Film Review: Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour

Film Reviews

Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour
Director: Susan Stern

Bernal Beach Films
Available to rent  on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Apple TV and YouTube: 06.27

Imagine turning on the TV and letting the low hum of static pulsate off of your CRT television set, then begin to drift off to 1998: a time where pants are designed to haul cargo, Bill Clinton denies he had sexual relations and throughout it all, Barbara Millicent Roberts is there to keep us company. Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour perfectly encapsulates the extremely niche culture of Barbie enthusiasts circa 1998. The film takes you from coast to coast with its endearingly human footage of packed convention centers in the hot, Alabaman musk to drag queens on the rainbow-colored streets of San Francisco.

Everyone has an opinion on Barbie—some adore her and others despise her. Even before her official release in 1959, Barbie had detractors. Ruth Handler describes the difficulties she had getting her fellow businessmen to believe in the scandalously sexy fashion doll. Throughout the documentary we see Barbie as a sex object, a martyr and an icon for the disenfranchised. Interviews with Handler are woven throughout the film and supplemented with clips of collectors, artists and fetishists who have accepted Barbie into their life, emphasizing the rise to prominence for the super-femme extraordinaire.

Susan Stern’s documentary is a captivating time capsule of the 1998 Barbie macrocosm, and the film does not amount to much more. Each Barbie community is shown through short vignettes, making it difficult to see the broader picture that Stern is trying to reveal. Barbie Nation doesn’t make any grand proclamations and instead lets the subject matter speak for itself.

Stern says, “Every Barbie has a story, but the stories are really about us.” Members of Barbie Nation project their own hopes, dreams and insecurities onto the doll, creating conspiracy and scandal where there is none. Barbie is a blank slate for us to project our own reality. When we see people play with Barbie, they are acting out a fantasy world to make sense of the one we live in.

Barbie taught young girls to become women and gave them a playground to figure out what that meant for themselves. Now in 2023, being a strong woman means something different to everyone, and our Barbie toys reflect that differentiation. Barbie has been everything from an astronaut to a mermaid veterinarian, she has a dream house in every state and she has remained a steadfast representation of femininity through it all.

Before, or after, you join the droves of people heading to the theaters to see Greta Gerwig’s Barbie—donned in trademarked pink from head to toe, reveling in the fantasy world that Barbara Millicent Roberts lives in—please watch Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour. Witness the effect that this once-upon-a-time German sex doll has had on the entire country since 1959. –Morgan Keller

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