My Non-Collaborationist Barbie Film

In her Hollywood blockbuster Barbie, Greta Gerwig explores the humorous conceit of a Barbie doll that suffers an existential crisis when she questions her essence, her very Barbiness. In search of a cure, the live-action Barbie, humanized by A-lister Margot Robbie, climbs into her pink convertible and leaves Barbie Land (the director’s irresistible opportunity for color-saturated mise-en-scène) for the “Real World.” In my idea for a Barbie movie, my humanized doll, whom I’ll call Barbette, is disturbed by the question: “How is it that I exist at all?” For she is haunted by an intimation of a dreadful origin. In search of an answer, she leaves a place called Barbie Landfill, where she and other unwanted Barbies have been dumped and, mounted once more on her playset bicycle (now faded-pink), also heads for the Real World.

Unlike Gerwig, I don’t have $145 million of Warner Bros capital to produce my film. Besides, I want my project to be free of the commercial pressure to turn a profit. I think I can pull the whole thing off for around $150, which is about one millionth of Gerwig’s budget. I won’t need an actress to play Barbette, whose story I can tell with the help of Photoshop tools, a few “staged” photographs, and some voiceovers. Other cost-cutting measures will include: use of editing software on a clip from a film I’ll download from the public domain; the purchase of Barbie dolls and accessories from garage sales; and, in post-production, uploading the completed film to my smart phone, then distributing it through social media.

The first thirty seconds of my movie will comprise two staged photographs.

Staged photo #1 “Barbie Landfill.” I will pose Barbette lying beside her Barbie bicycle in a heap of plastic garbage (chiefly, discarded Barbies missing an eye and/or hair and/or clothes). She’ll be wearing a dress cut out of a T-shirt and, in place of high heels, wooden clogs. Her voiceover will express the troubling thought that the truth of her origin has been suppressed.

Staged photo #2 “The Journey.” Barbette is riding her bicycle past a road sign that reads:



Her voiceover will explain that she’s on a journey of self-discovery.

Preliminaries over, the “action” will take the form of reworking a 20-second clip from a film of the Barbie doll production process. The film was shot in secret and smuggled out of a factory in China by labor rights activists. It records the experience of women migrants from rural provinces who, confined to their work station on an assembly line, must attach body parts to each doll. The clip I’ll select shows how their fingers move quickly – anxiously quickly – to match the alarming speed of the conveyor belt. For fast as those fingers move, the damned dolls keep coming down the assembly line. This is the women’s sole function for twelve hours a day, six days a week. After Photoshopping Barbette into the scene as a witness to the exploitation, my plan is to loop this unedited clip 360 times. In short, excluding the photographs, I envisage a two-hour film of these women factory workers performing nothing but the same repetitive task.

I call my aesthetic “Stupefying Naturalism,” knowing full well that the left (Brecht, Godard, et al. ) renounced naturalism decades ago. But I want to create an intolerably dull viewing experience as a gesture of solidarity with these women – women whose labor has been deskilled and debased by work they must accept under blunt economic compulsion, when the alternative is going hungry.

Near the end of the movie, in a clunky agitprop way, I shall interpolate a card into the image track, with the following statistics:

1. Margot Robbie has been paid $12.5 million for her lead part in Gerwig’s movie.

2. The workers on the Barbie doll assembly line are paid $2 an hour.

3. Therefore, to earn Margot’s money, each worker would have to work 6,250,000 hours.

4. Given their 12-hour shifts six days a week, this amounts to 1,669 years of brain-numbing labor.

Near the end of the movie, I shall engineer a dissolve whereby the image of the assembly line workers slowly gives way to a sustained closeup of Barbette’s face. Then, precisely here, her voiceover will interrupt the din of the machinery to deliver the revelation that she has learned the truth of her existence: “I did not come out of Barbie Land in a pink box. In watching what these factory women do, I now know I was born of their labor.” And to underscore this existential insight, the noise of the machinery returns, but with the volume turned up to a near-deafening pitch.

But, you ask, isn’t there an adversarial slant to Gerwig’s movie? Recall one of the film’s marketing slogans: “If you hate Barbie, this film is for you.” Isn’t Gerwig engaging in subversive humor by poking fun at Mattel’s world-famous product? For she knows that Barbie is not only a source of empowerment for girls, often reflecting their ambitions (Surgeon Barbie, Naval Officer Barbie) but, at the same time, a gender-essentializing toy, an absurdly idealized femininity. Yet, that edgy comic self-awareness of gender norms is useless to life on the Barbie assembly line, where women work in 90 degrees of heat, their eyes and skin exposed to isoamyl acetate, and where they fall asleep on the job from exhaustion. I get the feminist parody behind the shine of Margot Robbie’s center-framed smile and all that Barbie Land pinkness, yet their unintended effect is to erase thoughts of the sordid history of the doll’s production.

The clip I intend to loop for two hours belongs to a film shot in one of China’s Special Economic Zones (SEZ), where unions are banned and where government-regulated protections for workers, which make forced overtime and hazardous working conditions illegal, don’t apply. These are where Mattel and other toy corporations subcontract production. And every Christmas, when the factory abuses are dutifully reported by a few conscientious papers, the corporate PR departments are primed to shift into defense mode with their familiar bromide: “We take such accusations very seriously and will undertake a vigorous investigation….” Blah, blah, blah.

With much fanfare Mattel has largely sanitized its reputation by honoring diversity, going full bore into the production of Black Barbies, Hispanic Barbies, a Wheelchair Barbie, and even a Down Syndrome Barbie. Well, in that case, how about a Special Economic Zone Barbie? The doll would be outfitted in stained factory overalls and stink of chemicals. Her torso would be bent from years of labor on the assembly line and her hands twisted out of shape with arthritis from the repetitive motions of the fingers and wrists.

Now for the optimistic coda to my film.

Staged Photo #3 “The Saboteuse”. Here Barbette will be shown jamming her clogs into the factory’s conveyor belt to disrupt the assembly line. As her voiceover will explain: “When strikes are illegal or violently repressed, we must turn to sabotage.” Hence her uplifting affirmation (which sounds like some old Red Chinese adage) that will conclude the film: “In resistance we find our radiance, our sun.”

My movie will speak not for those women who suffer from Barbie-induced body dysmorphia, but for those whose bodies are wrecked by work in the Special Economic Zones. I hope my film, like Barbette’s clogs, will be a little wrench in the works of a corporation that profits from the exploited and degraded labor of tens of thousands of Chinese women. Poverty forces them into the zones of anarcho-capitalist production, where the pay is so niggardly they can’t afford to buy a Barbie doll for their daughters.

Market analysts estimate that Gerwig’s movie will gross $500 million and boost Mattel’s earnings by around $100 million. The revenue from my movie, which will have no tie-in merchandise, no red-carpet premiere, and no awards, will be zero. But revenue is not the point. The point is to harm Mattel’s profitability, not help it.