As the summer of Barbie mania winds down, one of the deceptively slapstick moments in the mostly cotton-candy-colored “Barbie” movie has stayed with me.
It’s the boardroom scene (spoiler alert!) with its ominously darker tones, million-dollar view and a big shiny table surrounded by men in suits, including comedian Will Ferrell playing a fictional Mattel CEO. Margot Robbie’s Barbie — freshly arrived in the “Real World” from “Barbie Land,” where women rule — is quietly shocked by what she doesn’t find in the C-suite.
“Since I came all this way,” the still chipper Barbie asks, “Can I meet the woman in charge, your CEO?” “Oh, that would be me,” Will Ferrell says. She presses on: How about the CFO or COO? Also men, he tells her. “Are any women in charge?” a wide-eyed Barbie asks.
“We are a company literally made of women,” Ferrell deadpans. “We had a woman CEO in the 90s. And there was another one at some other time. That’s two right there.”
Taken on its face it’s a campy moment. But I agree with TikTok user Cat Quinn who quickly saw parallels between the Barbie movie and “The Wizard of Oz.” The C-suite scene recalls the wholesome red-slipper-wearing Dorothy when she finally got a chance to peek behind the curtain — only to find a merely mortal man instead of a wizard.
Likewise, director Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is giving the audience a peek into the corporate boardroom and reminding them who is usually in charge: men. Indeed, as of this year, women occupy just 13.7% of the CEO, CFO and COO positions in Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies to date, a figure only up slightly from last year’s 12.3%, according to a report out this month from executive search firm Crist | Kolder Associates.
You have to give Mattel credit for keeping that reality in the picture.
In scene after scene, Gerwig unspools the fantastical and hilarious story of Barbie’s journey. Along the way she pokes fun at the movie’s namesake brand as well as women’s place on the corporate ladder: they still hold just a fraction of the most lucrative and senior positions in corporate America. Maybe the company was inspired to take a bet on the realism by what could be seen as feminist roots: back in 1945 it was co-founded in a garage by Harold “Matt” Mattson along with Elliot and Ruth Handler, who named Barbie after her daughter Barbara.
Still, given that women comprise half of the U.S. population and despite the steady gains diversity initiatives have made, the boardroom scene is both funny as well as disheartening because it’s so realistic.
Women are still wildly underrepresented in powerful C-suites. That’s even the case in the real-life Mattel, the maker of astronaut and doctor “Barbies,” which the movie portrays as helping girls learn that they can grow up to be anything they want. But all of the El Segundo, California-based Mattel’s five named executive officers are men, according to its latest proxy filing. Mattel did not respond to a request for comment.
In a testament to our fractured times, the “Barbie” movie drew a split reaction from some men and women: protests came from conservatives who viewed its message as “anti-man,” while many women flocked to the movie clad in celebratory pink outfits.
Gerwig, the film’s co-writer and the first woman solo director to have a film reach over $1 billion in ticket sales, told The New York Times, that her hope is that the movie “is an invitation for everybody to be part of the party and let go of the things that aren’t necessarily serving us as either men or women.”
Gerwig does deliver on her invitation: The movie offers a hopeful if not altogether happy take away for the corporate world. It’s the moment when Gloria, the harried mom character played by America Ferrera who works as a Mattel receptionist outside the boardroom, gets a chance to pitch her idea for an “ordinary” Barbie. It’s a doll that she says may or may not be president or a mom but who, maybe, “just wants to get through her day feeling kind of good about herself.”
Let’s hope Gloria gets a seat at the boardroom table in order to make sure that ordinary Barbie product gets on the shelves. And maybe, just maybe, the continued rise of women as CEOs and CFOs will make them, well, ordinary.