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The Barbie Movie: A Cathartic Existential Crisis Packaged in a Plastic, Pink Palette

Updated: Aug 5, 2023

Edited by Marian Mohamed

Me and my bestie, Domynique Badillo, peace signing through the tears we just shed at the theater watching the 'Barbie' Movie on July 21, 2023. (Photo/Dominique Morales)

Like many other women in their mid-20s, I flocked to the movie theater opening day dressed in head-to-toe pink to watch Greta Gerwig and Mattel’s adaptation of "Barbie". However, I was unbeknownst of being left shell shocked by the emotional rollercoaster the film would take me on. Gerwig manages to jampack a genius combination of campy and self-aware humor with complex emotional depth within 2 hours that explore an array of topics, including the patriarchy, gender roles, girlhood, motherhood, self-worth, identity, humanity, and the impact that one doll has had on all of us.

Gerwig is no stranger to writing stories encompassing women’s experiences, with past projects like ‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Little Women’, and this movie is no different. She does an amazing job encapsulating the nuances of the struggles women face living under a patriarchal society through exploring the complexities of one doll - Barbie.

Barbieland is introduced and presented as a perfect, plastic pink utopia for women’s empowerment. Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, has a good day, every day! Everything is perfect, and they have solved all of the woes of women in the real world - or so they think.

However, we get our first hint that something may be off when Barbie has her first intrusive thought about death during her bespoke dance number. She wakes up the next day to a very harsh reality. Morning breath, cold showers, burnt waffles, and FLAT FEET! Her illusion of her perfect, plastic world has cracked; from then on, there is no going back.

Throughout the course of the movie, we see Barbie struggle to confront reality. All she has ever been is stereotypical Barbie, but now she is faced with the reality of being a woman living in a patriarchal society. She is now self-conscious, anxious, objectified, questioning her self-worth, all served up with an undertone of violence. All she has ever wanted is for everything to stay the same, including her, and now that it’s not - that scares her.

There have been some criticisms that the movie is the result of corporate girlboss feminism, but I disagree. Yes, some of the topics only hit the surface level, and it may seem like introductory concepts to people widely versed in the academia of feminism. But, I believe it does a great job of opening up the conversation for a broader audience. A task that can not be understated in the small window of time that was allotted, especially for Barbie's mother brand, Mattel.

I think of all the young people, especially girls, who are watching this film and how important and impactful seeing a film that so clearly declares the struggles of women and the power they hold, and I wonder what it would have meant for me to have had this movie growing up. As British Vogue writer Riann Phillip put it, “We need to stop expecting popular entertainment to be the answer to oppression."

Moreover, Gerwig is also not afraid to confront Barbie’s complicated history and impact on the landscape of our culture. Through the teenage character Sasha, Barbie is called out for making women feel bad about themselves since her inception. She argues Barbie is a reflection of everything wrong with our culture - sexualized capitalism, unrealistic physical ideals, and setting the feminist movement back decades.

While Barbie is going through a momentous existential crisis, Ken …discovers patriarchy. We see Ken become socialized by the patriarchy in real time as he adopts a monkey see monkey do mentality and believes that all the imagery flashing in front of him - lifted trucks, mini-fridges, horses, mink coats, and belittling women are what being a man is all about.

However, that isn’t to say the character of Ken isn’t well-written. In fact, the character contains many nuances people are discrediting. Off the bat, Ken presents a gender role reversal, showing men what it is like to be a woman in a world that was not built to consider or include them. Beyond that, he shows us that patriarchy hurts not only women but all of us. It strips men of emotional vulnerability and tells them to place value on oppressive power and rampant consumerism to define themselves.

But the most underrated performance for me comes from America Ferrera, who plays Gloria, the human who has inadvertently become intertwined with Barbie. We are told that growing up is about leaving childish things behind, especially for women. However, what is so radical about this character is how she manages to hold on to the value of play and imagination into her adulthood through Barbie.

It was especially touching to see this presented through the experience of a woman of color, as many times, these are the women who never get to have and live out fully-fledged girlhood. A case and point is the multitude of trending videos on social media of Latina moms getting emotional over receiving their first Barbie dolls as adults before watching the film. And so, with the character Gloria, Gerwig reminds us that all of our mothers were once just girls too - with hopes, dreams, and aspirations, and in many ways, they still are.

Additionally, Gloria’s monologue to Barbie exemplifies the impossible standards we have put forth on women, and by doing so, we have done the same to these dolls because these dolls are a reflection of ourselves. While our world holds women to a level of unattainability and extraordinary versions of ourselves, these Barbies have been doing the same, and anytime they deviate from it - they are considered malfunctioning.

That is one of the most stand out themes of the movie to me, that we shape these dolls, and they are a reflection of our thoughts and ideas. And so, as Gloria puts it to Barbie, “Because I couldn’t be like you, I ended up making you like me."

And so Gerwig presents the idea that if these dolls are made in our likeness, it only makes sense that they would reflect not only the good but the bad and the ugly of us. Through Barbie, we have projected the best and worst parts of our culture; even Ruth Handler, the doll’s creator, said in a 1994 interview with CBS, “I wanted to show the world as it is."

Before, these dolls never had to question their self-identity; it was already written for them. However, throughout the film, we see both the Barbies and Kens grapple with who they are, questioning what they were made for. If Barbie isn’t stereotypical Barbie, then who is she? If Ken doesn’t have Barbie, who is HE?

These dolls take us on a journey of self-exploration, identity, and worth. To put it plainly - it’s about these dolls finding their humanity, and as Gerwig argues, the only way to do so is to break free of the social norms set out by our patriarchal society.

Gerwig asserts that everyone, especially women, deserves to be seen, heard, and empowered for who we are and as we are. Imperfect but still flawed, as human beings, and who we are is KENough - I mean enough.

Our society is constantly trying to put us in a box, or in Barbie’s case; she is being put in a literal box by Mattel. However, as the literal restraints tighten on Barbie’s arms, she jumps out, illustrating a pivotal moment in what would be rewriting her own narrative. And in the end, that’s what Barbie discovers for herself by saying, “I want to do the imagining, not be the idea."

I feel the movie slogan used to advertise the film sums up my feelings for the flick. “If you love "Barbie", this movie is for you. If you hate "Barbie", this movie is for you." Because whatever your relationship has been with the doll, we all know her, and she has had an undeniable impact on our culture. And because she may have just started off as the woman in the bathing suit, but has since become so much more than any of us could have imagined.


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