— ReedReads (@ReedReads4) July 21, 2023
*Editor’s Note: spoilers ahead! (But they’re totally worth it.)
If you thought that this weekend’s record-breaking Hollywood blockbuster “Barbie” was just for pre-tween girls that wear flower-print dresses and whose favorite color is bubblegum pink, you haven’t met Margot Robbie’s Barbie, who suffers from irrepressible thoughts of death.
And you definitely haven’t been introduced to Issa Rae’s far-from-insecure Barbie. The new movie—aptly named for its main character, a life-size version of the iconic blonde doll—proves that Barbie isn’t just for little girls. Barbie is for people of all ages.
She’s for women; she’s for men. She is for those of us who feel inadequate, uninteresting, or just plain not enough. Barbie is for anybody who struggles to get in touch with their authentic self. She’s for people who have ever based their self-worth on what other people think of them. Director Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” is letting us know that, as of today, Barbie is for everyone.
Will your kids enjoy the movie? Sure, they’ll think it’s cute. They’ll laugh at times. I know I did; it is a comedy after all. And a movie about Barbie can’t take itself too seriously.
I was expecting the film to be light-hearted and funny. What I wasn’t expecting was to find myself cracking up at small moments, like the subtle jokes that went way over the heads of every kid in the theater, including the teenagers. Like the scene where the Kens serenade the Barbies with Matchbox Twenty’s 90s emo hit “Push,” or Kate McKinnon’s on-point portrayal of Weird Barbie, with her jagged kitchen scissors haircut and permanent marker face tattoos.
The “I’m Kenough” hoodie donned by Ken is an adorably convenient (and possibly marketable) play on the universal slogan for self-acceptance. Perhaps my favorite character is Allan, the Kens’ singular friend and the most self-aware and self-actualized native of the Barbieverse. Unlike the multiplicity of Kens and Barbies, “There are no multiples of Allan. He’s just Allan.” Played by the fabulously funny Michael Cera, Allan is pure comedic genius.
Barbie rocking an 80s neon sparkle leotard as she bladed down the curved walkways of Venice Beach would’ve been funny enough on its own. The fact that she’s wearing neon yellow stiff plastic roller blades with matching elbow and knee pads—the real-life roller dancers that have become a staple of the famous California beach in recent years visible behind her—gives us the sense that Barbie is subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, making fun of itself.
There are also hilarious cameo appearances by recalled Barbies, including Growing Up Skipper, whose bust grows several cup sizes, Sugar Daddy Ken, and pregnant Midge, who was discontinued because nobody wants a pregnant doll. (Okay that last one might just be me.) Not more than a month ago, I coincidentally stumbled upon a couple of old Barbies hiding in the back of a shelf in my parents’ garage for the last 30 years. They were still in their original packaging, the faded boxes collapsing under the weight of age and dust. One of them was an impressive six doll set: Wedding Party Midge Gift Set, featuring Alan (of Michael Cera fame—different spelling, same doll) and Midge as the happy couple on their special day. That must’ve been before she got knocked up and got herself cancelled.
What caught me off guard even more than the throwbacks to my youth was the fact that “Barbie” isn’t just a cutesy kids movie. It is a surprisingly deep film—a thoughtful and well-written post-“Me Too,” post-“I’m enough,” fourth-wave feminist manifesto about finding one’s self in a world that has deemed you a second-class citizen. It’s not easy to make a comedy infused with a strong socially relevant commentary, but Gerwig manages to pull it off. Maybe it’s because of Barbie’s already ambiguous influence on young girls that the film makes sense. Or maybe it’s the casting of so many brilliant actors. Either way, it works.
Although the movie is named after Barbie, the character arc of Ryan Gosling’s Ken is no less central to the plot. In Barbieland, women (i.e., Barbie) can do it all. And she does. It’s a pastel pink paradise where Skippers grow up to be smart and beautiful and confident Barbies, with a healthy self-image, a supportive group of friends, guaranteed employment in their own personal dream job, and ownership of their very own Dream Home.
Here, Barbie is the proverbial man. Every day is just peachy for Barbie. She is living her best life every single day, and today is as equally perfect as yesterday and tomorrow. But in the parallel universe that is Barbieland, where every night is Girls’ Night, Ken, who “only has a good day when Barbie pays attention to him,” struggles with insecurity and self-doubt.
Ken serves as a mirror for many women in the real world, whose perceived self-worth is directly correlated to how much male attention they are currently receiving. Teenage girls serial-post selfies to Instagram, fishing for likes to boost their self-esteem. And every group of friends has that one girl who seems to always have a boyfriend. When one relationship ends, she’s never single for more than a few days before she’s boo’d up with the next guy. (If you can’t think of who this is in your circle, sorry to break it to you: it’s probably you.)
Contrary to what she’ll have you believe, she doesn’t have a queue of men lined up waiting to date her. And even if she did, a secure woman who knows her worth is comfortable being single. She knows it’s healthy to take the time she needs to heal before getting involved with someone new, and she’s willing to wait until she finds a partner who treats her with the respect she knows she deserves, no matter how long it takes. Our serial-dater friend is not as self-assured as she appears. Her value as a woman is contingent on being someone’s girlfriend. She needs a partner to like her before she gives herself permission to like herself, and thus her self-worth is always at the mercy of someone else. It’s not sustainable.
And in Barbieland, this is Ken’s struggle to bear.
This is the only power dynamic that the Kens and Barbies know. It’s not clear where they get their information from—apparently in the Barbieverse everyone is too busy playing beach volleyball and dancing the night away to need phones or computers or the internet, not to mention social media—but the residents of Barbieland think that Barbie dolls are the heroes of modern feminism. They are under the mistaken impression that Barbie’s impressive career history has paved the way for gender equality in the Real World.
When fate compels Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie” (with Gosling’s Beach Ken in tow) to travel to the Real World, the illusion is quickly shattered. It becomes readily apparent that while a plastics and pastels culture reigns supreme in both Los Angeles and Barbieland, that’s the extent of the similarities between the two locales.
At first, Barbie is perplexed to find a crew of construction workers are not only not female, but instead are your quintessential cat-calling, blue-collar meatheads. Imagine an overly sheltered trust fund kid, whose only responsibilities in life thus far have been getting primped and pampered while being home-schooled and going shopping (essentially a blonde Kardashian, minus the bubble butt) out in the world for the very first time. She’s a walking, talking target. The bewilderment that nobody is falling over backwards to assist her is the inevitable consequence of her naivety.
We soon find that Barbie is no different than real-life women, capable of experiencing the entire range of emotions that parade through most of us on any given day. Although she doesn’t fully understand that cringey awkward feeling you get when you realize you’re being objectified and judged by the way you look, it doesn’t stop the feelings from washing over her. Confusion unravels into a torrent of unfamiliar and uncomfortable emotions.
There’s a clear juxtaposition being made between the role women play in the Barbieverse and how we’re allowed to operate in real life. As a citizen of the Real World, it’s a critical reminder of the extent to which our gender norms remain skewed and how far we still are from anything approaching gender equality. We’ve become complacent with the progress that’s been made in bettering women’s professional opportunities and financial standing. We’ve traded the activism of the 1960s and 70s for 21st century cynicism. We’ve been told to be happy with the wins we did secure, and that to want more would be selfish.
“Barbie” forces us to ask ourselves if our actions can make a difference. And we are faced with the hard question: Do I matter?
At the same time as Barbie’s illusions of female progress are being painfully shattered, Ken is walking for the first time in a world that hands him endless perks for no other reason than his status as a man. Relegated to just another one of Barbie’s accessories his whole life, it had never occurred to Ken that a reversal in the power structure was possible. Living in Barbie’s shadow has been mentally exhausting—it’s an emotional rollercoaster and he wants off the ride.
There is so much more to Ken than just being Barbie’s boyfriend. Everything in the real world exists to empower Ken, to lift him up and help him to self-actualize. Now that he’s had a taste of the benefits of patriarchy—those rights reserved exclusively for men—he’s determined to find a way to be a part of it. Returning home to the Barbie-archy isn’t an option.
Sensing his own worth for the first time, Ken takes action to ensure he will have the upper hand. However, it’s clear his ego is still fragile. His actions are coming from a place of self-preservation, not a place of genuine self-assurance. True self-confidence doesn’t need to suppress others to feel good. When we are secure, we lift others up with us.
The film takes us through the parallel journeys of Barbie and Ken as they come to terms with the knowledge that the only world they’ve ever known isn’t the way it has to be. There are other options. The possibility for social change exists, both good and bad.
Barbieland and the Real World are presented as two extremes on the spectrum of gender-based power. The ideal place is somewhere in the middle, where neither gender has enough control to hold the other down. Getting there is going to take work by those on the margins to make their needs heard, and concessions from those in power, who must recognize the inherent value that the other gender brings to the table.
“Barbie” isn’t just a retrospective on the state of gender equality on a grand scale. It’s also a story about learning to love ourselves as individuals. As we approach the end of the film, we find our Stereotypical Barbie in a state of malaise. Once proud to be “the Barbie you think of when you think of Barbie,” she now questions her worth amongst all the other career-focused, professionally successful Barbies. It turns out we don’t need social media to compare ourselves to others; we’ve been doing that since the dawn of time. However, we’ll never find our worth by looking outward at others’ accomplishments. We come to know self-love only by turning our focus inward and engaging in compassionate self-reflection.
It’s easy to think our value is intrinsically tied to the roles we play: wife, mother, son, daughter, teacher, friend, lover, entrepreneur, employee. We forget that those labels don’t define who we are on the inside. We are not the masks we wear.
We get so caught up in trying to perform our roles to the best of our ability, we lose sight of the fact that we’re acting in service of others and not of ourselves. We’re allowing someone or something outside of ourselves to dictate our worth. We “tie ourselves into knots so that people will like us.” But do they even really like us, or do they just like the person we’re pretending to be?
We are a culture obsessed with being special, with standing out. But only a rare few of us can ever be truly extraordinary; most of us are just plain ordinary, and that’s okay too. The other Barbies might have fancy careers, but Stereotypical Barbie is the most relatable. She’s the most adaptable too, capable of holding her own in almost any social setting. Ballerina Barbie doesn’t belong at the beach and Doctor Barbie doesn’t fit in at a slumber party. The best-selling Barbie of all time, Totally Hair Barbie, was just one incarnation of Stereotypical Barbie. She doesn’t need to be special to be our favorite Barbie. She just needs to be herself.
Having watched Ken and Barbie shed their insecurities and thus discover their worth inspired me to look at the ways I was (and wasn’t) showing up for myself. There was something Barbie said near the end of the film that stuck with me: “Maybe all the things you thought made you you aren’t you.” Her comment was aimed at Ken, but it felt as though she was breaking the fourth wall and talking through the screen directly to me.
It also occurred to me that she might want to take her own advice. I don’t think she’s giving herself enough credit, labelling herself as Stereotypical Barbie. I’m wondering if Mattel has ever released Psychotherapist Barbie, because in that moment Robbie is it for me.
Walking out of the darkness of the movie theater and into the painfully bright afternoon sunlight, I am left with a renewed appreciation for my old childhood friends, not despite their flaws and insecurities but rather because of them. I realize it’s time to figure out who I am without all my labels, to separate myself from the story I’ve created. That story isn’t me. It doesn’t have to define me if I don’t let it. I am not my past. I am not my dysfunctional family. And I’m certainly not Adult Daughter #2, despite what my dad may think.
And that’s exactly the message that Gerwig wants us to walk away with: in order to fall crazy, passionately in love with ourselves we are required to stop repressing parts of who we are to make other people happy. We need to learn to stop letting others dictate our merit, and then we need take it one step further.
“Barbie” dares us to remove all the labels we think define us, freeing ourselves from the weight of our own judgement. If the esteem I hold for myself vacillates according to how well I fulfilled the requirements of being a good sister and a good daughter and a good friend today, I’m still saying that I only hold value insofar as I am living up to the obligations of the roles I play. And being a perfectionist who is never entirely satisfied with anything I do, I’ll always fall short of true self-acceptance.
Self-love will only come when we finally understand that our value doesn’t diminish every time we make a mistake. Our worth isn’t a variable, it’s a constant. I’m enough not because of what I do but because of who I am at my core, in relation to nobody but myself.
So yeah, I went to see “Barbie” this weekend and it led me on a journey toward reclaiming ownership of my self-worth. Maybe your experience won’t be as profound as mine. However, if you ever doubt yourself or play small or feel not enough—as I often do—I hope it will inspire you the way it did for me.
At the very least, you’ll have given yourself two hours of light-heartedness and laughter. You’ll get to reconnect with a part of your childhood you thought you outgrew decades ago. You might even be emboldened to speak up the next time you’re confronted with the cognitive dissonance of the white cis male heteronormative narrative, because you’ll have been told that “even if you can’t make it different, you can make it better” and that’s enough to make you want to try.
If, however, you’re fundamentally opposed to the idea of growth and personal development, and you’re okay with the power dynamics that characterize gender relations in the United States, and thinking of the Kens’ perfectly executed dream ballet sequence doesn’t make you giggle in the slightest (not even on the inside), then you should probably see the dark, heavy, three-hour biopic “Oppenheimer” instead.
But don’t worry: Barbie will be there to cheer you up when it’s over.