A Retrospective on the Barbie Movie and Womanhood

Barbie is a word that, by now, most people are likely now very familiar with. From the summer blockbuster to blockbust to the infamous doll line, the blonde bombshell’s moniker is nigh inescapable. It makes sense, though; when one thinks of a doll, they tend to picture Barbie, and her worth as a brand is well over 700 million. The movie, our main focus here today, had similar smashing success, breaking box office records and setting one for being the biggest opening for a female director. But this is not a look at numbers and technical achievements, but rather as the film as an entity.

The Barbie movie, for those who may still be unfamiliar, follows its titular character as she goes through a journey of self-discovery, self-realization, and just what it means to be a woman. We begin in Barbieland, where all the Barbies live in perfect happiness and harmony, unapologetically pink all the while, the Kens trotting after them like the loving accessories they were created to be, and Allan (Michael Cera) standing off to the side with a slightly awkward, Tom Holland-like smile. Our Barbie is Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie), by her own words whereas others are Doctor or Lawyer Barbie, who suddenly finds herself facing the thought of mortality. In a quest to find answers, she ventures into the real world, her Ken inviting himself along and introducing himself to new ideas of his own. This leads to a shift in the dynamics of Barbieland, one that involves all who live there (and those who don’t) have to get involved with in order to make things right.

Spoilers below!!

Right off the bat, even in the surprisingly vague trailers, the ideas of feminism and just what it means to exist and be perceived as a woman are prevalent within the film. We see this directly stated or alluded to at times, one of which leads to a very comedic moment in which Barbie copes with being accused of being a fascist. However, the movie takes great care to explore these ideas in a way that makes them, at least on a baseline, rather relatable for anyone who has lived as a woman (myself including). This reality, quite literally, slaps Barbie in the face (well, technically elsewhere, to which she punches back); in Barbieland, rollerblading around in neon, tie-dye ensembles is nothing new, but in the real world this is something to gawk at, and in some eyes an invitation for unwanted advances. In Barbieland, women don’t think twice before saying “yes, I deserve this,” in response to recognition for their work, a stark contrast to our reality. In Barbieland, women don’t bother dancing around the statement of “well I don’t want you here, so bye,”, but after the introduction of the patriarchy to Barbieland the Kens quite literally take over their homes, even renaming Barbieland to the Kendom. But, they do not know what to do with themselves, or how to employ the patriarchy in a way that’d be more effective like our society, so their attempt at it is quickly undone, but a small step towards equality between the two is made in the end.

The Barbie movie has been lauded for its ideas on feminism, but those calling it more an introduction to modern feminist theory are more likely to be correct. There’s a moment, or rather a montage, in the film where, after seeing Barbie lament over the reality of womanhood, the mother of the mother-daughter pair (America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt respectively) from the real world rattles off some of the impossible standards women are held to; being thin but not too thin but no, it’s being “healthy”, leading without being in charge, and acknowledging the system is rigged is unfair but to do so is complaining, etc, which at least for me felt quite cathartic to hear spoken out loud. However, all of these are, to those more familiar with the subject, well-known ideas, but the Barbie movie has a bit of a unique position. Due to ideas associated with the brand, among those who saw it were young girls with their mothers/families, who would have likely had little, if any, exposure to feminism aside from “boys and girls are/should be equal.” Them, alongside viewers who simply had not delved into feminism, would therefore first be introduced to these ideas through the movie, thus allowing these parts of the audience to be exposed to them and likely explore further, even if not on purpose. This was slightly the case for the male friend I went with, who was unknowing about but interested in some of the things mentioned during the film, which I, being more familiar with them, later explained to him. Many think, and have accused, Barbie of trying to be the cause of a fifth wave of feminism, but that is not the case; it is a story of a woman being exposed to the feminism many of us have grown familiar with, with her fresh perspective allowing us to regurgitate it and see it in a new way, as all of this is foreign to her, but second nature to us.

On a smaller note, Allan’s role in the narrative is a rather interesting, if not more subdued one. He is, in the movie and in his real-life creation, Ken’s best friend, but during the film, the Kens do not seem to spend much time with him. Rather, he hangs out with or hovers close by to the Barbies, who all treat him as a friend, or at the very least an acquaintance. This has brought about ideas of Allan being a sort of parallel to people who identify as nonbinary, agender, or otherwise outside the typical gender norm. There is also to note that when he and the real-life mother-daughter pair go to escape the Kendom, they are stopped by construction workers who are trying (and failing) to build a wall. Allan approaches them, and when verbal negotiations fail he quickly steps up to the challenge of physical violence, even (pretty much) choking one out to what is most likely death (it’s a lot funnier than described). As a parallel to the real world, this may be an example of how men who are real allies to feminism take action when necessary and don’t sit idly by, even if it may seem a little extreme and far outside their comfort zone.

I absolutely love this film, both as a film and as the point of contention it became. I love pink: the movie was pink. I love female characters outsmarting their male counterparts: that took up about half of the runtime. I love silly chase scenes: there was a great, extended, over-the-top one that was right up my alley. While I can recognize its shortcomings, it is of my personal (i.e. self-indulgent) belief that it far overcomes them with what it does well. And even in a universe where it could even be considered remotely bad, it is still fun and that is what I want in movies, and a sentiment I have seen growing more and more in recent months.

Barbie is a fun, bittersweet movie detailing some of the highs and lows of womanhood, with the comfort of sisterhood and confidence many women today are still striving to find themselves having. Rather than being depressing, the struggles for feminism result in an unabashedly happy ending for every character involved, especially the women. This has caused some criticism, though, as those who voice it feel as if it let the Kens (namely, the main one) get off too easy for what they did. But, to put it most simply, the Barbie movie is a fun, extraordinarily well-put together production that has valuable lessons one can learn no matter where they stand and enough pink to cause a world shortage. It has been praised endlessly by critics and regular viewers alike, and made $1.38 billion worldwide, with $155 million of that just opening weekend, and 87% on Rotten Tomatoes. During my viewing of it (Saturday of, in an outfit bought just for it), I laughed, I cried, and I ranted to my male friend who I saw it with about Ken for an hour afterwards. If it lived up to anyone’s expectations of it, it would have been mine.

Barbie released in theaters on July 21st and is planned to soon be available for streaming on Max, and is available digitally through Amazon Prime, iTunes, and other such services. It is also available on Blu-ray and DVD

Mia Berrios

Mia Berrios is an undergraduate at Rowan University, and majoring in English with a minor in creative writing. She's interested in many different parts of pop culture from video games to movies, as well as in writing and editing.