To Barbie, On Our Lawsuit Anniversary

The Barbie movie earned billions during summer 2023 and accolades from women worldwide. But Mattel wasn’t always a feminist dreamhouse, as one author reveals.

Book Culture Female Authors Pop Culture
Ophira Edut of Astrostyle is the author of Adios Barbie

Editor’s Note: Ophira Edut is the editor of Adios, Barbie and its retitled second and third editions, Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty & Body Image. The opinions expressed in this article/open letter are her own.
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Dear Barbie,

This is not an easy letter to write. You and I have a…complicated past.

Twenty-four years ago, on my 27th birthday no less, your legal team mailed a cease-and-desist letter to the publisher of my book, Adios, Barbie: Young Women Write About Body Image and Identity.

My career as a burgeoning third-wave feminist voice was cut short by that move, which also attempted to silence some inconvenient truths about the narrow, unattainable beauty standard that was hurting so many women.

And while I’ve forgiven you, Barbie, I haven’t forgotten.

My career as a burgeoning third-wave feminist voice was cut short by that move, which also attempted to silence some inconvenient truths about the narrow, unattainable beauty standard that was hurting so many women.

I admit, it wasn’t the kindest title. You were scapegoated, though not unfairly.

But look. The world was different then. Girls like me, who grew up in the 1960s and 70s, were served one standard of beauty — yours. We hated, even harmed, ourselves for not achieving it.

Maybe you felt it too, under that painted-on smile. Standing on tippy-toes all day can’t be comfortable. Not sure how you breathed in that cellophane box. Maybe they kept you too lightheaded to notice what the Patriarchy™ was up to…until your comeback this summer. (Well played, Babs. Weeeeellllll plotted.)

So you understand, Barbie, that something had to be done.

In 1998, I rallied 25 smart, ethnically and sexually diverse young women and had them write bracingly honest stories about their struggles with body acceptance. Not just weight, but hair texture, skin color, facial features, height, gender.

I got a $1,000 advance from an independent feminist publisher, Seal Press, split it equally among the essayists, and we wrote our hearts out.

What we didn’t expect? People loved it! The anthology got picked up by every university women’s studies department in the country — including Barnard, where your screenwriter, Greta Gerwig, attended during the book’s curriculum heyday. It was adapted into a stageplay and I was invited to speak at colleges all over America.

Adios, Barbie book tour
Image via Ophira Edut

Word got back to your people, who were notorious for protecting their company cash cow. (Did you earn a fair wage, Barbie? Just checking cuz, you know, Hollywood.)

Then came 1999. Your 40th birthday. The Spice Girls were calling for “girl power” and everyone was listening. As the rising tides of feminism and ageism collided, the suits grew skittish.

Something strange happened. Mattel took your face off the billboards and replaced you with a new kind of ad campaign that year. It featured girls instead of dolls, and bore the message “Become Your Own Hero.”

An Ogilvy and Mather campaign for Barbie's "Become Your Own Hero" 40th anniversary in 1999.
Image via Ophira Edut

The subtext? The Barbie brand is not only feminist, it’s a source of girls’ empowerment. This desperate attempt to resurrect your image did not mix well with books like mine.

From deep inside the Dreamhouse, Mattel found a loophole: The Adios, Barbie book cover featured Photoshop images of an actual Barbie™ dress, leg and shoe, which was a violation of your many, many trademarks.

Your lawyers descended. The ACLU defended. A settlement was reached. My publisher had to shell out a $10,000 fine and — are you still smirking over there? — we had to change the title.

I made a pitcher of Beyonce-flavored lemonade though, in case you didn’t hear. We renamed the book Body Outlaws. I added a few more essays that I’m really proud of — one by a straight man, another by a gay man, one by a trans woman and a piece by plus-sized supermodel Kate Dillon. Colleges still include it in syllabi here and there. I get a yearly royalty check that buys me a fancy latte and an almond croissant to split with a friend.

So yeah. It’s not like I wanted to write this, Barbie. I didn’t want to bother you, not at the height of your success. Remember, I know what that feels like. So I dragged my horizontal feet on this. I wanted to let you have your Hot Girl Summer.

Besides, you’ve been through a lot. You’ve been humbled. Your stock dropped along with the average age of your fans, which I believe peaked around four(?) a few years ago. That had to be a little humiliating. I can hardly blame your team for masterminding a comeback!

It’s not like I wanted to write this, Barbie. I wanted to let you have your Hot Girl Summer.

But I can’t un-see what your people did, even if they’re no longer running the place. How they tried to silence the voices of my black and brown and curvy and ethnically-featured and rightfully pissed-off friends, just for using your name (which is technically public domain) in a satirical way. We didn’t want to harm your brand. We just wanted to be heard.

The New York Times covered the Mattel Lawsuit of Adios Barbie in 1999. The ACLU defended the book.
Image via Ophira Edut

We’re grown now, old enough to believe in redemption and second chances. I want to congratulate you, Barbie, on your recent success and that awesome movie — which I paid $20 to see despite our history. People do change. 

Can dolls change, too?

Barbie, if nothing else, you are a style icon. I’m so grateful that feminism has become the fashionable frock that you chose to wear this summer.

Maybe it was a supply chain issue and you needed an outfit. I dunno. However, it happened, who cares? With the anti-feminist cabinet we’ve got, at least our closets are getting an empowered makeover from Barbie World.

I want to challenge you Barbie. (Not to a duel, that’s what douche-y guys do.) If you want to make good on your high-arched missteps back in the 90s, I’ll offer you a deal.

You’ve now put a diverse set of women in your Dreamhouse (hi, Issa Rae). You realized you can do it all without a man — which I think you always knew, given that your boyfriend was literally neutered.

Now, I implore you to make over another house, just like you did in your movie.

This particular house is white, not bubblegum pink. And it may be getting some scary new occupants a year from now.

The clock is ticking. There’s no time for you and I to be divided. We need more than a feel-good movie and a neoprene bodysuit to make this revolution stick.

Which, full circle, is why I wrote the Adios, Barbie book 25 years ago. And why I decided, despite editors saying that “everything’s already been written about the Barbie movie,” to pull my head out of the Malibu sand and reach across the aisle.

It’s a risk for me, Barbie. You’re the It Girl again. I’m lining myself up to be branded a Toys ‘R Us Karen, as persona non grata as your flat-chested sycophant friend Skipper.

But I’m willing to do it because we need your help. This world — not just Barbie World — needs a female billionaire who unites us across generations, races and genders. Oprah can’t be the only one pushing that boulder up the Hill.

So come on Barbie, let’s go party! As in a political party, get it? (Oops, that song got shut down by you guys, too. Dang it!)

But since that lawsuit got thrown out of court in 1997, maybe we can overturn a few more of your pesky trademark suits and use the jingle for your campaign.

Imagine the pantsuits! The confetti! The Inauguration events! The slogans (“Yes We…Ken?”). The Barbie Girls linking arms with Bernie Bros! #WorthIt

Plus, we can toooooootally script the sequel to the Barbie movie, which your people will love.

It ended, after all, with you getting real, live reproductive organs and walking into the gynecologist’s office for the very first time. How cool was that for you?

Well, Barbie, there’s a sinister surprise waiting for those shiny new ladyparts when you walk out of your maiden appointment. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you. But I’m coming to you as a friend.

You’re one of us now, Barbie. Hot Girl Summer’s over. School’s in session. And Smart Girls rule the rule this season.

I know what you’re thinking: Why would I trust you after all we’ve been through?

I don’t, actually.

But you were savvy enough to escape from the bubble of Barbie World. You survived as a breatharian for an incredible amount of time, might I add! That’s some serious street cred. What other tricks do you have up that embroidered butterfly sleeve?

We need a Trojan Horse like you to get us out of this matrix and back to the matriarchy.

Barbie, I won’t even ask you to apologize for what your team did back in the 90s. Just bring your billion-dollar box office magic to women’s rights in 2024.

Get us a leader who truly values those new bodily “accessories” you acquired — one who will protect the other people who walk the planet with them.

If so, I might be the unlikeliest person to join your ballot.

Think about it?

Your feminist frenemy,


Ophira Edut is the editor of Adios, Barbie and its retitled second and third editions, Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty & Body Image. Ophira and her twin sister Tali (aka The AstroTwins) are the co-founders of Astrostyle, one of the web’s most popular astrology sites, and the authors of over 20 books. Ophira has toured the world to empower people with a message of self-acceptance for nearly 30 years. A former associate editor at Ms. magazine, she’s the resident astrologer for ELLE and lives in New York with her daughter and dachshund.