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“Barbie” is Everything It Could Have Hoped to Be

Northern Virginia Magazine

A film feminist enough to enrage filmbros and worthy of its 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, Barbie is the epitome of nostalgia, possibility and girlhood. Written with wit, accuracy and boiling creativity, it lifts the curtain on how our society is structured, exposing outdated gender norms in pink plastic and glitter.

As the movie opens, little girls drudgingly play with their baby dolls until Barbie is born, tall plastic legs urging them to crush the dolls’ heads in defiance to the life of caretaking they were sentenced to before. Greta Gerwig, who has worked her way up the ladder in Hollywood to direct films such as Ladybird and Little Women, paid careful attention to detail while crafting Barbie’s world. When the day begins, Barbie is pictured stepping out of her heels, feet still on tiptoes; her shower and milk carton are void of actual liquid; she simply flies from the top of her Dreamhouse to the street below, portraying a child’s play. The focus pans from her casa to the rest of Barbieland, a colorful utopia where each doll is satisfied with their perfect daily lives.

To close the day off, Barbie throws a party at her Dreamhouse, and the lighting and set design in the scene is quite possibly the best in the entire film– disco balls casting off little iridescent lights as the Barbies and Kens dance in choreographed routines together, free of any worries. 

This changes when, mid-dance, Barbie proposes the question, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” And thus, the plot thickens– she is now strangely occupied with questions of mortality and meaning. She wakes up the next morning wondering why everything is suddenly going wrong; her feet are suddenly flat (gasp!), she takes a tumble instead of gracefully flying into her car from the roof, and her newfound existentialism is at an all-time high. 

She meets with Weird Barbie– another clever nod to real-world Barbie play– and is essentially forced to travel across the universe to the Real World, where she will try to salvage the innocence of the little girl that plays with her. All of the Barbies, living in a perfect society, were under the assumption that the problems of sexism were solved in the Real World, thanks to their groundbreaking introduction to little girls in the late 50s. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth, as Barbie finds out when she comes face-to-face with brash insults, invasive remarks and physical assault (even the police are guilty of crude comments after her arrest for self-defense) within five minutes of her arrival to the California coast. 

Ken comes along for Barbie’s voyage and, from the very beginning, has a different outlook on the experience. Compliments on the street were flattering to him, and he couldn’t understand why Barbie thought otherwise–this is where the contrast starts. While Barbie is pushed to the point of tears during her visit, Ken is immediately taken aback by the concept of patriarchy. In Barbieland, the women preside over everything– they are the majority in the government, supreme court, and dominate every single career field: essentially the opposite of the Real World. Despite the fact that the Kens were initially very satisfied with their lifelong occupation of “beach,” they are all thrilled when Ken brings home the idea of a men-led paradise– so they make it happen while Barbie is still away.

The rest of the film follows the Barbies’ plan to restore their utopia, which has been completely overtaken by the Kens, who guzzle beers all day while the brainwashed Barbies wait on them and cut their steaks. 

I do think those who have strong criticism for the film don’t understand that there is depth that transcends all of the seemingly shallow antics. Barbie portrays womanhood in a way that is carefully intimate and sacred. In a memory montage towards the end, Barbie is shown by Ruth (the creator of the doll) the joys of being a real woman through clips that resemble home videos. In grainy flashbacks, we see little girls running around with their mothers, older women laughing and smiling, and giggles from children playing among themselves.

The sequence, which Gerwig compiled with actual videos from the cast’s family to make more authentic, is accompanied with Billie Eilish’s “What Am I Made For?”, which was written for the movie in one night. It is a relatively short scene, but beautifully compact and emotionally striking as audience members think of their own memories, especially their innocence, something that died around the same time they said goodbye to their once-loved Barbies. 

One scene that struck me particularly was Barbie greeting an elderly woman on a bench outside. This was the first time she could ever have seen a senior citizen, as everyone in Barbieland is young and flawless. Without hesitation, Barbie simply tells her, “You’re beautiful.” The woman replies, “I know,” and they both smile. Ken whisks her away to their next stop, but Barbie takes one last look at the woman, with a sort of longing and thought in her eyes.

The presense of an old woman, something Barbie was unfamiliar with, could have easily taken a different route; but despite her inexperience with the pains of moving through this world as a woman, all it takes is a single look to recognize the beauty in growing old and being human, and it captivates her. It was a simple interaction, but quite possibly the most intimate. This later sets the stage for her decision to become mortal, and serves as a “You did it” to all of the old women of this world–something Barbie has yet to become, but looks forward to. 

The simple question “What Was I Made For?” depicts Barbie’s confusion over her own existence. She and the other Barbies initially thought they had solved sexism and created a perfect life over in the Real World, but she is disproven; so what has her purpose been all of these years? If she is just plastic entertainment, is it really worth it to stay when she could be making effective change as a human being?

There is a scene towards the end in which Barbie explains to Ken, after deconstructing the Kendom, that the purpose of Ken was not to be the second half of “Barbie and Ken,” but that he is “Just Ken.” Unfortunately, a lot of male reviewers seemed to have completely missed the point of the scene, because Gerwig does a beautiful job of explaining through Barbie’s consolation that men are not their finances, possessions or who they date; they are enough to be important on their own, just like Barbie is– they just shouldn’t hide it in fear.

It is difficult to reserve my compliments solely for Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling (who both gave perfect and heartfelt performances), as Barbie was an effort equally split between set/costume design and acting. The aesthetic and marketability of Barbie would not have been the same without the crew members responsible for scenes as iconic as the disco dance or the memory montage. 

Exactly the ambience you’d expect for a Barbie movie, the soundtrack is phenomenal, showcasing a large variety of female artists such as Billie Eilish, Charlie XCX, Nicki Minaj, Ice Spice and Lizzo, making it a perfect role for the pro-feminism theme. Each song has unmistakable 80s and 2000s pop undertones, and tracks like Lizzo’s “Pink” bear a striking resemblance to Barbie adverts from around the same time, invoking nostalgia for older viewers. 

Being a film that makes you walk out of the theater proud to be a woman, Barbie was quite the masterpiece, and the world awaits Gerwig’s next project (likely a recreation of The Chronicles of Narnia).

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