Decades before Greta Gerwig was tasked with bringing Barbie to the big screen, director Susan Stern was directing a Barbie film of her own. Stern's documentary Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour first hit the festival circuit in 1998. The doc gives an inside look at the creation of the doll, including a rare chance to hear from Barbie's creator, Ruth Handler.
Through profiles of various Barbie collectors, the film explores the plastic icon's complicated legacy.
In celebration of the film's 25th year anniversary, a director's cut of the film will be re-released on Tuesday, June 27th, 2023 on digital platforms including iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play. The newly-recut version of the film also includes a scene that touches on the history of Black representation in the Barbie doll line.
We got the chance to speak with Stern ahead of the movie's re-release. You can watch or read our interview below. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Matt Davis: So to start out, what was your inspiration for wanting to make this documentary 25 years ago?
Susan Stern: Well, I have to blame it on my daughter, Nora, who is in the film with her best friend Claire, and she got a Barbie. I didn't give it to her, [it's] from her cousin. And then she started playing this game where one Barbie was jealous of the other Barbie.
And I said, “Nora, women don't have to be jealous of other women, you know, because I'm a feminist and blah, blah, blah.” And she just looked at me deadpan and said, “Mom, how about at first we play what I want to play and then we can play what you want to play?”
And I told this story to other people. And then everybody had their Barbie story. And I thought this would be a great film. I gotta get down these stories.
Definitely a lot of great subjects that you covered in this documentary. In the 25 years since it came out, what have been some of your favorite reactions that you've heard from people? And also have you kept in contact with any of the people that you interviewed?
Hmm, that's a good question. I got all sorts of reactions, I got some feminists saying that I didn't go far enough, I wasn't hard enough on the doll. And I kind of felt like she's just a doll, people. You know, it's about what we bring to this. You can't really blame this piece of plastic. So there was that.
You know, my biggest regret was not having the section of Black Barbie in. That is in there now. That was something I wanted to restore, we filmed it. I got very deeply into the history of Black Barbie and I wasn't able to put that all into the film. Now there is a new film called Black Barbie coming out which is a great companion. So I was able to put my piece on Black Barbie in the film that I'm proud of and know that somebody else is telling the whole story.
I kept in touch [with] Sandi Holder who runs the Doll Attic who is in the film, she is still selling Barbie dolls and [it's] great to be connected with her on social media. Franklin, the gentleman who was an incredible doll artist, and who talked about playing with Barbies when he grew up in Manila [Philippines], he has passed away and that's very sad. And I suspect some other people have passed away. And I didn't want to didn't know. One of the things I love about Barbie Nation is that it's classic. It's just gonna live there for all eternity.
One of the neatest things to me about the documentary was seeing your interviews with Ruth Handler who, of course, was the inventor of Barbie. What was it like interviewing her in person and getting to hear her story?
Ruth Handler was incredible. So fortunate that I got in to see her which I wasn't going to, I was not scheduled for an interview with her, somebody cancelled at the big Mattel Barbie convention and they let me have an interview. She and I hit it off. And she ended up inviting me to her penthouse home in Los Angeles to film.
I filmed her with [her husband] Elliott Handler. They talk about their love story. She got very open with me about the tragedy in her life that she talks about in Barbie Nation and how that affected Barbie and Mattel. She actually got her daughter who had never appeared on camera with her, Barbara Segal, who the doll was named after, to do a scene in Barbie Nation with her about how her daughter felt about having a working mom. So she was an incredibly generous woman.
You know, I do have to ask with the Greta Gerwig film coming out, have you seen the trailers for that? What are your thoughts about that film?
I am avidly following all the trailers for the Greta Gerwig film, I love them. I think they're incredible. As a filmmaker, I can't believe what they're able to fit into a minute, 45 second trailer. It's incredible.
What we've taken to saying is that Greta Gerwig's Barbie, what they wink at, Barbie Nation doesn't blink at because they're trying to do an incredible thing with their Barbie film, which is appeal to children. But then do all these double entendres, wink wink wink to adults about the sexuality that's inherent in Barbie.
What we do in Barbie Nation is we go there. We don't blink, we go and explore not only the sexuality, that's one component, but Barbie suggests a lot of things, it's very suggestive. And we go there and they refer to it. So I love how the films work together.
In the 25 years since this documentary has come out, has your perspective on Barbie changed at all? Is it pretty similar?
I feel like I've stood still and Barbie has stood still and the culture has radically changed. I mean, we're in this period of… such a reactionary period. You know, where so many books are being banned? I mean, I think the Bible has even been banned in some school district. I go online and see websites where parents are painting with nail polish bathing suits onto Barbie because, God forbid, their children would see this nakedness.
So Barbie Nation, one of the things that's lovely about the film, it's like an island of sweetness. It was made during a time when we were still expanding. There's a lot of cross-dressing. Trans people, RuPaul is in Barbie Nation, and it's lovely, and it's light.
I filmed at a Barbie convention in Birmingham, Alabama, where there's a very notable notable Christian Barbie prayer featured. But there's also people that are cross-dressing right there in Birmingham, Alabama. Oh, my God! Now this apparently is illegal. We can't have cross-dressing shows in front of children! Well, it was done there. It's documented. And people were just having a good time and “live and let live.”
One thing with Barbie [after] 25 years, looking at the product lineup, is seeing how much more diverse their products have become. You mentioned earlier with the added scene with the Black Barbie, not originally being able to include that…. specifically, why was it that you weren't able to include that?
I'm really kind of asking myself the same question… I certainly filmed it. I went to a lot of effort to film it. And like I say, we got very involved in the history of Black dolls. And the conversations I remember is that we're not doing justice to this. This is really important.
… I feel good at least we've got some of the story in there. We have the incredible 1980 Black Barbie which was designed by the Black designer Kitty Black Perkins. We have the Shani line, which was designed again by Kitty Black Perkins that really did different skin colors and body types. We have the story about the first Francie doll that was Barbie's cousin, but not Barbie, so we're able to get some of it in there.
And I edited it in myself this time. I learned enough that I can now edit and I was able to find the right place in the film and I was able to get it in myself. Back in 1998 when I made the film, it was my first film, I was not the editor and I couldn't get it done.
Certainly a fascinating documentary. I enjoyed watching it.
I want to say we'll be out on Tuesday (June 27th, 2023). We'll be on Amazon. It will be on Google Play. It will be on Apple iTunes. And to keep in touch with us they should go to our website BarbieNation.com.
We're trying to collect people's Barbie stories. We'd like to create a place for them on our website. That would be really the most exciting for me, if people would come to our website, we have this idea of creating the cityscape.
There's a million stories in the Naked City with lit windows and you click on every window and there could be a Barbie story. That there could be an ongoing conversation about the diversity of responses that this doll elicits.