Barbie is in on the joke in more ways than one.
Greta Gerwig’s film, which stars Margot Robbie as “Stereotypical Barbie,” is the first movie to debut from revived Mattel Films and despite its ties to the company, Barbie isn’t afraid to poke fun at the controversy surrounding the famous doll.
In addition to addressing gender stereotypes and commentary around Barbie’s unrealistic figure (and dream world), the film doesn’t shy away from creator Ruth Handler’s personal struggles.
Ruth invented Barbie in 1959 during her reign as president of Mattel from 1945 to 1975. She named the toy after her daughter, Barbara Handler. (Ruth shared Barbara and son Kenneth — the name behind the Ken doll — with husband Elliot Handler, who died in 2011.)
“A Barbie movie is only ever going to be a mother-daughter movie on so many levels because it was Ruth Handler and Barbara — that was the relationship,” director Gerwig told Time ahead of the Friday, July 21, release.
While Ruth died in 2002, some fans were convinced Barbara makes a cameo as the older woman who shares a sweet moment with Robbie’s Barbie on a bench in the “real world.” Gerwig shut down the speculation, however, in an interview with The New York Times, revealing the part is played by Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Roth.
“I love that scene so much,” Gerwig told People. “The way Margot plays that moment is so gentle and so unforced.”
Prior to the film’s release, Barbara did give her stamp of approval on the casting of Robbie, telling TMZ that the trailer looked “super cute and she’s especially liking Margot’s voice.”
While Barbara told the outlet that she thinks her mother would enjoy the idea of the doll coming to the big screen, Ruth’s personal issues are mocked in the movie by portrayer Rhea Perlman, who makes jokes about the IRS and tax evasion. According to the Los Angeles Times, Ruth was accused of making false reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission and fraud in 1978. She was fined $57,000 and sentenced to 2,500 hours of community service after pleading no contest. The film alludes to Ruth being pushed out of Mattel amid the financial issues that first raised eyebrows in 1975.
Producer Robbie Brenner told Variety earlier this month that Mattel was always down with Gerwig’s version of the script, which she cowrote with partner Noah Baumbach.
“When everybody read the script here for the first time, I’m sure there were things that were like, ‘Wow, that sort of pushes things a little bit,’” Brenner said. “But we all decided there were going to be moments where it might feel a little scary, but we’re going to be rewarded for that. Being safe in this world doesn’t work. We want it to be bold. Barbie is bold. She’s done incredible things. She’s a trailblazer. And that’s what we did.”
Perlman’s Ruth also jokes about having a double mastectomy in the movie. (Ruth was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970.) While America Ferrera’s character Gloria’s relationship with daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) is a major plot point, the emotional ending between Barbie and Ruth is also reflective of a mother-daughter relationship.
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Barbie is in theaters now.