Rebooting Barbie

July 18, 2023

I’m a blonde blue-eyed Jew named Tiffany and I’m married to a blond blue-eyed Jew named Ken. So perhaps it makes sense that eighteen years ago, I directed a film called The Tribe, an unauthorized, unorthodox history of the Jewish people and the Barbie doll. My husband and I co-wrote the film, which in many ways, was a distillation of all of our conversations about being Jewish in an assimilated culture. As someone who was always told I didn’t “look Jewish,” I thought it was one of the great ironies of the 21st century that the world’s most famous WASP, Barbie, was created by a Jewish woman.

As a young girl, I enjoyed playing with and dismantling Barbie, but my real interest in Barbie (and in contemporary Judaism) began in 2001. I attended the first convening of Reboot in Utah, an experimental gathering of young Jewish filmmakers, writers and culture makers who were not Jewishly affiliated (we didn’t go to temple or traditional Jewish gatherings). We all exploded with conversation, finally having an outlet to explore what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century.   

By complete coincidence, Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, passed away that very weekend. At breakfast that Sunday of the gathering, I read her obituary in the NY Times. Way down in the article they casually mentioned that she was Jewish. Now that we are fully in the midst of Barbiemania in the lead-up to the new Barbie film, many people are talking about her creator’s Jewishness, but in 2001, it was fresh news. I had an “AHA” moment. Exploring Barbie’s creation story could open up a new conversation about assimilation and what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century. I would make a film and a discussion kit to spark conversations like the ones I was having at Reboot.

Ken and I started working on the script shortly after that. We had often discussed our own Jewish identities. Both of our families are from Odessa, Ukraine; we both lost family members in the Holocaust; and we both went to large public high schools where 99% of the students were not Jewish. We both love Jewish culture but don’t connect much with prayer or religion. Reflecting on our experiences, we came up with lines like: “Jews always felt like outsiders, maybe that’s why they created a bread with only an outside” (a bagel). Or about how Ruth Handler had a double mastectomy, and created one of the first prosthetic breast companies: “Ruth Handler made two fortunes from plastic boobs.” The one line that Ken and I spent the most time in the film was the line about Israel: “Just as you can believe in America and may not agree with all of its politics, you can believe in Israel and not agree with all of its politics.” It is still exactly how we feel today. While working on the script, we had the good fortune of being at another Reboot gathering and seeing the brilliant slam poet Vanessa Hidary perform “The Hebrew Mamita,” a spoken word poem that explored the very ideas we were wrestling with in such a passionate way. I knew she had to perform it in the film.

Making the film had many memorable moments. While in production on the film I remember going to ToysRUs and putting around 50 Barbie dolls in my shopping cart for the film shoot. There was a woman behind me looking at my cart, aghast. I turned and said, “They’re for my son.” 

Other issues were a little more scary. A week before the premiere, I heard that Mattel was sending five lawyers. I panicked. Mattel was notorious for suing artists. I imagined being taken away in handcuffs from the screening. After a sleepless night, I found a lawyer who’d successfully defended an artist against Mattel and he said he would come to the premiere ready for anything. Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie MC’d the premiere in drag as “Hadassah Gross,” Vanessa Hidary performed “Hebrew Mamita” live and the vibrant audience of 1,000 was exuberant for it all. I didn’t get sued. It was a great night. A couple of months later it had its official festival premiere at Sundance and after each screening, we invited people back to a house we had rented for matzo ball soup and conversation. We had packed discussions each night.   

Then a “cease and desist” letter arrived—not from Mattel, but from a company that certifies kosher products. They had seen a poster for the film with Barbie wearing a Jewish star and a “kosher certified” badge. The rabbi who ran the company wrote me a formal letter: “Barbie is NOT KOSHER. You must remove this immediately.” I responded by sending him a link to the film. He phoned me a few days later and said, “I don’t know if I should sue you or hug you! I loved the film!”  We had a great conversation and I agreed to drop the kosher badge in future posters.

Ken and I created The Tribe for fellow assimilated Jews wrestling with what it means to be part of this complex and powerful 5,000-year tradition. What surprised me is how many other people it spoke to. It became the first documentary to reach #1 on Apple iTunes and was ordered by the U.S. Naval chaplain to be purchased and shown on every U.S. Naval ship. It is still used by schools, universities and study programs around the world.    

As we enter the final week before the Barbie Bonanza, Ken and I are excited to see how another husband and wife screenwriting team, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, will use the Barbie legend to explore complicated issues that only a deconstructable plastic doll can reveal when you take it apart.

Watch the 15-min ish Tribe film here. Plus, Reboot went behind the scenes with the co-writers of The Tribe, Tiffany Shlain and Ken Goldberg, in a short series that we shared on social media earlier this summer. We learned why Barbie was the focus of The Tribe, how people feel about Barbie, her secret Jewish roots and more. Watch below:

Tiffany Shlain is an artist, activist, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, best-selling author of 24/6: Giving up Screens One Day a Week to Get More Time, Creativity, and Connection, and founder of the Webby Awards. Her work has shown at The Museum of Modern Art in New York and her new exhibition, Human Nature, will travel next to DC and NYC. Shlain has had multiple premieres at the Sundance Film Festival and her awards and distinctions include the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Intellectual Activity. Shlain’s new exhibition is part of the Getty Museum’s Pacific Standard Time: Art & Science Collide art event with Ken Goldberg at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles set for Oct 2024. Her new film on the adolescent brain will be out early 2024. You can find out more about The Tribe here and stay posted on her art and films by signing up for her monthly newsletter here. IG, TW, & FB @tiffanyshlain