Warner Bros Pictures

‘Barbie’: a pink sparkling Trojan horse for a sophisticated commentary on gender

On Friday 21 July, an iconic, historic, generation-defining film hit screens nationwide: Barbie, of course. Was there another? I am of course, tongue firmly in cheek, referring to the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, a frenzy that has seen the antithetical Oppenheimer and Barbie films bring in the highest weekend ticket sales for the UK box office in years. Entertainment is a given in both films, but it was certainly an unexpected treat seeing Barbie tackle profound questions of identity, purpose, power, and well, the human experience, with such humour and sensitivity.

In the picture-perfect carefree Barbie Land, resembling a scene straight from a toybox, Barbie (Margot Robbie) has the best day, every day. That is, until she awakes to flat feet, cold showers, and existential thoughts of death. After consulting ‘Weird Barbie’ (Kate McKinnon) — a Barbie alternate and social outcast with a choppy haircut and in constant splits from being played with too hard — she learns she must discover the truth about the universe to set things back to normal. Whilst venturing into the real world with her companion Ken (Ryan Gosling), she discovers that things are not so straightforward as they are in Barbie Land: she must learn hard truths, evade the corporate suits at Mattel, and control the influence of the human world that threatens the harmony of Barbie Land.

The buzz surrounding this movie has not stopped growing since the first leaked sightings of shooting back in June of 2022. Many eagle-eyed sleuths even tried guessing the movie’s plot by probing the saved movies on Robbie’s unconfirmed Letterboxd account. Along with the viral “This Barbie is (insert literally anything)” meme template, it’s safe to say that the public has had good fun being in on the pre-Barbie hijinks. This vibrant energy carries over to the theatres, as the movie achieves the rare accomplishment of feeling like a film that contains something for everyone. Thanks to its liberal inclusion of adult-aimed jokes and emotionally powerful moments, it in many ways feels far from being just a movie for kids.

Barbie’s experience of seeing life through rose-tinted glasses only to become disillusioned with the real world is seemingly emblematic of the female experience more widely

Leading the film’s cast of thousands is Margot Robbie as Stereotypical Barbie. Her bubbly naivete endears her to audiences within the first 30 minutes, but it is through Robbie’s sincere portrayal in Barbie’s more compassionate and sensitive moments that the developing human in her becomes the most emotionally compelling aspect of the movie and one of the best for thought-provoking discussion. Barbie’s experience of seeing life through rose-tinted glasses only to become disillusioned with the real world is seemingly emblematic of the female experience more widely: the transition from blissfully ignorant childhood to a new world of double standards between the sexes and the overwhelming pressure to manage expectations. This is familiar territory for writer-director Greta Gerwig who has tackled such themes in her last two films: Lady Bird and Little Women. Barbie’s breakdowns from the overwhelming transition will be familiar to any woman who’s gone through adolescence — life changes so fast that you can practically feel the girlhood slipping away from beneath your feet. In the chaos, Mattel employee and mum Gloria (America Ferrera) and Barbie-creator Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman) take on maternal roles for Barbie and are the ones who help Barbie to understand her own emotions and restore order. In this way, Gerwig pays respect to generations of mothers whose selflessness and guidance are responsible for many “Barbies’” safe passage into adulthood.

In the film, Gerwig silences the critics that argue the doll doesn’t have a place in the 21st century by reminding the audience that “Barbie can be anything” and therefore, so can women. A critique in the same vein could be that the film’s feminist commentary is too shallow and lacks in nuance, with one critic even calling Gloria’s monologue on womanhood “Tumblr feminism 101”. This criticism is rather harsh — the problem is not content, which, while perhaps a little clunkily phrased, gets the message across. Rather, in moments like this where worldly truths are explicitly stated rather than shown to us, it would have driven the point home even further had we spent more time with the experiences of more real-world women. Yes, it’s Barbie who we all came to see, and not an advanced lecture on feminist theory, but having more on-screen references to ground Gloria’s words would’ve made them feel a little less ready-made.

Stealing scenes left, right, and centre is Gosling’s outrageous and camp Ken, who, if we know one thing after viewing, is more than “just Ken”. Gosling is not the name we think of when we hear comedic actor despite having shown his comedic chops in movies such as The Nice Guys and The Big Short. This performance has every chance of changing that thought as Gosling’s charm and deadpan line delivery make him an audience favourite — his “I’m Just Ken” sequence being worth the price of a ticket alone.

Ken’s emotional evolution from jolly sidekick to the vengeful and oppressive leader of the ‘Kendom’ resembles the journey of many young, impressionable men

Behind the blinding hair and outrageous tan is a sensitive doll, feeling undervalued and ignored in Barbie Land, who finds comfort and purpose in the elusive ‘patriarchy’ that he encounters in the real world. Whilst this Ken is lured in by horses and minifridges, it’s worth noting that the sinister side of him is introduced because of the validation and influence he gets from feeling powerful in male-dominated spaces. Ken’s emotional evolution from jolly sidekick to the vengeful and oppressive leader of the ‘Kendom’ resembles the journey of many young, impressionable men, who find themselves in male-dominated right-wing online spaces that act as indoctrinating echo chambers for misogynistic attitudes and rhetoric. This insidious move towards strong conservative views on relationships and masculinity, at its heart, reflects young men seeking some semblance of direction in a changing world. The same can be said of Ken who furiously says he was “failed” himself — his identity crises manifest in a contempt for the Barbie’s he used to love, as it often does in the real world.

Just so we are clear, I am not going so far as to call Ken something as provocative as an ‘incel’, because this is a family-friendly movie after all, and any sinister male threat is tempered with the light-heartedness and cheery satire of guitar-playing, group-dancing, Godfather-explaining Ken’s. However, Ken’s eventual liberation from the idea that he needs possession of a Barbie to achieve some sort of nirvana (“I only exist within the warmth of your gaze”) seems a clear commentary from writer-director Greta Gerwig on the dangers of certain patriarchal ideals and the falsehoods that are sold to young men.

Despite encountering bullies, existentialism, and sexism in the real world, Barbie’s steadfast admiration for the human world reminds us how fabulous life’s experiences can be, and how by being human and therefore “the people that make meaning”, each one of us has the potential to create big. Like some bright pink and sparkling Trojan horse, Barbie succeeds in bringing big ideas to its moviegoers and confirms that a family-friendly summer megahit can be as powerful as it is fun to watch.


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