Surprise hit film hoists lurking contradictions into plain sight
I cried through most of “Barbie” in a packed theater, as I sat in the second row next to my boyfriend at a matinee showing on opening day. And you don’t know me, but I swear I’m not a crier. In my self-conscious mind, I had a fleeting thought that the silent tears streaming down my cheeks disturbed the young viewer next to me because she left the theater multiple times. But in reality, her exits were probably unrelated to my tears.
My boyfriend (straight, white, male) was puzzled as to why I wanted to see “Barbie,” but as the credits rolled he turned to me with a nodding understanding and thanked me for bringing him.
“That movie had no business being so good,” he said as we walked out together. He had gone into it with no idea what the movie was going to be about, while I had read all the reviews.
“What did you think it was going to be about?” I teased my boyfriend.
“I don’t know, Barbies?” he retorted.
We proceeded to discuss the movie the whole rest of the day.
“Barbie” was a brilliantly bright and colorful play of the absurd, and like all good fiction, it uncovered truths that could not go unnoticed.
“Barbie” said everything I wanted and needed it to say, and it said it all while being about Barbies. It makes total sense and no sense at all. I walked out with the foolish, heady notion that the movie had been written just for me!
We’re at this junction in human history where women are gaining power but are still self-conscious about their power and men want to preserve their power, too. Sharing power is really tough. “Barbie” captures this gender-based power struggle beautifully, tragically, and allegorically.
Some of the reviews describe “Barbie” as subversive, but I don’t think that really begins to describe what the movie is about. Yes, it’s a tale that twists and turns and flips the script, but the movie’s primary motive is more immersive, drawing an unsuspecting audience into dialogue about gender and power, whether they were prepared for it or not.
I am still trying to understand why I was crying the whole goddamn time. Maybe it finally hit me, pink in the face, that I’m a grown-up girl in the real world now. “Barbie”’s loss-of-innocence narrative was a stark reminder that I am now possessed by the perception of myself as a woman and others’ perception of me as a woman, all since I began to grow tits and bleed blood monthly.
Now, I am an adult who desires to find her place in the world and gain confidence and self-worth and interact with others in order to survive and, with any luck, thrive. And my morning shower’s cold. And my toast is burnt. And I keep having these pesky, nagging little irrepressible thoughts of death.
It all bubbled up to the surface in those comfy, reclining theater seats and Greta Gerwig seemed to comfort me through the screen with her creation.
Girls play with Barbies before they learn to feel shame and uncertainty about who they are, and they are in Barbie Land with their grown-up dolls, enjoying a childhood without any real knowledge or worry of how they are perceived. Girls only dream of what they might grow up to be.
The movie does a wonderful job at portraying the Barbies as bubbly, happy-go-lucky, airheads (like when Stereotypical Barbie says, “Hi Barbie!” and “Yay, Space!”), who also happen to hold powerful and important roles in society like seats in the Supreme Court, all while maintaining their emotionally expressive, “YAS Queen” energies and images.
The dumb-blonde-esque dialogue seems contradictory to the powerful societal positions that the Barbies hold. And then it hits me. I, as a straight-white woman and audience member, felt the Barbie personality to be in conflict with the Barbies’ powerful jobs. My disbelief in this duality made me realize the true breadth of my own internalized sexism.
Why do I feel that this bubbly, bimbo-ish woman is out of place in a position of power? Do I subconsciously subdue my own femininity to match what I believe to be the appropriate way of behaving if I am to reach a position of power in society, because people tend to take me less seriously when I act bubbly and silly and happy? Am I less of a woman because I don’t always act bubbly and silly all the time? Why does the epitome of femininity come wrapped in this almost phony-feeling bimbo bomb-shell? What does it mean to be a woman, anyway?
And those are just some of the double-edged questions that “Barbie” puts in front of you for you to chew on and swallow at your own pace.
“Barbie” predictably puts Mattel in a positive light, portraying the company as the self-aware puppeteer. But what can be seen as a shameless commercial advertisement with explicit monetary goals (like selling Barbie roller blades to fans), can also have deep cultural relevance and insight, and that in itself is contradictory, an overtone that mixes palatably with the contradictions and expectations of womanhood that the movie presents. “Barbie” says something real, and yes, that bodes well for merchandise sales.
Still, the film seems to cut its digs at Mattel short—it does not explicitly self-reference the fact that Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie), the character that showcases Western society’s beauty standard bias, is a tall, blonde white woman. “Barbie” fails to address the nuanced issues set forth by the realities of intersectionality.
The film does attempt to acknowledge the unrealistic beauty standard that is set by Stereotypical Barbie, when Margot Robbie delivered the line, “I’m not pretty anymore,” to which the narrator (Helen Mirren) responds with a quip, “Note to the filmmakers: Margot Robbie is the wrong person to cast if you want to make this point.”
Stereotypical Barbie, although physically beautiful according to the standard, grapples with the worry that she is no longer pretty because of her existential crisis. Society often dictates what is pretty, and it often goes deeper than skin. She worries she will end up like Weird Barbie, because weird is not pretty.
One character, Gloria (America Ferrera), who is mom to Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) and Mattel employee, meditates on her own expressions of femininity and worries that her personality opposes how she feels a woman is supposed to be.
She finally admits, in rebellion of all that womanhood is supposed to be, “I am weird and dark and crazy,” and that moment is when she and her daughter connect the most, Gloria realizes, with the help of her daughter, that those more “unattractive” qualities contribute to womanhood just as much as the “attractive” agreeable qualities.
I think that’s why I cried. Because “Barbie” made me confront my own internalized sexism, and watch as it falls flat on its face. It was such a powerful, important day for me.
As an aside, I absolutely loved and noticed how the first awards shown in Barbie Land were for journalism and writing (again, did Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach write this movie just for me???).
Gloria said it right in her battle-cry monologue that ultimately saved Barbie Land from the Ken Takeover: It’s impossible to be a woman. You have to be smart and hot, but not so much that it is threatening to other women, and if you’re dressed too slutty then people lose track of your IQ points and interact with you like you’re dumb. But if you dress modestly you’re a prude who knows nothing about life. As a woman, how you look has everything to do with how your intelligence and capabilities are perceived.
The movie seamlessly expresses these frustrations, and in a way that furthered the plot.
And of course, the fact of the matter is that women are just as smart if we wear pink and put on heels and push-up bras as we would be wearing gray or green or any other type of shoe or bra.
But the secret is, sometimes we women need to remind ourselves of this fact, because we have been told that our expressions of femininity do not pair well with serious discussions and existential dread, and that displays of hyper-femininity reflect a superficial inner world, with nothing but air and hair bleach fumes.
Sometimes we forget that we are just as good creators and writers and businesswomen or anything else we dream up, no matter how we present our femininity to the world.
After Ken institutes patriarchy in Barbie Land, Barbie comes back and asks other Barbies what happened, and they are all just going along with it, saying things to the effect of, “We like being decorative, helpful side pieces to the Kens.” This reminded me of comedian Ali Wong’s joke where she’s like, “I don’t wanna work anymore!” and she complains that women ruined everything by revealing that they were just as good at working and contributing to society as men. She continues, with a wink and a nod, in one of her Netflix specials, “Why’d you have to tell them the secret!”
Ken’s revolt, the Barbie Land’s version of the feminist movement, gave an important message to women, like “Hey, I know you’re upset about generations of sexism and powerlessness, but you don’t have to put down men. We can all find our power and find ourselves together, as humans, without putting down the other sex.”
After watching “Barbie,” I found that I could understand how men might be feeling threatened by women gaining power, just like the Barbies were threatened by the Kens gaining power and taking over Barbie Land. And it makes perfect sense that the writers, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, are a couple with children of their own because at the end of the day, the movie is really about a man and a woman learning how to coexist and honor themselves and each other at the very same time.
And I realized that I relate to both the Barbies and the Kens because I have a little bit of all of them in me.
We all want to contribute something creative, just like Margot Robbie Barbie said, “I want to be a part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is made,” as the beautiful, sorrowful voice of Billie Eilish fills the airwaves at the end of “Barbie.”
This article was produced for HorizonMass, the independent, student-driven, news outlet of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and is syndicated by BINJ’s MassWire news service.
Cohavit Gil is a freelance writer and an intern at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. She graduated from UMass Amherst in 2020 with a degree in psychology/neuroscience. She has written feature stories ranging from recent discoveries in neurobiology to cultural moments like Anna Delvey’s solo art exhibit.