For many children, a doll is an extension of oneself—though products of plastic, dolls transform within kids’ imaginations. Restricted by their lack of experience in the world and dependency on adults, children might create a place where they are the ones in control—a place where they have agency over what is said and done.
During playtime, lifeless objects often become a tool through which children can say and do things they can’t normally say and do in the real world. But what happens when this make-believe world contradicts the real one? How does anyone cope?
This is a question that Greta Gerwig’s Barbie poses—not only to kids, but to the adults they grew up to be.
The casting of Barbie set high standards for the movie, and they became even higher when the first trailer came out foreshadowing a funny yet thought-provoking movie. Ryan Gosling’s performance as Ken was simply perfect, Margot Robbie proved to be the right actress to play the stunning stereotypical Barbie, and the production was a delight.
But, the movie was dragged down by its ambition to be something deeper than pretty and pink. And the thing is, it didn’t have to be—at least not in such an overwhelmingly explicit manner.
The Barbie doll was created in 1959, a time when women could only dream of having complete autonomy, nevermind ruling the world. She served as an antidote to reality and therefore was made to be perfect.
Ahead of Barbie’s release, Gerwig had already proved herself to be a genius at exposing the complicated, varying, and intense female experience in her prior work. But in comparison to her female characters in Lady Bird, 20th Century Women, Frances Ha, and Mistress America, Barbie challenged Gerwig to make a seemingly flawless character relatable.
Barbie is a blonde, slim, white woman with a perfect smile and physique. Aside from the excessive self-pitying moments and the repetition of the word “patriarchy,” Gerwig and Robbie succeed at making stereotypical Barbie a character that understands the audience and that the audience understands in return.
Like a little girl before the inevitable and often abrupt transition into womanhood, Barbie’s shield of naivety, created by the bubble of Barbieland, is shattered in a second once she enters the Real World, leading her to cry real tears—a touching moment that proves her humanity, unconformity with the other dolls, and disappointment with Barbie’s impact in the real world.
Barbie faces harassment, develops cellulite, begins to have irrepressible thoughts of death, and experiences feelings of sadness and embarrassment. She also encounters men who sexualize and gaslight her, mansplain, and even play the guitar to her for four hours straight.
The rest of the movie deals with Barbie’s attempt to cope with an imperfect reality—a mission that makes this a heartwarming movie for all.
There are many things to applaud Barbie for, and the spotlight on the previously overseen Ken is definitely one of them. Ken was made as an accompaniment to Barbie and thus, Gosling plays a character that has been overshadowed and even neglected by women. But when he goes out to the real world with Barbie and discovers the reality of the privileged male condition, he is determined to make up for the way he has been treated by resorting to indulging in beers, horses, golf, and the desire to have Barbie as his “long term long distance low commitment casual girlfriend.”
“I”m just Ken / Anywhere else I’d be a ten,” a sad Ken sings in an absurdly witty solo.
Gerwig’s use of comedy stands out in the movie. The movie opens with the narrator’s sarcastic explanation of how the creation of Barbie has solved all of the issues for feminism. She pokes fun at the stereotypical characteristics associated with Barbie and satirizes Ken’s toxic masculinity. She even criticizes Mattel and its CEOs in a funny and seemingly daring manner, mainly by pointing out the lack of women in powerful positions in a company that supposedly aims to empower women.
The problem is that these joyful moments are interrupted by the movie’s need to insist on its own brilliance that this is a movie worth watching. The film seems to do try to convince the audience of this with feminist dialogues that are forcibly inserted into the screenplay. It is as if the film is trying to excuse its existence by converting itself into an apology to women.
It is clear from the start that Barbie is a movie about female empowerment. But in its goal to commit to this theme, it loses sight of further developing other themes, such as a child’s loss of innocence and the lack of purpose in a world that puts people into boxes.
It is only by the end of the film that Barbie questions her existence as a doll, an idea that could’ve been fruitful to explore earlier.
“I don’t want to just be an idea, I want to do the imagining,” Barbie says to her creator.
Still, Barbie stands as a must-watch family movie for the sake of laughs, nostalgia, aesthetics, and Ryan Gosling.