From Dolls to Icons: Understanding the Cultural Significance of Barbie Nation, a Film by Susan Stern

A talk with Director Susan Stern.

Barbie Nation is a compelling documentary directed by Susan Stern that delves into the cultural phenomenon surrounding the iconic Barbie doll. The film takes viewers on a captivating journey, exploring Barbie’s impact on body image, self-esteem, and society’s perception of femininity. Through insightful interviews and thought-provoking analysis, “Barbie Nation” invites us to reflect on the doll’s complex role in shaping popular culture. SW had an opportunity to speak with Susan Stern, the director and producer of Barbie Nation, an iconic cult classic. The film is set to make its highly-anticipated online debut on Tuesday, June 27 in an enhanced Director’s Cut version, available on-demand on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play


SW — How different is the Director’s Cut from what we have seen before? 

Susan Stern — In the Director’s Cut, I was able to restore an essential scene I filmed for Barbie Nation in 1997 — but didn’t include. It’s the scene with Marcella, a collector of Black Barbies — and tells some of the story of those breakthrough dolls. I emphasize “some” because the reason Black Barbie was left out of the original Barbie Nation was because we knew we couldn’t do justice to the importance of Black dolls. I remember thinking: “This section needs to be its own entire film.” I researched for that film before understanding that as a white woman, I wasn’t the person to make it. Fortunately, director Lagueria Davis has just released the brilliant film: Black Barbie –  I always regretted leaving the Black Barbie section out of Barbie Nation, so when I had the opportunity to release the Director’s Cut, I restored the scene myself.

Director Susan Stern and her inspiration for the film

Susan Stern, an accomplished filmmaker known for her thought-provoking documentaries, was inspired to create “Barbie Nation” after witnessing the enduring popularity and controversy surrounding the Barbie doll. Intrigued by the doll’s ability to captivate and divide society simultaneously, she embarked on a mission to uncover Barbie’s cultural significance for people of all ages. Stern’s passion for storytelling shines through in her meticulous research and captivating narrative, making “Barbie Nation” a must-watch for both Barbie enthusiasts and those interested in exploring the impact of popular culture.

SW — What was the inspiration in your life to direct this film?

Susan Stern Barbie Nation was inspired by my daughter, Nora, who is in the film with her (still) BFF Claire. When Nora was four, her 5-year-old cousin gave her a Barbie. As you may know, for many people, Barbies are somehow acquired, apparently breed in dark places (cabinets, closets) and one day you discover you have a dozen, all partially clad. Nora wanted to play this game where one Barbie was jealous of another Barbie and I said, in my best second wave feminist manner: “Nora! Women don’t have to be jealous of other women.” And Nora just looked at me and said: “Mom. First, let’s play what I want to play and then we can play what you want to play.”

When I told this story to other people, they told me their Barbie stories- each unique. I had been a print journalist for many years but had gone back to school to study film after the newspaper I worked for closed.  When I discovered that no one had made a documentary about the Barbie doll, I teamed up with sister student Trish Harrington (associate producer), borrowed gear from San Francisco City College, and began.

Cultural Significance of Barbie

Barbie has undeniably left an indelible mark on popular culture. Since her introduction in 1959, Barbie has transcended being just a toy and has become a cultural icon. The doll represents a multitude of careers, ethnicities, and fashion trends, reflecting society’s changing values and aspirations. Barbie has become a symbol of imagination, creativity, and possibility, inspiring countless individuals to dream big and reach for the stars. However, with her flawless features and unrealistic proportions, Barbie has faced criticism for perpetuating narrow beauty standards and promoting unhealthy body image ideals.

Barbie’s cultural significance extends beyond her physical appearance. She has become a canvas upon which individuals project their desires, dreams, and aspirations. From childhood playtime to adult collectors, Barbie holds a special place in people’s hearts, symbolizing different stages of life and personal growth. The doll’s enduring popularity is a testament to her ability to connect with people on a deeply emotional level, transcending time and cultural boundaries.

Impact of Barbie on body image and Self-esteem

One of the most significant debates surrounding Barbie is her impact on body image and self-esteem, particularly among young girls. With her impossibly slim waist, long legs, and flawless complexion, Barbie presents an unattainable beauty standard that can negatively influence girls’ perception of their own bodies. Research has shown that exposure to Barbie’s idealized physique can lead to body dissatisfaction and lowered self-esteem, as young girls strive to emulate an unrealistic image.

However, it is essential to acknowledge that Barbie has also evolved over the years. Mattel, the company behind Barbie, has introduced more diverse body types, skin tones, and career options, aiming to foster inclusivity and empower children to embrace their uniqueness. These efforts, combined with critical discussions surrounding body positivity and the importance of representation, have the potential to reshape Barbie’s impact on body image and self-esteem. It is crucial to continue the dialogue, encouraging children to engage critically with the dolls they play with and promoting a diverse range of role models for them to look up to.

SW — Tell me more about “from a German sex toy to the savior of Mattel”?

Susan Stern — As Barbie inventor and Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler tells in Barbie Nation, she modeled Barbie on Lilli, a sexy “novelty” doll for men which the Handler family saw on a trip to Germany in 1956. The Lilli doll, shown in Barbie Nation, was modeled on a fictional floozy in a German tabloid. I say that Barbie saved Mattel because, as Ruth relates in the film,  in the early 1970s she went through a personal crisis and Mattel went through business difficulties. Earnings began falling, but Mattel covered up its problems, keeping stock prices high. Barbie Nation tells how Ruth and four other executives were indicted and Ruth and her husband and co-founder, Elliot Handler were pushed out of the company. The phenomenal sales of Barbie sustained the company during this difficult time. Mattel told Forbes Magazine that between 1959 when Barbie was invented, and at least 1998, Barbie sales increased virtually every year — some years by ten to 20 percent.

Barbie as a symbol of Femininity and Empowerment

Beyond the controversies, Barbie has come to symbolize femininity and empowerment for many individuals. The doll’s extensive range of careers, from astronaut to doctor, has challenged traditional gender roles, encouraging girls to envision a future where their aspirations are limitless. By allowing children to project their dreams onto Barbie, the doll becomes a tool for empowerment, reminding them that they can be anything they set their minds to.

Barbie’s impact on femininity extends beyond her professional endeavors. She has become a fashion icon, with her diverse wardrobe reflecting different trends and styles throughout the decades. Through fashion, Barbie has demonstrated that femininity can be expressed in myriad ways, encouraging individuals to embrace their personal style and celebrate their unique identities. Barbie’s influence on fashion has even transcended the toy industry, inspiring designers and becoming an integral part of popular culture.

SW —How is Barbie relevant today as a female representation? 

Susan Stern We’re living in a time when some people are questioning everything about gender, sexuality and body image — and other people are lashing out in anger because these very primal things are being questioned. Being a woman is dangerous and has always been dangerous. I’m one who thinks it’s good to talk about these things . That’s what we talk about when we talk about Barbie.

Analysis of the film’s storytelling and cinematography

“Barbie Nation” stands out not only for its thought-provoking subject matter but also for its exceptional storytelling and cinematography. Susan Stern masterfully weaves together interviews, archival footage, and visually stunning sequences to create a captivating narrative that keeps viewers engaged from start to finish. The documentary’s pacing and structure allow for a comprehensive exploration of Barbie’s cultural impact while maintaining a sense of intrigue and discovery.

Stern’s directorial choices, such as juxtaposing interviews with Barbie enthusiasts and critics, provide a balanced perspective on the doll’s influence. The cinematography beautifully captures the allure and complexity of the Barbie phenomenon, showcasing the doll’s vibrant world while also delving into the controversies surrounding her. Through carefully curated visuals and expertly crafted storytelling, “Barbie Nation” offers a multi-dimensional exploration of Barbie’s cultural significance that is sure to leave a lasting impact on its audience.

Reception and critical acclaim of “Barbie Nation”

Since its release, “Barbie Nation” has garnered critical acclaim and resonated with audiences worldwide. The documentary has been praised for its insightful exploration of Barbie’s cultural impact and its balanced approach to the controversies surrounding the doll. Stern’s meticulous research and ability to present diverse perspectives have fostered meaningful dialogue and introspection.

“Barbie Nation” has also sparked important conversations about representation, body image, and the influence of popular culture. By shedding light on the complexities of the Barbie phenomenon, the film encourages viewers to question societal norms and reflect on their own relationship with the iconic doll. Through its thought-provoking content and expert execution, “Barbie Nation” has significantly contributed to documentary filmmaking.

Susan Stern
Susan Stern, Director of Barbie Nation

Interviews with key figures in the documentary

One of the strengths of “Barbie Nation” lies in the interviews with key figures who offer unique insights into the cultural significance of Barbie. The documentary features interviews with collectors, activists, psychologists, and even former Mattel employees, providing diverse perspectives that enrich the narrative. These interviews allow viewers to understand better Barbie’s impact on various aspects of society, from playtime to gender identity.

Viewers are introduced to passionate collectors who share their personal stories and emotional connections with their Barbie dolls. Activists shed light on the controversies surrounding body image and gender representation, advocating for a more inclusive and diverse doll industry. Psychologists provide valuable insights into the psychological effects of playing with Barbie and the potential implications for children’s development. By including these interviews, “Barbie Nation” comprehensively examines the doll’s cultural significance and the far-reaching implications of her influence.

SW — What do you think of the renewed interest in 2023 all things Barbie?

Susan Stern I think people are interested in Barbie because Barbie is a weirdly multifaceted lens: Greta Gerwig’s Barbie may be as much a satire of plastic culture as it is a satire of a plastic toy. Black Barbie shows how deeply racism wounds children, yet how one creator — Kitty Black Perkins — healed many people with her beautiful Black Barbie. Barbie Nation is a tribute to how we all can use the most mass-produced of things to make lives that are unique.  There’s an improbable spark of creativity — a light — in the Barbie story — that calls out to us in this dim post-pandemic time.

Exploring the controversy surrounding Barbie

Without addressing the controversies surrounding the doll throughout her history, no discussion of Barbie would be complete. Critics argue that Barbie perpetuates harmful beauty standards, promotes consumerism, and reinforces gender stereotypes. The doll’s unrealistic proportions and emphasis on fashion and appearance have drawn criticism for creating unattainable ideals for young girls.

On the other hand, Barbie enthusiasts argue that the doll has evolved, embracing diversity and promoting empowerment. They highlight the educational value of imaginative play with Barbie, fostering creativity and encouraging children to explore different roles and careers. The controversy surrounding Barbie reflects the broader societal debates about beauty, gender, and the influence of popular culture on children.

Lasting impact of “Barbie Nation” and its relevance today

“Barbie Nation” is a thought-provoking documentary that explores the cultural significance of the iconic Barbie doll. Susan Stern’s masterful storytelling and insightful analysis comprehensively explore Barbie’s impact on body image, self-esteem, and society’s perception of femininity. Through interviews with key figures and a balanced examination of the controversies surrounding Barbie, the film sparks essential conversations about representation, gender norms, and the influence of popular culture.

“Barbie Nation” serves as a reminder that Barbie is more than just a toy; she is a cultural icon that has shaped and reflected society’s values and aspirations. While the controversies surrounding Barbie persist, the doll’s ability to inspire imagination, empower individuals, and foster self-expression cannot be overlooked. As we continue to navigate the complexities of popular culture and societal expectations, “Barbie Nation” stands as a compelling testament to the enduring impact of this beloved doll.

Any final words for SW readers?

Susan Stern These were excellent questions! Barbie Nation was my first film — my first baby — so, of course, I love her — my flaws and ’90s flaws and all.  All I can add is that I think you’ll find it’s a sweet experience to watch — Ed Bogas’ original score rocks — and will feel the love.

BARBIE NATION: An Unauthorized Tour is directed and produced by Susan Stern. Associate Produced by Trish Harrington. Edited by Elizabeth Finlayson. Cinematography by Fawn Yacker, David Collier, and John Rogers. Original score by Ed Bogas. Featuring Ruth Handler, Barbara (Handler) Segal, Elliot Handler, RuPaul, Sandi Holder, Franklin Lim Liao, Kerry Muller, Allen Moreli, Nora Rodriguez, and Claire Stevenson Turner. A Bernal Beach Films production will be available on demand – TUESDAY, JUNE 27 on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play.
All photos Courtesy of Susan Stern /BARBIE NATION.
Tags from the story
More from Anne Howard - Editor
The New Age of Automobility: Google To Open Self-Driving Car Unit Center in Michigan
Google Alphabet announced this week that it plans to open an Engineering...
Read More
0 replies on “From Dolls to Icons: Understanding the Cultural Significance of Barbie Nation, a Film by Susan Stern”