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This past week, the blockbuster movie Barbie was released in theaters, breaking the opening weekend record for 2023 and the first-weekend record for a film directed by a woman, with $337 million in global ticket sales as of Monday. 
 
It surpassed movies like 2008’s Dark Knight and its release date twin Oppenheimer, both directed by Christopher Nolan. 
 
However, in Indian Country, the movie is leaving a different impression. 
 
The movie itself is a commentary on patriarchy and the effects it has on women and femme-presenting people in society. In “Barbie Land,” the Barbies run everything. There’s a President Barbie, a Doctor Barbie, a Pulitzer Prize Winning Barbie, and more — all Barbies that have actually been created and sold. The Barbies represented multiple identities as well, with multiple Black characters, Asian characters, characters with disabilities and various body types, but not one Native Barbie was in the movie. 

 

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Despite the lack of Indigenous representation, the movie didn’t stray away from making an off-hand one-liner about the genocide of Native people. Mid-way through the movie Ken (Ryan Gosling) comes back from the “real world” and introduces patriarchy to the Barbies, disrupting their harmonious Barbie Land. America Ferrara’s character, Gloria from the human world, compares Barbie’s lack of immunity to patriarchy to Native people and the introduction of smallpox. 

Although the movie included no Indigenous representation, this does not mean that there are no Native Barbies released by Mattel, the doll’s manufacturing company. Let’s dive into the history of the Native American Barbie.   

The first Native Barbie was E**imo Barbie, using a derogatory slur for the Indigenous people who reside in Alaska and the Arctic regions, released in 1981 as part of the Dolls of the World International Series. She stood alone for over a decade until “First Edition Native American Barbie” was released in 1993 as part of the company’s “Dolls of the World” Collection. She was dressed in a white “buckskin” top and skirt with white fringe and adorned with long black hair and tanned skin. 

Multiple Native Barbies have been released since then, including second, third and fourth editions of the original and a Barbie line titled the “Native Spirit Collection.” The first Barbie in that collection was Spirit of the Earth Barbie. There is even a Barbie at the Smithsonian, the Northwest Coast Barbie, released in 2000.

The dolls are always accompanied by an introduction of who they are and an explanation of their clothing. Third Edition Native American Barbie (1994) is described like this:

“My dancing outfit is an updated version of a tribal princess costume. It’s a mix of traditional style with the latest colors and accessories of today! I’ll be pretty in my pink tunic and skirt with geometric patterns, white fringe, and ribbon trim. My moccasins, beaded necklace, turquoise earrings, and ring complete my modern-day powwow look!”

The Native American Barbies are described as “princesses,” fueling the “Indian Princess” stereotype that we see every year during Halloween. It reduces Indigenous women’s experience to that of a costume, effectively eliminating the spiritual, cultural, and traditional importance of regalia and the sacred nature of what we wear and why. 

Barbie herself is a product of patriarchy and colonization. Barbie movie explores the sad reality of women in a patriarchal society, and the movie pulls heartstrings. It shared the experience of growing up as a woman, the experience of constantly being told what to do, what to look like, what not to do, what not to wear, and overall just living a life policed and dominated by men. 

As Indigenous women, we have a unique relationship with patriarchy and colonization, as the two go hand in hand. A 2016 study by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) found that more than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, including 56.1 percent who have experienced sexual violence–trauma that has been ongoing since colonization.   

The male gaze created Barbie, and the colonized gaze continues to misrepresent the Indigenous experience in both the product line and film inspired by it. 

While doing a successful job of portraying the general experience of women under patriarchy, the film fails to include the intricate and unique experience of Indigenous women within the patriarchy–and under the colonized gaze of women and men alike. 

Without this, the story is incomplete. 

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About The Author
Neely Bardwell
Author: Neely BardwellEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Neely Bardwell (descendant of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indian) is a staff reporter for Native News Online. Bardwell is also a student at Michigan State University where she is majoring in policy and minoring in Native American studies.