which Mattel is all-powerful and in on the joke.

“Blame Mattel, they make the rules.” 

Considering Mattel’s troubled history, Barbie seems to have been released at just the right time for the toy giant. But it’s not easy to read it as a straightforward marketing scheme, as the jump from brand to film changes the nature of Barbie’s story.

Several incisive reviews have seriously looked at what it means to make a movie about a best-selling brand. Vulture’s Alison Willmore writes that Barbie is more “a story about money” than anything else, and Defector’s Nicholas Russell explains that the movie “gently sends up the company it also praises,” speaking to a larger anxiety in contemporary culture about justifying “projects motivated blatantly by capitalistic forces.” It isn’t useful, in other words, to blame or praise director Greta Gerwig for making a deal with Mattel. The point is that we live in a time where corporations are consulting on the movies about the brands they own, allowing just enough self-criticism to seem self-conscious but not too much to break the bank.

Barbie’s story is about the newfound self-consciousness of a commodity. Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie” lives in Barbieland, where happy Barbies run society as presidents, doctors, and construction workers. They know that they are Mattel-made dolls and that people in the “real world” play with them, but they imagine that the world outside is no different than their pink utopia. All that changes when Barbie begins thinking about dying and her perfect features begin changing—so she hops in her pink convertible with her Ken in the back seat to find the source of her fresh unhappiness. 

While the film may not be able to criticize Mattel in the end, it reaffirms a central truth: it’s a corporate world—we’re all just living in it.

In the real world, she finds that people are quite unhappy with her in particular: one girl tells Barbie that her brand of “unrealistic physical ideals, sexualized capitalism, and rampant consumerism” has made life worse for women. She objects to being called a fascist, crying that she doesn’t “control the railways or the flow of commerce!” Heavy with this burden, she eventually finds the unhappy woman who is giving her cellulite and making her question her mortality: a middle-aged Mattel employee named Gloria. Gloria grew up loving Barbies—so much so that she got her dream job at Mattel—only to find that life as a grown-up woman isn’t as easy as the one she projected on her doll as a child. 

It’s clear that Barbie wants to leave its audience with some high-stakes messages about feminism, which end up sounding a bit outdated. But wouldn’t it be silly to expect anything else? Criticizing Barbie for its corporatized feminism is less compelling than seeing it for what it is: the tale of a corporate pivot. And all roads in the film lead back to Mattel. From the Mattel corporate executives following close on Barbie’s heels telling her to “get back in the box,” to one character’s quip to “blame Mattel, they make the rules,” the “real world” in the film is still one in which the corporation controls everything—and that’s the whole point. 

The movie’s explicit message, that being a woman in an unfair world is a complicated thing, culminates in Gloria’s suggestion that perhaps Mattel should sell an “Ordinary Barbie,” to tell women that they are enough—which an executive confirms would sell well. “You are enough”—this is not just the mantra for an individualist feminism that Mattel can sell, it’s a version of Mattel’s mantra to itself.

Ultimately, the motivating mechanism of the plot—where a Mattel employee transfers her unhappiness to a formerly worry-free doll—succeeds in making a small suggestion: Barbie is not insulated from the feelings of a worker she doesn’t know, and her existence in the real world is determined by Mattel’s decisions. While the film may not be able to criticize Mattel in the end, it reaffirms a central truth: it’s a corporate world—we’re all just living in it. 

In short, Gerwig’s film is an allegory for the changing cultural economy of the 21st century: how a product can cross from one realm into the other to confront and adapt to a new reality. Filmmakers are grappling with a claustrophobic horizon of what stories can be told, how, and by whom, due to the expanding power of media companies and the corporations that court them. Barbie is a perfect expression of this new era, in which corporations seek to rebrand the nostalgic products of the recent past, and movie studios work with them to repackage old ideas for the mass market. 

When the Stars Align

The changing economy influences the content of the culture industry, and it also has terrible effects on the workers that bring stories like Barbie to life. Studios are scheming to make even more profit by cutting costs as much as possible, using new technology to produce more and pay people less. The actors and writers of the media industry are not only fighting for better pay and pensions but also struggling against the creep of new kinds of exploitation.

Take residuals, for example. These payments, which compensate people involved in making TV shows and films when they are rerun, syndicated, or distributed—were won as a result of SAG’s 1960 strike. In the age of streaming platforms like Netflix, studios have taken advantage of the differences between streaming and broadcast or box office release by setting payment ceilings and changing the parameters of a product’s success. 

The streaming economy has also changed how things are written and produced in the first place. Even though more movies and television are being made than ever before, pay for writers and actors is on the decline, regardless of experience. Writer Alex O’Keefe told CNN that he was “living below the poverty line” while writing the hit show The Bear for FX, and saw very little money while the studios made millions. “We are living in the wildest imagination of a few billionaires who have designed our economy exclusively for themselves.” While the film and television industry used to be a reliable pathway to middle-class stability, reduced budgets and technological advancement have made it impossible to make a living.   

Across the film and television industry, the labor movement is unified in a way that the country hasn’t seen in decades—and corporate executives have only themselves to thank.

The use of AI is also a major pain point—and one which threatens not just those in the writers’ room, but also on the red carpet. Studios are currently proposing that for a one-time fee, actors will sign over the rights to their image and voice, which the studios could use for any project without further consent or additional payment. You can imagine that even big stars would be threatened by this proposal; if the industry introduces this as a precedent, even someone like Robbie may have to look on as Warner Bros. produces Barbie 4 without her involvement. 

So far, Barbie has cleared $337 million in box offices worldwide during its first weekend in theaters, exceeding its $145 million budget and securing both its place as the biggest premiere of the year and the highest debut for a film directed by a woman. All this record-setting profit only makes a starker case for the people on the SAG-AFTRA and WGA picket lines, as executives of film companies tout the smashing success while coming back to the bargaining table with paltry proposals. 

Solidarity from high-profile stars on press tours just before the July 14 strike began showed in SAG’s strike authorization vote, which had over 97 percent support from its members. The actors’ union joins the Writers Guild of America, whose East and West unions have been on the picket lines from coast to coast since May 2. With help from IATSE and the Teamsters, the WGA was able to shut down productions of high-profile television shows and films. Workers from different unions in Los Angeles and New York are attending each other’s pickets and refusing to cross the lines, lifting up the message that the gig economy, C-suite profits, and technological threats are issues that affect everyone.

Across the film and television industry, the labor movement is unified in a way that the country hasn’t seen in decades—and corporate executives have only themselves to thank. Statements expressing solidarity with SAG-AFTRA cite the greediness of studio executives and their disregard for the talent and wellbeing of the people who make the entertainment industry work. IATSE President Matthew Loeb said: “Our industry is at a crossroads, and the actions taken now will affect the future of labor relations in Hollywood and beyond.” 

Loeb’s warning sums up the stakes of the struggle between labor and corporate power today. The problems plaguing film and television industry workers are not identical to the ones that nurses, schoolteachers, or UPS drivers face. But in healthcare, education, and logistics too, the consolidation of profits to executives and shareholders, the influences of digitalization and technology, and the withering of living wages and job security are the cause of skyrocketing inequality and unbearable working conditions. Corporate power is at the root of widespread insecurity—and even popular movies are telling us some version of that truth.