Off to Barbieland

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 30 Jan 2024



As Hollywood’s award season keeps rolling along, the much-awaited Oscar nominations announced on 23 January caused a furore.

So much chatter in Hollywood as well as on social media was caused by the snub given by Oscar to a female film director, responsible for the uncontested No 1 box-office movie of the year. The same movie received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, minus a nod to its director — Greta Gerwig, a female.

Outraged at the omission, the cultural world has concluded that it is discrimination, pure and simple, against a female-dominated movie.

In all of its 96 year history, the American Academy of Motion Pictures has awarded only three female directors: Kathryn Bigelow for Hurt Locker (2009), Chloe Zhao for Nomadland (2020), and Jane Campion for Power of the Dog (2021).

One could argue that the ratio of female vs male directors is low, still in recent years female directors are making great films which should earn them considerably more recognition.

Admittedly, a female director has been nominated by the academy, Justine Triet, for her nominated film, Anatomy of a Fall, but why not all three females whose films are nominated among the 10 Best Pictures?

Credit is to be given to the Golden Globes which nominated all three females, even though none of them won. Nominations are significant.

Hollywood’s history is one that points to a male-dominated community, with somewhat of a bias against women, which is not unusual as it pops up everywhere. Still, liberal and loose Hollywood has always clamoured for equality and women’s rights, yet when it gets down to brass tacks, the bias raises its head.

When the fox is preaching look out for the geese.

Hollywood should not be too proud of its history against minorities in its movies. Blacks have always been given demeaning roles, villains have always been foreigners or minorities — browns, Jews, Latinos, Germans during WWII, Russians during the Cold War, and now Arabs are their favourite villains.

Currently proud of its moderated stand with minorities, the Hollywood community is bending backwards in conciliatory fashion, to a nauseating degree. By injecting blacks, which make 13 per cent of the US population, in over 50 per cent of their movies, they wish the viewer to believe that the 17th century European aristocracy was dominated by African Americans?

Two wrongs do not make a right. Not only is it a subject of ridicule and disrespect, but defies the reality they are constantly touting.

Only eight female directors have ever been nominated for an Oscar in almost a century of Hollywood movie-making. They are worthy of being mentioned. Lina Wertmuller was the first, nominated for her dark comedy Seven Beauties in 1975, 47 years after the establishment of the academy. Consequently, Sophia Coppola, Emerald Fennel, Greta Gerwig, Kathryn Bigelow, Chloe Zhao, and Jane Campion who was nominated twice.

The omission of credit to the director and the lead actress in the biggest movie of the year, one of the 20 best box-office movies in history, has become a cultural and social issue.

Barbieland has shaken the ground of Lalaland.

Why the omission? “Not serious enough” was the answer. Why then the eight nominations including Best Picture? The dispute continues.

Barbie is probably the only woman who remains popular and desirable at age 64.

The first Barbie doll was created by Ruth Handler, wife of businessman Elliot Handler, co-founder of Mattel Toy Manufacturing Company.

At that time there were only baby toy dolls, but she noticed her daughter playing with paper dolls and giving them adult names and roles. She immediately felt there was a gap in the toy industry.

On a trip to Germany in 1956, with her daughter Barbara and her son Kenneth, she noticed in a shop window an adult-figure doll called Bild Lilli. Bild was the best known tabloid in Germany, and Lilli was based on a character in a popular, satirical strip cartoon published by the Bild.

Ruth was fascinated. She bought three dolls, gave one to her daughter, the other to her husband and the third to design artist Jack Ryan who helped her fashion the adult doll Barbie, named after her daughter.

On 11 March 1959, the doll made her debut at the American Toy Fair in New York City. The date is also considered Barbie’s birthdate.

The first adult fashion doll became a cultural phenomenon. Her individual appeal went beyond being a plaything. She became a role model for young girls, inspiring them to dream dreams beyond their traditional roles.

When the winds of change came rushing in, Barbie also changed. No longer just a blonde-blue-eyed Barbie, she developed a variety of skin and hair colours, breaking the stereotypical vision of the ideal woman.

By redefining her identity, to reflect the changing times, she remained relevant. The range of diversity transformed her to being an international favourite.

Sales rocketed to one billion dolls from 150 countries.

Barbie was no longer a doll. Barbie became a star.

Her film swept at the box-office, amassing $1.3 billion worldwide.

Although the plot is flimsy, its message is strong. Barbie moves from her world to the human world, only to discover the bias, the hypocrisy, and the perils of living among humans.

Academy choices have always been controversial, but as Ken (Ryan Gosling) said there in no Ken without Barbie and there is no Barbie without Greta.

Director Greta Gerwig will not receive an Oscar.


“If particular attention is not given to ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion.”

Abigail Adams (1744-1818)


* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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