Barbie Rocks!: Exploring the many layers of Greta Gerwig’s thought-provoking film

Sep 03, 2023
In the broadest sense, Gerwig’s movie explores what it means to be human, and more specifically, what it means to be female or male. Source: Getty Images.

Manufactured by Mattel since 1959, the Barbie doll is a billion dollar industry. However, despite remaining one of the best-selling toys of all time, our collective relationship with Barbie remains complicated. There are those who will always detest Barbie as a hyper-feminised, submissive stereotype, while others will embrace her contemporary diversity and can-do girl-power play scenarios. Unsurprisingly, that love/hate relationship is reflected in our different reactions to Barbie (the movie).

Director Greta Gerwig describes Barbie as most certainly a feminist film while executives from Mattel insist it is not. One commentator dismisses Barbie as feminist dreck, while another lauds it as funny, bombastic and very smart. Regardless of the controversy – and also, no doubt, because of it – Barbie has succeeded in luring movie lovers away from their streaming services and back to the cinema to see the magnificent Margot Robbie as Barbie strut her pink stuff across the big screen. Released in Australia on 20 July, Barbie continues to break box office records.

As for me, I cannot say exactly what I was expecting from Gerwig’s movie. However, whatever that was, I found Barbie to be so much more. The performances of Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken, and the evocative sets, costumes, dance routines and music are outstanding, but what I want to do is to unpack what the movie is all about and it turns out that for me, it’s rather like Barbie’s wardrobe – Barbie has layers. In the broadest sense, Gerwig’s movie explores what it means to be human, and more specifically, what it means to be female or male.

In the beginning, there is a single black and white striped, swim-suited Barbie. In a clever homage to Stanley Kubrick’s iconic opening scene of 2001, A Space Odyssey, Barbie is a monolith, towering over a handful of girls who are engaged in (primitive) play as mothers with babies. Barbie leads the girls out of the desert of their limitations, awakening in them the urge to dream past the confines of their traditional gender roles of motherhood and domesticity – and the rest, of course, is retail history. So, Barbie puts gender roles in the spotlight, but also it draws a sharp contrast between fantasy and reality. Gerwig’s Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) lives in Barbieland where everyone, everything, and every day is always perfect, and where she is a champion for women. After all, Barbie dolls show women that they can achieve in any field of endeavour.

While they may be mermaids or princesses, Barbies are also astronauts, doctors, scientists, pilots, and the like. However, when Barbie travels beyond the boundaries of make-believe Barbieland to the real world, where nothing is ever perfect, she encounters unexpected criticism and it is harsh. Tweenager Sasha (played by Ariana Greenblatt) angrily berates Barbie, pointing out that no matter how she is dressed and accessorised, in reality she is nothing more than an impossibly proportioned female doll, perpetuating an unattainable ideal.

In Barbie, Gerwig hilariously interrogates gender-based power. We are so accustomed to the man’s world in which we live that it’s uncomfortably funny to see all of the Kens playing second fiddle to all of the Barbies, constantly seeking their approval and affirmation. Men in the real world are also portrayed as trivial and foolish. This jarring gender role reversal in Barbie has drawn criticism from those who are concerned that the males in Barbie are bad role models for boys. Well, hello. There is nothing out of the ordinary about Will Ferrell (playing Mattel’s CEO) appearing in the role of a silly man and women have routinely been portrayed in decorative roles, as men’s accessories, or as silly in thousands of movies. So, lighten up, boys. What is more, when the tables are turned and Barbieland becomes Kendom, where men and horses rule the roost, Barbie exposes how nonsensical it is for men to have primacy over women for no logical reason other than being male.

The same, of course, applies in reverse. There is no logical reason for women to be subservient to men simply because they are female. This reasoning lies at the core of feminism. One of the highlights of Barbie is the dazzling monologue delivered by Gloria (played by America Ferrera) in which she describes how contemporary women are expected to be all things to all people, all at once. It’s a thought bomb detonated in the middle of the movie. Women must be thin, but not too thin, and only if it is the result of an optimally healthy lifestyle. However, they must be thin. They must lead, but in such a way that doesn’t quash the ambitions or aspirations of others. They must be pretty enough for men to admire, but not so pretty as to threaten their wives. They must have a career and be a devoted mother at the same time. The list is as long as Barbie’s impossibly long legs, but why is it so? Why are women always playing catch up?

Barbie explains how the foundational tenets of our ideologies define who we are, our status and what we can do. We see how power relationships in Barbieland were determined in the beginning by Barbie’s creation story. Barbie is created by a woman, Ruth Handler (played by Rhea Purlman), although not in her own image. Because she is created first, Barbie has primacy over Ken, who is more of an afterthought and created to be her companion. Thus, Barbieland is a matriarchy where women hold the power. The gender power relationships with which we live in the real world were also established in the beginning by the creation story where God creates Adam first (and in his own image, I might add) and Eve is created later (from Adam’s rib). Some may point out that we have made recent progress towards gender equality, but there is no doubt that in the real world, we still live in a patriarchy where men hold the power.

Barbie is also a coming-of-age story. Barbie is every little girl living her best life, a princess in the make-believe bosom of a carefree childhood, devoid of responsibility or decision-making. When doubts, and thoughts about reality/mortality creep into her consciousness, she begins her inevitable journey to adulthood. Every little girl who is Barbie when she plays must grow up and Gerwig’s message is unequivocal. Despite the difficult realities that come with being human, Gerwig’s Barbie (any girl/woman) does not want to be a doll or a plaything or remain a child, forever. Note that once Barbie (Eve) has taken a bite of reality (the forbidden apple), she cannot remain in Barbieland (Eden).

Barbie is also about self-actualisation and awareness. Through the course of the movie, Barbie learns that she is ready to grow and change, swapping make-believe for reality. On the other hand, Ken learns that he is an individual with worth in his own right and that he no longer needs Barbie to complete or validate him.

Finally, critics of Barbie will always focus on her impossible, hyper- feminised proportions, which no woman, not even the gorgeous Margot Robbie can (or even wants to) achieve. However, those condemning the Barbie doll and Barbie (the movie) should ask themselves, why they do not also condemn the hyper-masculine figurines (dolls for boys), such as He-Man (Masters of the Universe) and G I Joe and the countless movies written around such characters and their unbelievable exploits. They should complain about the dangerous and unrealistic stereotype these muscle-bound heroes represent for boys. Singling out the Barbie doll and Barbie (the movie) for unrealistic role modelling is a breathtaking double standard.

I watched Barbie with four (female) friends. Only two of us were impressed, two were unmoved and one saw no merit in the movie whatsoever. However, each person reading a book or seeing a movie has a unique experience and that is exactly how it should be. If you have seen it, what did you make of Barbie? As for me, I think Barbie rocks!

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