My hopes for the Barbie movie were as high as a pair of hot pink pair stilettos. Naturally, I was terrified they would snap and twist my ankle. As the theater filled with adults in bubble-gum-colored skirts and cowgirl hats, the electric murmur of anticipation grew. We’d all seen the ads, the memes, and the YouTube walk-throughs of the elaborate Barbie Dreamhouse sets. We expected to be blown away, which is a lot to ask from a movie about a doll. My greatest fear was that we’d already seen everything worthwhile about this film. Imagine my glee when the opening moments caught me completely by surprise.
Writer/Director/Actor Greta Gerwig has proven herself to be a master of women’s stories, with a filmography that includes instant classics such as Frances Ha (2012), Lady Bird (2017), and Little Women (2019). In Barbie, she has created something original, combining all of the hopefulness, imagination, nostalgia, and baggage of the ubiquitous toy into a pink fantasia of topsy-turvy feminist critique. She asks you to look deep into the eyes of your childhood doll, remembering all the times you had together and all the dreams you shared – and then she yanks it from your hands and whacks you upside the head with it.
“Thanks to Barbie, all the problems of feminism and equal rights have been solved,” intones the voice of Helen Mirren in the first moments of the film. “. . .At least, that’s what the Barbies think.”
This juxtaposition lays out the essential conflict of the story: Barbie (Margot Robbie) is living a perfect life in Barbieland when she suddenly becomes plagued with uncontrollable thoughts of death. In the hopes of undoing this horrible malfunction, Barbie and her wannabe boyfriend Ken (Ryan Gosling) venture into the Real World on a quest to make the little girl who plays with her happy again. Once they get to the Real World, they discover that women aren’t actually doing all that well. Chaos ensues.
Barbie is a visual delight and a joyous romp through the pangs of girlhood. It’s also a surprisingly astute critique of modern feminism.
While not ground-breaking by any measure, Barbie correctly identifies the essential trap of womanhood: Be pretty, but not too pretty. Smart, but not too smart. Successful, but not ambitious. Whether we have no children, are working moms, or stay-at-home moms, we’re doing motherhood wrong. We’re going about our careers wrong or we’re dating wrong. As angsty preteen Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) quips, “Women hate women. And men hate women. It’s the only thing we all agree on.”
It’s also really hard to be a man. Barbie arrives at the perfect moment, when conversations about positive masculinity are at the forefront. Ken, who has always defined himself in relation to Barbie, must come to terms with his own identity. If he is neither desiring Barbie nor subjugating her, then what is he doing? Can Ken exist without Barbie’s adoration? Is he really “Kenough” on his own? (The Ken puns in this movie are exquisite, by the way.)
Men and women are not the same, but we need not exist in conflict. The essential lie of patriarchy has always been that subjugation of the other is the key to survival. In reality, most men don’t thrive under a patriarchal system, as Ken quickly discovers.
Men and women actually need each other, and not only romantically. We need each other because we are human. We need to be seen and cherished, not because of our career status, our physical attractiveness, or even our personal achievements. We need to be seen and cherished for our essential human dignity, and nothing more. Barbie gets that. Pretty good for a movie about a doll.