Barbie is an icon, perhaps the best known toy in the world. As Margot Robbie points out in an interview with me for a TIME cover story, the word “Barbie” has the sort of enviable global recognition only achieved by brands like Coca-Cola. Since her debut in 1959, she has been a staple of the culture, a touchpoint for pop icons like Nicki Minaj, and has become synonymous with a specific shade of pink.
And yet it has somehow taken until 2023 for Barbie to make her live-action film debut. On July 21, the doll will finally grace the big screen. While there have been a number of animated Barbie movies and series on Nickelodeon and streaming services, Barbie will be the first live-action movie starring the doll to premiere in theaters. Margot Robbie will play a version of Barbie, but so will Issa Rae, Kate McKinnon, Hari Nef, Alexandra Shipp, and a number of other actors. Ryan Gosling will play just one of many Kens. Every image from the film, beginning with paparazzi shots of Robbie and Gosling rollerskating in spandex, has been dissected online, and Barbiecore has never been hotter.
Read More: How Barbie Came to Life
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It’s officially the summer of Barbie. But the journey here was complicated. In the eight years I have spent reporting on Mattel, other potential Barbie movies have come and gone. The toy company and filmmakers struggled with how to deal with Barbie’s baggage: The traditionally thin-waisted, blonde-haired doll has long been criticized for setting unrealistic body standards. Even after Mattel introduced a Curvy Barbie in 2016 (a major change I documented in a TIME cover story), the original Barbie has stuck in people’s minds.
Out now: TIME’s new special edition about Barbie is available at newsstands and here online
Plus, Barbie is intentionally a blank slate upon which girls can project their dreams and desires. That makes conjuring one specific story for the movie particularly difficult. “As simple as an 11-and-a-half-inch doll looks, Barbie is a complicated brand,” says President and COO of Mattel Richard Dickson.
But when Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz took over the company in 2018, he decided it was time to commit to a Barbie movie. The film would be the first entry in a burgeoning cinematic universe based on the company’s toys. In 2018, Robbie signed on to star and produce Barbie, and Warner Bros. announced that Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach had joined as screenwriters a year later.
Here’s the history of how Barbie made it to the big screen—and why it took so long for her to get here.
Mattel is protective of the Barbie brand
Mattel has been incredibly cautious when it comes to its most valuable asset—and rightly so. Barbie has spent much of her history as the bestselling doll in the world.
Barbie devotees would tell you that she inspires little girls to imagine themselves in any profession—astronaut, president, veterinarian. But the doll—and its creators—have also been called out by parents concerned over how she affects their children’s self-esteem. Over the years songs like Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” and even throwaway lines in movies like Legally Blonde—when a Harvard Law student disdainfully calls Elle Woods “Malibu Barbie”—have not exactly bolstered Barbie’s reputation as a figure of female empowerment.
Any portrayal of Barbie onscreen would be inherently fraught, and the company hasn’t always had a sense of humor about its iconic doll. When Barbie appeared as a supporting character in Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4 in the 2010s, Mattel creatives emphasized to me that it was a big a deal the company ceded any control to Pixar and allowed the studio to poke fun at Barbie and Ken. Years earlier, Mattel sued Aqua over “Barbie Girl.” Cut to 2023, and one of the most eagerly anticipated songs on the Barbie soundtrack is Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice’s “Barbie World,” which samples Aqua.
Why Amy Schumer’s Barbie didn’t happen
When Amy Schumer signed on to play the doll in a live-action movie in 2016, the comedian had cemented herself as a sharp feminist voice in pop culture. Her Comedy Central sketch show, Inside Amy Schumer, took no mercy when it came to skewering the patriarchy. She regularly poked fun at blustering men who didn’t find her “hot enough” and companies that exploited women in order to sell them products. It was difficult to imagine Mattel, a company that had spent millions maintaining an immaculate image for its doll, would submit to Schumer’s particular brand of humor. Mattel wanted Barbie to inspire. Any comedic take would inevitably take the doll down a peg. Schumer recently said she left the movie because that version wasn’t “feminist and cool,” as she assumes Gerwig’s version will be.
COO and President of Mattel Richard Dickson, who has been with the company long enough to see several potential movies come and go, argues that until Gerwig, the company “never found the right storyteller” for Barbie.
Mattel is now eager to prove it is in on the joke. In Gerwig’s film, the company is run by executives who take umbrage at anyone who points out it’s strange that so many men in suits are running a brand for little girls. And the movie acknowledges Barbie’s complicated impact on girls’ body image in exchanges with modern women we won’t spoil here.
Rae, who plays President Barbie in the new movie, points out that calling someone Barbie “does have a negative connotation,” she says. “You’re like, ‘Oh that person might be a bimbo. That person might be dumb. That person is superficial.’ This movie presents an opportunity not to change that, but add more onto it and clear her name in a pretty cool way.”
Gerwig also seems to have a love for the doll that transcends that of the typical filmmaker. During interviews for the story, she delighted in telling me about playing with the dolls as a child for “way too long”—a giddiness that seemed to manifest in the world-building she did with Barbie. “One of the most endearing things parts of the process with Greta was her appreciation of the brand’s history,” says Dickson. “It was a matter of finding the right talent that can appreciate the brand’s authenticity and bring that controversy to life in a way that, yes, pokes fun at us but ultimately is purposeful and has heart.”
But even signing onto Gerwig’s version took some effort on the part of Mattel. Robbie Brenner, the first executive producer of Mattel Films, told executives they would have to “white knuckle it” through the creative process with Gerwig and Baumbach, and learn that a dose of self-depreciation can go a long way.
Is the movie about one Barbie or many Barbies?
The question of who, exactly, would play Barbie was paramount. Mattel recently took great pains to modernize its doll. Nearly a decade ago, in 2014, Barbie had a very bad year: The Elsa doll from Frozen dethroned Barbie as the most popular toy for girls, and Lego surpassed Mattel as the biggest toy company. Sinking sales forced Mattel to rethink the brand, manifesting in the introduction of new skin tones and hair types in 2015 and new body shapes in 2016.
Read More: Barbie’s Got a New Body
One of the reasons Mattel resisted putting Barbie on the big screen for so long was that they had worked to establish that Barbie wasn’t just a skinny beach-bound blonde. There are, in fact, 175 different Barbies with different hair, skin tones, body shapes, and abilities. If Amy Schumer or Anne Hathaway (who was once also attached to play the doll) stood in for Barbie, an otherwise blank canvas would forever be connected to a single actor. If it worked, profits would grow. If it didn’t, decades of Mattel’s hard work would be undone.
The idea that many Barbies would populate Gerwig’s movie arose early in the creative process. In fact, it’s what intrigued Robbie as a producer: “I don’t think you should say, ‘This is the one version of what Barbie is, and that’s what women should aspire to be and look like and act like.'”
Mattel now wants to build a cinematic universe
A Barbie movie probably never would have come to fruition if it weren’t for Mattel CEO Kreiz. In 2018, Kreiz took over the position at a moment of vulnerability for the company. He was the fourth CEO in just four years. He articulated a vision for Mattel that was rooted in intellectual property management. That plan included more streaming shows, games, a theme park currently under construction in Arizona, and movies. Lots of movies. An entire universe of movies. “Once you think of all those people who buy your product not just as consumers but as fans, you realize you have an audience and all these other opportunities become obvious,” says Kreiz.
Marvel and DC have found tremendous success making dozens of films based on stories that already had a built-in fanbase of comics readers. And it just so happens that film audiences seem to be tiring of superheroes. (Look no further than recent box office underperformers like The Flash and Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania.) Studios are now in search of other known IP that has not yet been adapted into film. Recent successes like Super Mario Bros. and Dungeons & Dragons suggest that audiences, too, are ready for something new, if still a bit familiar.
Kreiz believed Mattel was sitting on a gold mine of well-known brands—Barbie, Hot Wheels, American Girl, even the Magic 8 Ball. So he created Mattel Films, a studio inside the company, and hired Oscar-nominated producer Brenner to run the show. Mattel has since announced 15 movies, including a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em film with Vin Diesel, a Hot Wheels movie produced by J.J. Abrams, and even a Barney reboot with Daniel Kaluuya.
But Kreiz determined that Mattel’s first cinematic outing should focus on the company’s crown jewel: Barbie. Just four weeks into his tenure as CEO, he requested a meeting with Margot Robbie, who he thought would be a perfect ambassador for the brand.
It turned out that Robbie was as eager to meet with Mattel as the company was to court her. She thought Barbie would make sense for her production company LuckyChap. “We were kind of keeping tabs on the property for awhile before there was an opening, and then we could jump in and say, ‘We’d like to produce this. Here’s how we would do it and who we would want to do it with,'” she says, “i.e someone like Greta—Greta being the top of the list, pie in the sky, dream person.”
Building Barbie’s world from the ground up
And then there was the creation of this Barbie, a process that wound up taking five years. The biggest challenge was dreaming up the right story. “She doesn’t have a set narrative. I’ve played characters where there’s source material, comic books or if it’s a real person, archival footage,” says Robbie. “Even with fictional characters, there’s a story you end up rooting it in.” Barbie, by contrast, has no personality by design. The idea is for little kids to project jobs and stories onto a blank canvas. So Gerwig and Baumbach had to build not just a character, but a story, and an entire world from scratch.
Read More: How Greta Gerwig Is Leading By Example
“Before Greta, we did hear many pitches,” says Brenner. “I don’t want to call them generic because that wouldn’t be fair. They were all interesting in their own right. But it was sort of predictable. You’re thinking, ‘That’s not enough. We needed to live up to the legacy and the complexity.'”
What Gerwig has conjured up is certainly complex. She has fulfilled the presumed corporate mandate: Make a fun summer romp. But the film is stuffed with Gerwig’s idiosyncrasies, from dance numbers inspired by Old Hollywood to Gerwig’s personal preoccupation with stories about complicated mother-daughter relationships. Whether fans flock to Barbie will likely determine the fate of Mattel’s future film endeavors. Kreiz hopes the movie will make a splash and put Mattel Films on the map: “We’re looking to create movies that become cultural events.”
Correction, June 29
The original version of this story misstated the status of Mattel’s upcoming film slate. They have 15 movies announced, not greenlit.
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