I have to be honest; when I first heard they were making a big-budget Barbie movie that Warner Brothers hoped would be a tentpole in its cinematic year, I wasn’t impressed. I was worried the movie would be just a shameless money grab, designed to appease the giggling surface vanity male studio executives seemed to assume women hold inside them. That much like the critique of the doll itself, a Barbie film in 2023 would set feminism back decades and reinforce to a new generation all of those tired narratives about women’s value being in their bodies, their ornamental status to men and other archaic stereotypes.
Since her arrival on the toy scene in 1959, Barbie has as a concept given little girls in particular, the characters and framework to imagine themselves as more than mothers and wives. Prior to Barbie, the only dolls available were babies. Barbie was a career woman, an independent ideal, a way to introduce scope and potential to millions of spongy impressionable minds all at once. But those spongy impressionable minds were a double-edged sword because some of them looked at Barbie and saw a woman they could never be. Blonde. Thin. Able-bodied. White. It took 21 years before Barbie was a woman of colour and even more decades before she was anything but a stick with no curves, for her to sit in a wheelchair or otherwise appear visibly disabled.
Now I know what some of you might be thinking: Come on Hannah, it’s not that deep. Barbie is just a doll. As if something as simple and inconsequential as all that could have a legitimate effect on anyone’s self-esteem. My answer to that is simple. Everyone has different ways of looking at the world, different ways of experiencing the exact same event, different decisions our brains make in split seconds to internalise something or not. That means either way of interacting with Barbie as a concept, ideal, idea and plaything are valid. Maybe she was just a toy you never thought of again once you outgrew her or maybe she was the beginning of some deeply formative feminine scar tissue. Either way, both viewpoints make sense to me and as someone who cares deeply about representation, I understand why the subtle stuff some people don’t notice can mean everything, good or bad, to someone else.
These were all the thoughts and doubts swirling around in my head when Barbie was announced. Would this movie mean something? Anything? Would it take the opportunity to speak loudly? I was doubtful, but then three things happened.
It became attached to Margot Robbie’s production company LuckyChap Entertainment responsible for award show darlings like I, Tonya and Promising Young Woman, both films that dealt with and presented the world through the eyes of conventionally ‘unlikeable’ women. Women who wouldn’t go quietly.
Greta Gerwig was announced as the director. She, the auteur of girlhood, with an uncanny ability to capture and give voice to so many things never said out loud, usually with Saoirse Ronan as the vessel (see: Ladybird and Little Women). Dear God.
Ryan Gosling said in an interview it was the best script he’d ever read. Ever. That man’s read a lot of scripts. This was a big call.
Armed with all those facts, knowledge of a killer soundtrack and the impacts of perhaps the most impressive and expansive movie marketing campaign I’d ever seen, I arrived at the cinema with my mum and younger sister in tow. My younger sister had already seen the film but was so impressed by it she was coming for a second viewing. In a world where our attention is one of our most valuable assets, constantly targeted and pulled in a million different directions, this was a pretty strong statement. Barbie had something going on.
I never expected the movie I saw. A movie that was camp, unabashedly pink and so slyly self aware. It was packed with all sorts of Easter eggs and homages to the world initially created by Ruth Handler, later overseen by an entire room of men in suits, with Will Ferell at the helm. Hard to miss the cultural commentary on that one. How many times have we seen women create something only to have the credit go to men? Even down to the countless times Netflix and other studios have given the first movie of a series to a female director and then once it's proved successful, switched over to a male director… By the way, it blew my mind to discover earlier this week that Ruth’s actual son’s name was also Ken. That’s a pretty savage but badass motherhood move Ruth and honestly, I respect it.
I also wasn’t expecting a movie that made me laugh so hard - the last line of the movie TOOK ME OUT. And I certainly wasn’t expecting to see such a nuanced head-on confrontation of the power struggles and rebalancing of gender that we’re all trying to navigate in the real world right now as what we got. Nor the astute observation that whatever Barbie may have been created for or thinking she gave the world, intention and impact are two very different things.
So many critics and disillusioned men have watched this movie and felt like it hates them. Like it is anti-men. Like it is telling them to shut up and sit down, a tactic misogyny and the patriarchy have been using on women for decades. On the one hand, I’m glad it makes people feel uncomfortable to see the shoe on the other foot, so to speak, to be knocked sideways by a film that unapologetically centres the absolute mindfuck that is womanhood and does so with a female gaze that reverses so many tropes women are subjected to in stories made for and by men. You don’t like the way Ken is objectified or ornamental in many ways to Barbie’s growth as a character. Now imagine that feeling amplified in almost every movie you ever see. Welcome to the female experience. But on the other hand, I’m left to wonder if we even watched the same movie?
Yes, this movie is about Barbie but in so many ways, this movie is also about Ken. Because this movie is a love letter to femininity and masculinity in equal measure. That’s the point. Sure, it’s not some highbrow intellectual thinkpiece that is necessarily bringing anything new to a conversation people have been trying to have together since the beginning of time. But it doesn’t need to be. What we need and have been missing for ages is a nuanced yet relatively simple gateway to these concepts. A place to start. You can’t look ahead to the finish line if not everybody even understands why there needs to be a race in the first place. And this movie is fabulous at doing that.
You’re meant to feel bad for Ken in the beginning because matriarchy that erases the agency and emotional needs of men isn’t the answer. But neither is the patriarchy that Barbieland attempts as it transforms to Kendom, one that prioritises masculinity and diminishes women, the system we’re all living in now. When people advocate for gender equality, it’s not about making men feel small. It’s about making everyone feel like they’re Kenough (still the greatest pun ever, I want that jumper immediately). It’s about everyone having agency and choices and narratives that are entirely their own to shape. It’s about throwing out all the things we think we’re supposed to be/do/have/want as women and men and just letting ourselves be instead. That’s partly why the scene with the old lady on the bench, the one studio executives wanted to get rid of and Greta Gerwig fought to keep, is actually the beating heart of the story.
With rumours abounding that Barbie’s insane success and financial gain has prompted Mattel to consider the creation of a cinematic universe, I feel compelled to say if that’s what you take away from this, you’re not listening or paying attention. The power of this movie isn’t that a product was successfully given a story people could relate to, Mattel. It’s in the conversations started by America Ferrera’s hero monologue as a woman of colour on the impossibility of being a woman and living up to all those contradictions, something a lot of people won’t have heard out loud before but have always felt. It’s about all the pink flooding the cinemas as people celebrate and make seeing this film a joyous experience. It’s about the boys and men who are crying and coming home understanding a little more about their power and how to use it for good. It’s about the fact that when I left the cinema, I was trying to continue the story in my head and wondering whether both Barbie AND Ken were going to get what they wanted.
So no, it’s not following a formula and getting box office success. We’ve seen enough of that and I think that’s why there’s so much hunger for this as something different, even as it exists built on one of the most profitable children’s brands of all time. It’s not about how many toys we make movies about. Thinking like that is why Hollywood’s on strike right now. It’s about remembering how important it is not to have all the voices that get to tell stories sounding the same. It’s about remembering why we tell stories in the first place. To feel. To make sense of the world. To create. It’s about letting that instinct and imagination and sense of play thrive again. Because if you back people to be their most creative selves, movies like this happen.
Oh and one other thing - it’s about letting Greta Gerwig make whatever she wants. Just green light it.