The toughest 'Barbie' critics are Barbie collectors

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The toughest 'Barbie' critics are Barbie collectors
An undated photo by Jian Yang, who specializes in street-style photo shoots of dolls, of a Barbie in his collection. Longtime Barbie collectors had high expectations, and concerns, for her big-screen live-action debut, which has become an unequivocal phenomenon. (Jian Yang via The New York Times)

by Esther Zuckerman

NEW YORK, NY.- Before going to see “Barbie,” doll collector Laura Maar had reservations. Based on early images, Maar didn’t like the way the film was portraying Barbie’s pregnant friend, Midge (her personal favorite), or Allan, Ken’s pal who can wear all of his buddy’s clothes. “It just kind of annoyed me the way he was this mealy-mouthed character in the movie, because that’s not him at all.”

Maar was still unpacking what she had seen after the first time she watched the film, directed by Greta Gerwig, when she went for another viewing. “By the second time, though, I really did love it,” said Maar, 49, a kindergarten teacher in Southern California. “I tried to lay away my questions and put them aside. And then as the week went on, when people kept saying, ‘Do you want to see the movie?’ I’m like, ‘Sure, yes, let’s go.’” When we spoke, she had seen it five times and was planning a sixth trip.

“Barbie,” starring Margot Robbie, has become an unequivocal phenomenon, raking in $1 billion at the box office and inspiring audiences to dress in their finest pink. But collectors such as Maar were fans of Barbie long before. They own hundreds or even thousands of dolls and had high expectations for their main gal’s live-action big-screen debut. I spoke with 10 collectors — many of whom showed up for our video interviews wearing hot pink Barbie merch with their dolls proudly on display — to find out: Did the film pass muster with this most demanding group of fans?

For Liliana Saldaña, a 36-year-old high school English teacher in Laredo, Texas, who estimates she has more than 400 Barbies, “it was like emotional punches everywhere.” She left the movie theater, she said, with mascara streaked across her cheeks. “I was so pleased there were so many nods to longtime Barbie fans.”

Taylor Brione Ballard, 31, a Houston event planner who has 350 dolls, said the movie had her in tears, too. “The girl who was next to me was like, ‘Girl, we heard you cry.’” Ballard, who largely collects Black Barbies, explained that she had always been inspired by the doll and that the film “really showcased why people can like Barbie, like how inspirational she is, how she is a figure for girl power.”

Other collectors saw their own experiences reflected back at them. In the film, it turns out it’s not a little girl playing with the main Barbie but a mother (America Ferrera) whose daughter has outgrown the doll. Eventually the humans accompany Barbie on her journey of self-discovery. “You know, if my brushing the hair and introducing people to Barbie gives me lightness of soul and heart, then there’s nothing bad about that, there’s absolutely zero wrong with that,” said Beth Largent, 61, a Massachusetts-based opera singer. “That for me was a big takeaway from this movie: The real people seemed changed by their interaction with Barbie, and that’s what Barbie has done for me, too.”

Roland Moreno, 31, began collecting the dolls about three years ago while living in Chicago. Through Barbie he met Matthew Keith, now his boyfriend, and moved to Los Angeles. “Barbie is like an escape,” Moreno said. Reflecting on Ferrera’s character, he added, “She wanted to escape her sad situation. So it’s like, yeah, I want to escape my situation.”

He held up a Barbie he had dressed like Nicki Minaj (who appears on the soundtrack) as an example of the joy Barbie gives him. He had brought the Minaj Barbie to the theater the previous night and she participated in a postfilm photo shoot that Keith and another friend orchestrated with their dolls.

Moreno liked the “nuggets” that Gerwig threw in for collectors, like a cameo from the Skipper that grew breasts, and on-screen text noting the actual names of ensembles from Barbie’s closet. “My first thought was, ‘That’s cool,’” he said. “But then also like, ‘That’s going to rise in price now.’” Several collectors The New York Times spoke with also appreciated the reference to the canceled collectible widely known as “Sugar Daddy Ken” (whose name was actually a reference to his dog being called Sugar).

But there were also some nitpicks. Jian Yang, a 43-year-old marketer in Singapore with 12,000 dolls, said the costuming “looked handmade; it looked not Mattel.” Both Maar, who worked at Mattel more than 20 years ago, and Keith, 55, refuted the way Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), is portrayed as a sweet, spiritual guide for Robbie’s Barbie. “Ruth has never been the grandmotherly type,” Maar said of Handler, who died in 2002. “She was a ball basher.”

These Barbie lovers also would have preferred less of the Real World. After all, when you’re drawn to Barbie because of the fantasy, the real world just seems disappointing.

“I felt very spoiled by the Barbie Land,” Saldaña said, and Lindsey Walker, 27, who works on civil rights in Washington, D.C., had a similar feeling: “Every time they went to the Real World, I was like, OK, when are they going to get back to Barbie Land? Because it was just so much more interesting and so much more colorful.”

There were also more significant gripes. Walker praised the diversity of the cast but wished Issa Rae and Ncuti Gatwa, who are among the cast’s Black performers, had gotten more screen time. He also took issue with how the feminist themes were examined: “Overall, I’m like, a white woman wrote this, and then also there might also be some people that haven’t really explored feminism and can get something out of this, so I’m just taking it for what it is.”

Conversely, Yang wasn’t enamored of the storyline involving the Kens, who, led by Ryan Gosling, discover the patriarchy and bring it back to Barbie Land. “I think in order to show female empowerment you do not have to show male un-empowerment,” he said. “It was funny, but I did not like that all the Kens were himbos.”

Yang, however, said he always thought of Ken as one of Barbie’s accessories — a common opinion on which the movie riffs — and Walker, whose collection is primarily centered on Ken dolls, enjoyed Ken’s arc. And, for Saldaña, the Ken storyline raised her interest in Barbie’s male counterpart. “This made me actually want to collect Kens,” she said. “I actually respect them a little bit more.”

Saldaña said she hoped that the movie would lead to an increase in Barbie collectibles, and that Barbie gets the same love from retailers as, say, Spider-Man. “People see it as a girlie hobby,” she said. “It’s not really respected and it’s not really given enough attention.”

Moreno’s wish is also that the popularity of the film will convince others to embrace his passion. Sometimes, he said, when he and Keith do photo shoots with Barbies, they’ll be called a slur. “It could become more accepting for people to be like, ‘Oh, that’s cool, like the movie, they’re taking pictures of Barbies outside,’” he said.

He’s planning to go back at least once more, and a potential seventh viewing is in the cards for Maar.

“For Barbie collectors or Barbie lovers, we’re not going to have this time again,” she said. “I mean, this is it. So I want to enjoy this time and see it as many times as I can.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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