- YEAR: 2023
- DIRECTOR: Greta Gerwig
- KEY ACTORS: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera
- CERTIFICATE: 12A
- IMDB SCORE: 7.3
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 88%
SEX SCORE: 3/5
✔️ I saw it twice in four days and again since so yes, absolutely rewatchable!
✔️ And, of course, it passes the Bechdel Test!
❌ It didn’t really inspire fantasies…
❌ …nor would I fuck the cast. Beautiful, yes; plastic, absolutely!
✔️ But I am going to say that it is sex positive. There’s no sex but it definitely supports reproductive healthcare so that’s good enough for me!
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Nowhere yet! And amazingly, it’s still in the cinema if you haven’t seen it yet. For a full list of streaming options later, check out JustWatch.com
I wasn’t a Barbie Girl when I was little. I never had one and always preferred to play with cuddly toys rather than dolls. Despite that, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a film so absolutely made for me than Barbie. As a feminist millennial woman who is trying to smash the patriarchy while working in a traditionally male profession, Barbie already ticked a lot of my boxes and then it was made by an esteemed female director and then it had a painfully cutting storyline about motherhood and then it was filled with movie references from some of the greatest films ever made…I loved it. I laughed and I cried and I saw it twice in four days and again a few weeks later, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. What a fucking movie!
But, as is often the case with movies that are so insightful about tough issues that are relevant to me, Barbie got under my skin. I genuinely haven’t been able to stop thinking about it and reading about it, and it’s been more difficult to get my thoughts in order for this post than I’d initially thought when I started writing it way back in July!
Barbie tells the story of Stereotypical Barbie (Robbie) who malfunctions due to an existential crisis caused by sad thoughts that Gloria (Ferrera) has in the Real World while playing with her daughter’s toy Barbie. In order to fix it, Barbie goes into the Real World herself, with Ken (Gosling) who snuck along for the ride, and discovers that Barbie hasn’t fixed the world for women as she had thought. There isn’t a woman president, women don’t control everything and she is shocked to hear that Barbie is blamed for ‘setting back feminism by 50 years!’ At the same time, Ken discovers the Patriarchy and takes it back to Barbieland, becoming an incel who blames Barbie for not loving him and brainwashing all the other Barbies into becoming slaves for the Kens. Together, Gloria and Barbie use feminism to undo all of Ken’s damage to return Barbieland to its previous pink glory, but Barbie realises that she wants to be more than just a doll, more than an idea, and leaves to become human.
So, where to start…
First things first. I want to acknowledge that Ken does almost steal the movie. For something so explicitly for and about women, many have commented that Ken had the more prominent and unforgettable role when compared to Barbie’s more serious and less obvious arc. As an article on GQ mused, ‘perhaps the film’s marketing was deliberately trying to conceal it, but this movie is quite literally about Ken’ and writer of the piece, Lucy Ford, concluded that perhaps we enjoy Ken’s journey more because it’s, well, less depressing: ‘A lot of Barbie’s initial lightness is weighed down by having to absorb oppression, all the while Ken is made lighter by the realisation that his life has autonomous value.’
And there is no doubt that Gosling is incredible. He really does deserve an Oscar! The Big Picture team in their deep dive podcast pointed out that Ryan Gosling was beautifully cast as Ken because he is both the Serious Actor behind Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines who is beloved by film bros and fully capable of the nuance needed to make a role like this so perfect, and he is also the Hot Guy from The Notebook and the ‘Hey Girl’ memes from the 2010s. Everyone loves him! Correctly because he is both beautiful, even with costume colour choices designed to make him look plastic and out of place, and an amazing actor. He also has some of the best lines AND that incredible dream ballet sequence. He couldn’t help but steal the movie!
Of course, one reason Ken’s portrayal is so noteworthy is that male directors don’t tend to give their female characters the same level of attention. To quote Helen O’Hara in TimeOut, ‘if Greta Gerwig cares this much about Ken in a Barbie movie, why doesn’t every female star get the same attention from her male director in an action movie or sci-fi tale?’ Why indeed.
The obvious appeal of Ken compared to the subtle messaging of Barbie is emblematic of how I feel about the whole movie. While I felt seen by Barbie when I first saw it, it really has taken three viewings for me to see through the wonderful joyful but superficial pink exterior to understand what exactly moved me at its core – just as it’s easier to see Barbie as a movie about Ken than appreciate what Gerwig was trying to say about existing as a woman in the real world. Normally I dislike movies that take so much thought to understand, but part of Gerwig’s genius is that the superficial view is also a hell of a lot of fun so really everybody wins!
As is often the case, I suspect that the fact that Barbie is a satire plays a part in why it has so many layers of understanding, and misunderstanding. Some satire is obvious – we laugh at the Kens’ request for just one Supreme Court justice and President Barbie’s amused refusal, for example, because that’s how it has always been for women and it’s funny, even if slightly bitterly, to see the roles reversed. Because don’t forget that Baroness Hale was the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court in the UK as recently as 2009 and only two woman served on the US Supreme Court in its first 200 years – Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981 and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in 1993. And, seriously, why aren’t there more women Nobel prize winners? Currently only 60 women have ever won compared to 894 men!
But it took the incredibly smart Marcelle Kosman from Material Girls, a podcast that uses academic theory to understand and critique popular culture, to show me that Barbie was also meant to satirise mainstream feminism in general, something that became clearer when I thought about taking my 4 year old daughter to see the movie. What kind of feminism was she going to learn from this? To be pink and fabulous? To find role models in these powerful women? (She learned that it was important to fight back against Ken specifically so I guess we’re almost there!)
Because the entirely pink matriarchy of Barbieland is just as ridiculous and just as unrealistic as Ken’s basic understanding of patriarchy. As Helen O’Hara wrote (in Stylist this time), Barbieland is ‘not a feminist utopia, because that would be more equal, but a hilarious upending of our own reality. This is a world where pink is a totally normal, serious colour, instead of being treated as somehow frivolous because it’s associated with little girls.’ Women in Barbieland haven’t achieved equality; they are simply the oppressors now. It’s a neat trick to expose the ridiculous nature of the Patriarchy by simply reversing everyone’s position, acting like it’s normal, and asking ‘how do you like it now?’
But it is just a trick. Barbieland doesn’t offer a solution or even an aim; it’s not something to work towards. The idea that Barbie has saved feminism is even treated as a joke within the movie! And so Gerwig is asking us to look closer; to understand the oppression and inequality, rather than just cheer for the Barbies’ apparent success.
Barbie and feminism have a long and complicated history, from being a sexual object – the original doll was modelled on an adult doll called Lilli, a naughty comic character described as a ‘gold digger, exhibitionist and floozy’ – to being marketed as a role model, succeeding in all professions, and then becoming the centre of arguments about exposing children to unrealistic body and beauty standards. And while Barbie the toy was launched in 1959, its popularity peaked in the 90s – another reason why this movie feels made for millennials – so it has become inextricably linked to the Girl Power aspect of third wave feminism that was prominent at the same time.
Reclaiming high heels and pink is an important aspect of feminist progression – being girly and femme is no sign of weakness and pink has instead become ‘the colour of female and queer rage’ – but this is a superficial gain. It does little to address intersectional feminist concerns or do anything to actually improve the lives of people oppressed by the patriarchy. So while, in theory, a femme journalist asking questions of a Black female President is a sign of success, the fact that the only question asked is ‘how come you’re so amazing?’ doesn’t really feel like progress. Feminism is about so much more than power suits and aspirational slogans. I don’t want to sound like I’m belittling empowerment but, honestly, I’d rather have full accountability, wage equality and reproductive justice!
And Barbie herself has an arc that reflects that – she wants to be someone valued for being herself, for having something to offer, rather than because of what she represents. And she doesn’t end the movie as something aspirational but unreachable. She isn’t a scientist or president or Nobel prize winner; she’s just an ordinary woman. But she does end her movie by exercising her right to reproductive healthcare! Legend.
For me, this discordance between the obvious but superficial and the honest but harder to see is why I found the motherhood storyline so affecting and why I think Barbie is one of the best movies of the year and perhaps the decade. There’s nuance beneath the hilarity, and it invoked so many complex and conflicting emotions in me.
Because while Barbie is uplifting and affirming in so many ways, it drives a knife into the idea of motherhood from almost the first words spoken. Barbie arrives, 2001: A Space Odyssey style, to save children from playing with baby dolls, which ‘can be fun…for a while,’ narrator Helen Mirren tells us. ‘Ask your mother.’ Barbie and the pink frivolous fun of Barbieland are immediately set up as a more fun alternative to the drudgery of motherhood, echoing classic feminist messages from The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique that urged women to find satisfaction outside of being a wife and mother. It’s not enough, they warned. You need more.
And, in the most superficial terms, the portrayal of motherhood in Barbie suggests that mothers aren’t allowed more. While much of the film made me weep, the deepest cut came from a single line at the climax of the movie when Barbie meets the ghost of her creator, Ruth Handler: ‘Mothers stand still so their daughters can see how far they’ve come.’ Ouch. This specific line made me ache with sadness and rage with such fury in a contradiction that I am still struggling to come to terms with.
I read an article praising Barbie that stuck on this same line, but the author saw it as a joyful affirmation of the unconditional love that comes with being a mother, rather than the nightmare it offered me: ‘Barbie was always meant to embody our hopes and dreams so we little girls could see ourselves as whatever we wanted to be. But once we grow up and have little girls of our own, we realise something about the inherent sacrifice and selflessness of motherhood…As mothers we are called to stand still—we defer our dreams or put them aside for a little while—in the hopes our daughters will be able to realise their own.’
Maybe I’m not doing motherhood right but I find this attitude absolutely infuriating. Why do I have to stop and stand still? Why do I have to give up or pause my dreams, and when does it stop? Do women who become parents never get to fulfil their lives outside of motherhood because their opportunities to dream are passed on to their children? I remember my own mother once telling me that she thought her whole purpose in life was to support my sisters and I, which made me feel loved and safe but also a bit sad that this was the limit of her ambition. I love my daughters and I want them to be happy and healthy and to have more of everything wonderful that I have experienced, but I also have dreams and wishes for myself that I don’t want to have to put aside.
The reality of being a parent and a mother is just so much more complex than that one line suggests and I wish that it hadn’t been given such a prominent place in the emotional arc of the movie because, other than that line, I think Gerwig gets it.
I wonder if, instead of being seen as the emotional peak of the movie, this was another example of the conflict Gerwig was trying to portray between the real world and the plastic simple Barbieland that could be seen as an avatar for womanhood but is just not deep enough to hold all the complexities and contradictions of what being a woman is actually like, as Gloria so eloquently described in her now famous monologue. For a start, Handler isn’t really Barbie’s mother – she created the plastic doll but they have no other relationship. The only true mother in the movie, Gloria, has a much more familiar and affirming arc.
Because Gloria brought Barbie into the real world through her struggles with her changing role as the mother of a daughter who now doesn’t want to be her little girl anymore (I sobbed for the first time at the montage of memories that connected Barbie and Gloria). I loved Gerwig’s choice to create the rift between Barbieland and the Real World because of the mother’s struggles, rather than her daughter’s, because it would have been so easy for the plot driver to have been a coming of age story – Sasha putting aside childish things – but it becomes so much more powerful to me because instead it’s about a yearning for who and what you once were, what you once had.
I’ve made no secret of how difficult I found the loss of identity that comes with becoming a mother. I’m no longer me; I’m their mother. I think it’s the main reason why I am finding it easier the second time as I’ve already done a lot of work coming to terms with this change! It’s why I understood and empathised with the extreme reactions of Meryl Streep escaping in Kramer vs Kramer and Essie Davis losing her mind in The Babadook, and why I can now feel Gloria’s pain and confusion at how her role and her life is continuing to change. My eldest girl is 4 and I am already a bit sad that she has a new favourite cuddly toy, casting aside the monkey that has been her constant companion for years. Perhaps the new interloper is just a temporary whim or perhaps she really has moved on, but either way I definitely care more than she does! What am I going to do when she doesn’t want to play with me any more? When she doesn’t look to me for answers?
And it’s not all about being left behind; it’s also about not understanding each other or really knowing who each other are. Writing for The Atlantic, child psychiatrist Suzanne Garfinkle-Crowell described Barbie as a movie about the ‘tension between mothers and daughters, and their often-frustrated need to see and feel seen by each other.’ She describes how mothers and daughters often clash because daughters feel judged by their mothers, whether consciously or unconsciously, and feel unable to meet the impossible standards their mothers have set for them. It’s depressingly ironic – mothers battle to be super mums with careers and perfect family lives, and this only acts to distance them from their daughters. We don’t show our children who we truly are.
But the rift between Sasha and Gloria that created the portal between the two worlds starts to heal when Sasha starts to understand her mother better. Through the pictures Gloria has drawn of ‘Irrepressible Thoughts of Death Barbie’ and ‘Cellulite Barbie,’ Sasha sees that her mother isn’t just a ‘boring mum with a boring job and a daughter who hates [her],’ as Gloria had described herself. Instead, she’s ‘weird and dark and crazy—everything [she pretends] not to be.’ The Gloria who doodles depressing Barbies is the real version of herself; a real person. And it’s her flaws and complexities that stop her being a just plastic idea of a mother, which in turn allows her to connect with her daughter.
And I absolutely love that…
NEXT TIME…more Ryan Gosling!