Zoe Strimpel

Barbie and the bimbo-fication of American Jewish women

Jewish women can't be reduced to stereotypes

July 19, 2023 11:57

Though Barbies were to be found strewn across the floors of most of my compadres’ bedrooms back in 1980s Massachusetts, she was not welcome in the Strimpel household. Even if I had been a Barbie fan, which I was not, it’s unlikely my taste would have been indulged: the doll seemed like an emblem of an America that felt alien and hostile. My parents, who emigrated from London to the Boston area in 1983, had a more naturalistic, European take on gender.

Perhaps if we’d known Barbie was Jewish, it’d have taken some of the sheen off her platinum hair, absurd curves and legs up to her ears. But Barbie’s Jewish roots mostly remained obscure. Until now, and the release this week of the new movie directed by Greta Gerwig and co-written by her husband Noah Baumbach.

Gerwig and Baumbach have given a smart edge to the narrative of a doll that was first brought to market by two Jewish immigrants. Ruth Handler, nee Moskowicz, was the daughter of a poor Colorado blacksmith from Poland, who, with her husband Elliot Handler, went on to found toy giant Mattel. The Barbie story began with a trip to Switzerland in 1956, when Handler clapped eyes on Lili, a German sex doll, and decided to recreate her for the American market. Only this time it would be for girls, not grown men. Ernst Ditcher, an Austrian psychologist, deployed Freudian concepts of gender to sell this hyper-feminine, totally unrealistic image of womanhood to girls the world over.

So Barbie’s blank smile and archetypal all-American look masks a history of Jewish striving and ingenuity. Baumbach and Gerwig have also made her into a more interesting and, yes, feminist, figure in the film than she’s ever been: it’s Barbie, not dithering, airhead Ken, who thinks and acts courageously here.

Even so, I’m not entirely sure this can quite erase the decades of brainwashing and sexualisation of girls’ ideas of what they should look like. I found myself cringing on reading Gerwig’s bizarre insistence that watching her Barbie film should be like “attending a Shabbat dinner”. There is little intersection, surely, with a smart, hipster-directed romp about a doll that sold millions upon millions of girls a model of themselves based on a German sex figurine.

Gerwig’s elaboration of the Shabbat comment was not without charm, but it hardly clarified matters. “I remember feeling the sense of, ‘Whatever your wins and losses were for the week, whatever you did or you didn’t do when you come to this table, your value has nothing to do with that’,” Gerwig told the New York Times. “I remember feeling so safe in that and feeling so, like, enough. I want people to feel like I did at Shabbat dinner. … I want them to get blessed.”

Hmm. So to watch the movie about Barbie is to feel blessed and merrily ensconced at a nice big dinner? Perhaps Gerwig has a very high opinion of her genius (no bad thing).

Whatever it is, it’s an over-the-top attempt at Jewification of a film whose connection to the Tribe is real but not central.

I will say this for Barbie: played by the inestimable, super-hottest of hot gentiles Margot Robbie, she explodes assumptions about what Jews look like. Most people, including my historical self, wouldn’t in a million years associate Barbie with a Jewish inventor and Jewish DNA.

But Jews are not all dark-eyed and curly-headed or short and wide-hipped or tiny or whatever stereotypes persist in what it means to “look” the part. Jewish women are not all modest, they are not all bound by ritual or tradition, they are not all chubby on too much of the challah Gerwig no doubt remembers fondly.

No: we can be just as blonde and long-legged as the next person, something that first-timers to Israel, where insanely gorgeous leggy blonde Jewesses are the norm — mostly of Polish, Russian or Baltic heritage — often find deeply surprising. Jews have all kinds of looks, and Barbie-tastic features are no exception.

There is little doubt that I am going to enjoy this film very much. Gerwig and Baumbach are a dynamic duo. The backstory is fab. Margot Robbie as a brave, ingenious Barbie against a dopey Ryan Gosling as Ken sounds delicious.

But I intend to season my relish with just a drop of bitterness. Despite Mattels’ furious attempts over the years to “diversify” their star doll — not just in terms of race and looks, but profession too (there’s even a STEM Barbie now) — we all know how and why she came into being.

It was as a dangerous consumer ploy, a mirror in which little girls might see their grown selves reflected back: perfect-looking but with little going on inside.

July 19, 2023 11:57

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