Gretchen Whitmer Would Like You to Call Her ‘Governor Barbie’

The politician is having a busy week. She has events at the Capitol and an important bill to sign into law. Like her namesake, who calls the shade her “power color,” she wears a hot pink pantsuit.

The politician is a Barbie doll — one that senior aides to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan decided to dress up like their boss and roll out on social media this week, as the Greta Gerwig-directed “Barbie” movie shows up in theaters.

Earlier this summer, staff members working for Ms. Whitmer — the Democrat who surprised pollsters with a double-digit win in the most recent race for her office — started to appreciate the sheer force of Barbie mania to which the world is currently in thrall. Among many, many other marketing stunts: Crocs has produced a custom Barbie shoe. Burger King made pink sauce. The Whitmer team members wondered whether their boss might benefit from a tie-in of her own.

It’s a bit of a gamble to intentionally compare a female politician to a doll once programmed to despair that “math class is tough” and who has been such an avatar for sexist clichés that feminists spent the 1970s brandishing posters that declared “I am not a Barbie doll.”

But Barbie has also worked as a robotics engineer and has run for president seven times. With the help of a Dreamhouse-size marketing budget, she has found herself in the middle of a cultural resurgence.

Still, she has never been a governor. So the Whitmer team decided to give her some statewide executive experience and get a bump of attention for their boss in the process.

Ms. Whitmer’s digital and creative director Julia Pickett christened the doll Lil’ Gretch, a takeoff on Big Gretch — a Michigan nickname for Ms. Whitmer, inspired by a pandemic-era local rap song about the governor.

The stunt has the backing of EMILY’s List, the Democratic organization dedicated to getting women who support abortion rights elected. (It does not have the official backing of Mattel, the company that makes Barbie. When asked whether infrastructure-oriented girls might soon see a Governor Barbie on store shelves, a representative for Mattel said the company could not share future plans but added, “So fun to know she is a fan!”)

Instagram users will find this Governor Barbie in tableaux vivants that include her speaking from a podium, signing legislation and “fixing the damn roads,” Kaylie Hanson, Ms. Whitmer’s chief communications officer, said, invoking one of Ms. Whitmer’s favored slogans. In one setup, Governor Barbie is pictured behind the wheel of her Pepto Bismol-colored Chevrolet. The vehicle is manufactured in Michigan, the team was at pains to point out. Miniaturized pink construction cones indicate roadwork ahead.

Ms. Whitmer’s name is a fixture on lists of possible 2028 presidential candidates. Her win in November 2022 was so decisive that it helped turn both chambers of the State Legislature blue for the first time in four decades. That kind of reputation for coalition building has even led some to whisper about a possible 2024 run, although she has said she will not enter the race. But an ad hoc blockbuster movie collab is not like chowing down on a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair. It’s on no campaign strategist’s list of presidential requirements. So what on earth would compel Ms. Whitmer to do this?

Ms. Whitmer, 51, joined a recent video call to explain. She was wearing hot pink. Lil’ Gretch wasn’t her idea, but she was immediately enthusiastic, she said, having grown up with (and chopped the hair off) a vast collection of Barbies shared with her sister.

“When they showed me the first iteration, I thought it was absolutely hilarious,” she said. “This Barbie is going to be signing legislation! She’s going to be leading!” That Barbie is also going to be getting attention. The education bill that Governor Barbie is pictured signing with her nonopposable thumbs is the same one that Ms. Whitmer is expected to enact into law this week.

Critics might raise a skeptical brow (Barbie, of course, cannot). But Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, called the move a “slam dunk.” Social media algorithms do not tend to reward acts of basic governance. She has seen in her own data how voters struggle to recall the accomplishments of their elected officials. Those pink construction cones might make an impact, she said. “The TikTok generation are receptive to these kinds of things,” Ms. Lake said.

“There will be people who don’t get it, and that’s fine,” Ms. Whitmer said. “We’re going to have fun. We’re going to continue to be fierce and feminine in our fuchsia.”

And Ms. Whitmer does love fuchsia. Her mother, an assistant attorney general in Michigan, also favored the shade. “One of her colleagues said, ‘You cannot wear pink going to court,’” Ms. Whitmer said. “And she said, ‘Fuchsia is my power color.’” When her mother died, mourners showed up wearing pink in her honor.

In 2022, Ms. Whitmer made reproductive access a focus of her re-election. When she was declared the winner of that race, she celebrated in a $500 hot pink suit from the workwear brand Argent, which produced the look in collaboration with the feminist collective Supermajority. (Pink, in the pussy hat shade, had by then become the unofficial color of the Women’s March.) Argent’s founder, Sali Christeson, said Ms. Whitmer had ordered it online herself — “like a normal person.” She did not know that Ms. Whitmer was planning to wear it as votes were tallied that November. It is the brand’s best-selling suit to date.

For her second Inauguration, Ms. Whitmer again wore fuchsia. To repeal an abortion ban that would have made criminals of doctors who performed the procedure, she wore hot pink. Magenta lipstick is such a staple that she swiped it on even when she announced that the F.B.I. had foiled a plot to kidnap her in October 2020. She also wore a leather jacket, another signature. “That was the armor that I felt comfortable in,” she said.

When Ms. Whitmer was first running for office, she had to contend with what she called “the Xerox model” for women’s dress — dark suit, white top, pulled-back hair. “You were muted,” she said, and most of the advice about what women in politics should wear came from men. “There were a lot of strong opinions about being conservatively dressed so that people would listen to your words and not get distracted by your outfit,” Ms. Whitmer said. “It’s all baloney. It’s all about controlling women.”

“It’s peak Whitmer to do this,” said Jennifer Palmieri, who profiled Ms. Whitmer for Vanity Fair and served as communications director for Hillary Clinton when Mrs. Clinton was running for president. By that, she seemed to mean it was both shrewd and cheerfully over-the-top.

At the time that Mrs. Clinton was a candidate, “wardrobe was a huge question mark,” Ms. Palmieri said. She recalled deliberations over how to present Mrs. Clinton as a leader without forcing her into a man’s uniform. She settled on pastel pantsuits and draped jackets.

In 2016, Mrs. Clinton was also made into a Barbie — which was not her team’s idea. “Saturday Night Live” ran a spoof ad for a “President Barbie” doll modeled after her. An uninterested girl waved the doll off. She tries too hard.

The ad depicted Barbie as retrograde and Mrs. Clinton as a relic. Other invocations of the doll have been more malevolent. In 2014, Wendy Davis, a candidate for Texas governor, was faced with life-size posters of her head pasted onto a naked Barbie’s torso. A title dubbed Ms. Davis “Abortion Barbie.” In 2020, a man carried a Barbie doll hanging from a noose onto the front steps of the Michigan State Capitol and claimed it was Ms. Whitmer. He had an ax, too, which the police confiscated. (“Unfortunately, women leaders see attacks like this so frequently because of their gender,” Ms. Hanson said. )

“As applied to me, and as that term has been applied to other women, it is intended to diminish us, to draw attention to how we look, to sexualize us and to distract from our accomplishments, our intellect, our capabilities,” Ms. Davis said of the “Barbie” taunt.

Like Ms. Whitmer (and Barbie), Ms. Davis is linked to pink. In 2013, she filibustered anti-abortion legislation in the Texas Senate, where she was then serving. She stood on her feet for 11 hours in pink sneakers. “I have more pink in my closet than you can possibly imagine,” she said. “I’ve heard so many women who have run for office talk about this tightrope that we get put on. And I love the idea of freeing ourselves from those shackles and not being afraid to be fully who we are.”

Still, Meg Heckman, an associate professor of journalism and media innovation at Northeastern University, sees risks for women in particular who “lean too hard” into individual aspects of their personae — not least an aspect that has been borrowed from a glammed-up children’s plaything. “It runs the risk of trivialization,” she said, something female candidates have long battled.

Ms. Heckman also suggested that although the creation of a “pop cultural parallel” to the real-life governor might be “subtly reshaping the face of political leadership” away from one that’s white and male, it might also be codifying other barriers to entry.

“Barbie is a conventionally attractive, fictional white woman,” Ms. Heckman pointed out. “Who else is being left out of the frame?”

In 2021, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation published an updated guide to running for elected office as a woman. It cited focus group respondents who said they would advise female candidates to be sure their “wardrobe, makeup and appearance are impeccable.” The foundation’s executive director, Amanda Hunter, said she had been surprised to see that voters penalized women for even minor perceived flaws, such as wrinkled collars or less-than-pristine hair.

In that depressing sense, Governor Barbie is in fact meeting voter expectations. “Voters have a standard of perfection for women,” Ms. Hunter said.

Ms. Whitmer — who has in fact has had a perfect electoral record since her first race at age 29 — is serious about her Barbies, but the wink is implied, Ms. Palmieri said. “It’s like, ‘You want me to look like a Barbie doll, I’m going to embrace that as something that empowers me, not something that is pigeonholing me,’” she said.