Spoilers ahead! The buzz around the Barbie movie had us all on the edge of our seats. Thanks to its marketing team painting the world pink — literally. With promises of a feminist undertone and societal commentary, we were expecting it to be the feminist anthem we’ve all been waiting for. However, as the credits rolled, it became evident that the film struggled to live up to its own hype. Despite its dream-house like exterior, the movie left us pondering why it fell short. Keep reading, because we’re about to peel back – one pink layer at a time.
Barbie Land: Where Dreams Wear Pink and Women Rule Supreme
First things first, let’s talk about Barbie Land —Margot Robbie’s portrayal of “Stereotypical” Barbie lives in a vibrant, candy-colored realm alongside her fellow Barbies. They’re all stunning, clever, accomplished, kind, and eternally joyful, leaving no space for saddness, depression, or self-doubt. Their president is a Black woman (Issa Rae), their esteemed doctor is a trans woman (Hari Nef), and their community embraces Barbies of various sizes and abilities – overall an inclusive community. The Barbies are the main characters of this world while the Kens just play supporting roles. This female-led realm mirrors the stories kids invent while playing with their dolls.
Within the film’s universe, these Barbies are conscious of an external human world, often referred to as the “real world,” which exists alongside their own. They hold the belief that it mirrors the same harmony found in Barbieland. From their perspective, they’ve played a pivotal part in empowering women. The plot thickens when Stereotypical Barbie begins to experience emotions and dark thoughts strikingly similar to human experiences — her heart-shaped breakfast waffle is burnt, her morning shower cold, her feet fall flat and the ground-breaking appearance of cellulite on her thighs. This goes against the principle of the feminist paradise that marks the beginning of the facade starting to crumble. As explained by the Weird Barbie, a wormhole has opened between the two worlds; the solution lies in venturing into the actual world to assist her human owner in dealing with her feelings of unhappiness. In attempts to restore the system our fairy tale protagonist embarks on a journey into reality, joined by her Ken (Ryan Gosling), who quickly stumbles upon the male-dominated society, where men (and even horses) hold the reins of power!
On one hand, this Gretta Gerwig film tells a simple story about a white, blonde Barbie doll facing real-life worries and insecurities just like a regular woman. While on the other, there is a classic battle of the sexes, externalizing the issues between Barbie and Ken into a larger gender conflict, punctuated by references to patriarchy and the objectification of women. However, bouncing between the two stories is where the attempt to communicate a feminist idea becomes unclear.
When ‘Kenland’ Meets Patriarchy:
Interestingly enough, Ken’s journey is surprisingly coherent. Upon his arrival into the real world, he uncovers a truth that contrasts with the beliefs held within Barbie Land – “men rule the world.” He discovers men hold many positions of power and control much of the wealth. They can have careers, hobbies, and more rights than women. He realises life holds more significance than just appearances. With his limited understanding of traditional masculinity and patriarchal norms, Beach Ken devises a plan to free his fellow Kens in Barbie Land.
On a more profound level, after years of desiring Barbie’s notice at the beach, Ken is radicalized to embrace patriarchy driven by the hope that these changes might eventually win Barbie’s affection. He returns to Barbie Land with his fresh perspectives, turning it into a haven for incels, where Barbies serve drinks and stand prepared for “Ken-splaining”. This pivotal moment in the movie resonates with viewers, evoking empathy for the Kens. Ultimately, their journey draws a parallel to the struggles of women in the real world, both striving for equality. While the real world succumbs to patriarchy, Barbie Land thrives under matriarchy, leaving no room for the opposite gender’s experiences.
As the story concludes, harmony is restored when Barbie extends her apologies for her oversight and recognizes the importance of granting Kens their own rights within Barbie Land. This conveys a humanistic message that strongly resonates with modern feminism. Any exertion of authority built upon the vulnerability of others is detrimental, whether it arises from ignorance (similar to Barbie’s oversight of Kens’ emotions) or from ill intentions (as seen in Ken’s actions to elevate himself by suppressing Barbies). Greta Gerwig’s underlying message is clear: genuine empowerment stems from unity, where aiding others in gaining strength leads to true empowerment.
Is Barbie A Flawed Girl Boss or Just Another Pretty Doll?
Unlike Ken’s experience, Barbie had a rude awakening when she stepped into the real world. She found herself being objectified: stared at, leered at, and subjected to catcalls — a common experience for many women in similar situations. In the company of others, especially men, Barbie’s skills and confidence seemed to lose significance. Even with her supportive friends boosting her morale when they were together, the dynamic shifted when she was alone. Navigating spaces primarily shaped by and for men, she encountered notable boundaries and constraints. However, as she continued to explore this world, she discovered the allure within imperfections: the wisdom that accompanies aging and the acknowledgment of life’s fleeting nature. Despite the real world’s impact on her self-esteem and sense of security, Barbie made a courageous choice to remain, opting for a complex, cellulite-marked human existence over her perfect plastic one.
While it’s heartwarming to see Barbie considering a more emotionally fulfilling reality beyond her pink dream houses. the treatment of her “real-world insecurities” lacks conviction. America Ferrera’s character, Gloria, hailing from the real world and having played with Barbie, is brought back to Barbie Land. She delivers a compelling monologue, in a moment when most Barbies are acting as the Kens want due to brainwashing, Gloria steps in and breaks their anti-feminist trance. She talks about how society expects women to juggle conflicting roles. They’re told to have careers and spend time with children, but not talk about them too much. They’re supposed to be slim, but not too slim, and pretty, but not too provocative. Gloria continues to highlight more contradictions, making it clear to the audience that this is a movie that stands up for women’s equality.
But to us Gloria’s monologue falls flat. By simply restating problems we’re already conscious of doesn’t offer valuable insights on how to address them in our own lives. We understand that being a woman comes with challenges. We’re well aware of these conflicting expectations. This might be fresh information for the Barbies, who might have believed that all feminist issues were resolved by the 21st century, but we’re not living in their world of Barbie Land. There’s no revelation in her words. She, along with the Barbies, embody a generalized idea of women, and this lack of individuality is demeaning. Her monologue lacks introspection or a focus on her character because she’s not truly significant, so the potential force of her speech depends on her sharing something new, which unfortunately she doesn’t.
However, these moments appear to be more of a token gesture. Overall, the film predominantly portrays the dolls as instruments of empowerment. When Barbie, played by Robbie, experiences moments of insecurity, she doesn’t seem to contemplate her own contribution to upholding the very unrealistic standards that trouble her. Barbie, however, doesn’t show a genuine interest in delving into or challenging beauty standards. But then again, why would it? After all, the film is financially supported by Mattel, and beauty is their core identity. All their Barbie characters are consistently portrayed as conventionally attractive. In essence, Gerwig’s film doesn’t aspire to transcend this dilemma; instead, it lingers in a state of conflicting ideas. It acknowledges the unattainable beauty ideals that lead to women’s self-doubt, yet it still seeks to capitalize on them for profit.
Banned in Punjab for Rocking the Feminist Boat:
The execution of the movie clearly carries feminist undertones, which might explain its ban in Punjab. The objectionable content, in this case, doesn’t involve nudity, obscenity, or profanity. Instead, the perceived threat likely stems from its portrayal of women’s struggles to navigate a world like ours. The ban was a response to the movie’s depiction of women’s reality, encouraging them to assert their voices in a patriarchal society. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy echoes this sentiment, “the most offensive thing is that a group of men have decided that a film that pushes for us to understand the role of women in a patriarchal society is objectionable”.
The Barbie movie doesn’t fully meet the feminist hopes it had raised. The movie tries to explore notions of beauty standards and the society’s rules and despite its mixed messages, it has sparked a much-needed conversation about how men and women are in fact treated very differently in the world.