Barbie: Token Feminism or Iconic Masterpiece?

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Written by Syaura Nashwa (24S03R)

Overall rating: 6.78/10

Pink spoilers ahead.

Adapted from Barbie (2023)

Everyone — chronically online Twitter users and their mothers — buzzed with excitement when the live-action film adaptation of Barbie was announced back in 2019. A star-studded cast composed of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, who play the film’s titular characters, as well as supporting actors like Netflix fan-favourites of Emma Mackey, Ncuti Gatwa and Connor Swindeels (if you know, you know), made the film appear poised for massive box-office success. Dua Lipa and John Cena were also featured as celebrity cameos, although I couldn’t spot the latter.

If you’ve been on the wrong parts of the Internet (stan Twitter), chances are you know that the online community has  been longing for a film strictly made by women, for women. Especially after the abomination of Sam Levinson’s The Idol (2023), a film that poignantly articulates the lived experiences, struggles and ambitions of women would go a long way in transforming the narratives written about women onscreen.

Although Hollywood has introduced more inclusive narratives over the years, it often teeters on a veneer of progressiveness. Cough, cough, ‘Fate: The Winx Saga’ and ‘Ginny and Georgia’.

Barbie with its anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal dialogues presented in a satirised and overt manner, provides something that many coming-of-age films have been unable to. It reassures young girls that they deserve, and that they are worth, more than what the world has made them to be. 

The most important women – mothers

“We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they have come.”

Ruth Handler
From right to left, Gloria, Sasha and Barbie. Adapted from Barbie (2023)

The character of Gloria (America Ferrera) played a big role in Barbie’s emotional journey in this film. Her maturity amidst her struggles as a woman and a mother deepened Barbie’s understanding of the insidious forces that have always only sought to undermine women.

Gerwig’s portrayal of the strained mother-daughter relationship calls out a harsh, yet oft-ignored reality. Teenagers seem to despise their mothers looking out for them, rather than their emotionally distant fathers sitting in a corner reading the paper. In particular, Gloria (America Ferrera) and her teenage daughter, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) are shown to have a rocky relationship. Teenage angst is perfectly normal, but this had dented Gloria’s self esteem — “I’m just a boring mom, with a boring job and a daughter who hates me”.

We scoff at Sasha’s unwarranted bitterness towards her mother, but we downplay all the times we’ve dismissed our mothers. Perhaps they’re small, bite-sized moments, but I doubt we have ever considered how such slights affect them. Barbie redirects us to introspection: an area we are uncomfortable to navigate. 

Barbie features a scene that is now one of my favourite portrayals of mature women in the media. ‘Stereotypical Barbie’, as Margot Robbie’s character is referred to in the film, shares a raw moment with an older woman, Ann Roth, while sitting on a park bench. Barbie calls Ann beautiful, a scene so simple yet utterly symbolic. 

Barbie gains consciousness here and realises the complexity of human life. This was one of her first moments where she dealt with human emotions. The imagery of a life-sized, seemingly perfect doll, appreciating the beauty of a ‘real’ and elderly woman shows how Barbie wanted to become like the old lady too – human.

Ann Roth and Barbie, adapted from Barbie (2023)

Barbie’s not-so-pink take on depression

Stereotypical Barbie’s gradual ‘deformation’ – flat feet, cellulite and negative thoughts – was a manifestation of Gloria’s inner psyche. Unlike Barbie, Gloria is physically incapable of being perfect. Barbie is the embodiment of perfection in Gloria’s eyes. This sentiment is shared by many girls, where Stereotypical Barbie’s slim body, blue eyes and blonde hair are the beauty standard.  

The journey of self-affirmation starts as Gloria becomes the assistant to Mattel’s CEO. Gloria, who appears to be in a mid-life crisis, draws ‘Depression Barbie’, for she needed a doll that at least she can relate to.

Adapted from Barbie (2023)

Barbie’s new flaws had also taken a toll on her self-perception. Not her usual self anymore, she spirals into sadness. She becomes deprecatory of herself, for she feels underachieved. Unlike the other Barbies, Stereotypical Barbie has never written a book, received a Nobel Prize, or become a doctor. She exists from the insecurities of young girls, despite presuming that she empowered them instead.

Greta Gerwig’s storytelling on women’s self-esteem left audiences crying.

Surprise, surprise, women do not have to be perfect, or solve world hunger, just to exist.

By now, you’ve probably seen Gloria’s iconic monologue. To be is to offend, and to not is to be weak. Women can never really win either way – whether you’re assertive, subservient, too masculine or too feminine. It shows what it means to be a woman, in all its raw ugliness and beauty, and in all its frustrations and unresolved desires.

Kendom: a ridiculous yet somewhat realistic portrayal of toxic masculinity

The rise of the ‘Kens’. Adapted from Barbie (2023)

An interesting aspect of Barbie’s worldbuilding is the reverse patriarchy. The juxtaposition between these power dynamics in ‘The Real World’ and Barbie’s universe allow us to reflect on the patriarchy that still rules our society today and how it has evolved into more subtler forms.

The ‘Kens’, the male doll counterpart of Barbies, yearned for male domination after realising how futile their existence is in Barbie Land. In each position of power – politics, healthcare and education – a Barbie was in charge. After Ken (Ryan Gosling) observed how men in our world controlled most parts of society, he felt empowered to  become a reformist in Barbie Land. Why should he let Barbie be in the driver’s seat?

Ken envisioned a ‘Kendom’ where they obsess over the sport of horse-racing and play guitar for hours in hopes of appearing swoon-worthy before the Barbies. Perhaps this might be a  call for change for impressionable Andrew Tate ‘stans’ who have a warped view of gender roles. Besides that, this tells young men that you don’t have to be what society says you are.

Adapted from Barbie (2023)

The main antagonist, the CEO of Mattel (played by Will Ferell), was the face of male-dominated, yet ironically, women-focused industries. Fields like girls’ toys, beauty and cosmetics- products for women; yet made under the design of men. Dating centuries back, men have always shaped the expectations for women: what they should do and what they should look like.

Kens, unsure of their identities without their Barbies, wanted so much more than to exist as mere accompaniment despite all being sold separately. The narrative of women as the main characters, with agency over their own conduct, whereas men are supporting figures of their growth, is quite refreshing. 

A ‘happy’ after ending?

Often, the male and female lead end up together. At the end of the film, Barbie declares that she doesn’t reciprocate Ken’s romantic feelings. Instead, she “[wants] to do the imagining, not be the idea”. Barbie wants to seek her own independence, and to create her own story instead.

This resolution was unexpected in the sense that the female protagonist does not settle down for unearned romance. She ventures into self-discovery, trying to find answers to the constant myriad of questions. The scene where she transitions into a human accompanied with Ruth Handler’s character and  Billie Eilish’s number ‘What Was I Made For?’ was visually ethereal.

Barbie may still be a symbol of the unrealistic expectations and objectification of women in our society. However, slowly and gradually, we see more of ourselves in her.

Is Kenough enough?

In spite of its beautiful, and genuine portrayal of everything it means to be a woman, the movie’s wokeness can seem very inauthentic at times.

The portrayal of men in Barbie feels somewhat unearned and contrarian. With parodical scenes where the CEO and his henchmen run around chasing Barbie, or the Kens portrayed as insecure and attention-seeking, Barbie still has yet to explore the nuances of toxic masculinity. Kendom, at its core, shows only a taste of patriarchal norms – which can best be described in a lyric from Ken’s song, a mere representation of “blonde fragility”.

Barbie’s plot seems like a mere overture to misogyny.  Ken, although not the main protagonist, is part of the main assembly. Some women I know were sad for Ken, and they couldn’t pinpoint why. Maybe, they saw themselves in him – disregarded. The catch is, I’m not sure if Greta Gerwig wants us to sympathise with him. The weird stir of Ken vs Barbies class issues, and also Ken vs Barbies gender issues is overwhelmingly confusing.

Ken getting stoked when a lady asked him for the time, personally, was one of the saddest moments for me.

I can’t help but think that he was not done justice. His exploration of his self worth detached from Barbie felt overlooked. Gender wars aside, Ken essentially felt negligible in Barbie’s life. 

Adapted from Barbie (2023)

As said earlier in this article, I believe that Barbie’s political and social agenda was transparent for the benefit of younger viewers. However, it also contained euphemisms and coarse language that only appeal to a more mature audience. Barbie felt like it was trying to appease every group in society. As such, without establishing a clear target audience, its message gets lost in the pinks and purples.

I must admit, when characters blatantly criticise societal issues in the most cliché ways possible, I cringe ever so slightly. The lack of subtle exposition leaves you confused about whether Barbie is an anti-mainstream composition of social analyses or it is what it’s trying to vilify. 

Empowerment… or perfunctory Hollywood activism?

The constant diversions between the matriarchy and patriarchy makes me unsure on what the director’s ‘ideal’ state is. Both the patriarchy in the real world and Ken’s dream manosphere were clearly shown as adverse, yet I guess the solution was to create a woman-dominated administration instead…? 

Don’t get me wrong, women deserve media made for women, created by women. However, I think it can be harmful if a topic as heavy as feminist rights is discussed in a blend of satire and realism. 

Adapted from Barbie (2023)

Barbie felt like it was trying to commit to too many messages simultaneously. There is only so much you can delve deep into within two hours. There certainly were a lot of good points, but it kept moving onto the next one swiftly.

You’d just be left with a lot of stuff to interpret on your own, which isn’t necessarily bad. But if a movie’s ideology can be debated on whether it’s questionable, there might be some underlying issues with what it’s trying to say.

In fact, each viewer I’ve talked to had such different interpretations of Barbie. The key takeaway varies person to person. This might be a case of the messages being all over the place, it having a lot of nuances or layers (or the lack thereof), or it’s just a movie to project your personal ideals on.

It’s trying to be funny and serious at the same time. When the tones keep switching between scenes, you don’t really know if it’s making fun of something or it’s something to be made fun of. It makes the movie paradoxical and virtually impossible to critique.

Also, Mattel’s meta self-deprecation appears as some form of capitalist corporate washing. They are still quite corporate and still quite capitalist the last time I checked.

I’d tell you to take the movie with a pinch of salt, but with its political undertones, I think they want you to take them seriously. Just go for a laugh and don’t think so deeply into the way their society works. The surface-level messages were adequately succinct.

However, if you try to read deeper into it, you’ll end up with more questions than answers. Nonetheless, its discussion on maternity, depression among mature women, and female identity was insightful.

This film was entertaining, and I did get a laugh. I’m just not sure who this is for.

TLDR: Don’t take the movie too seriously.

Enough of watching promotional material on Youtube Shorts, you should get some tickets before the daunting promotional examinations coming soon.

477852cookie-checkBarbie: Token Feminism or Iconic Masterpiece?


Leave a Reply