Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023), one of the most anticipated movies of the summer, has become a smash hit, currently breaking box office records. The much-awaited film, released on July 21st, features a stellar ensemble cast, including Margot Robbie as Stereotypical Barbie (the Barbiest of them all) and Ryan Gosling as Ken, alongside America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Michael Cera, Ariana Greenblatt, Simu Liu, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman, Helen Mirren, and Will Ferrell. This movie marks Gerwig’s third major directorial project following Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019).
The movie was advertised with the tagline: “She’s everything, he’s just Ken”, and as promised, it delivers on this front. Everything is about Barbie in Barbieland, she’s the main character, and she takes up the center stage. Life in plastic, really is fantastic for her, until it’s not. While discussing it with a friend, she commented, “I love how Barbie was marketed as a ditsy little girlmovie with lots of pink and great costumes and hot people, but it was like 2 hours of feminism and proper existential dread.” True to her opinion, Barbie offers both joy and substance as it delves into themes of existentialism and self-discovery. The plot goes like this: Stereotypical Barbie, the most popular of all the Barbies in Barbieland, begins experiencing an existential crisis. Her feet go flat, and she starts having thoughts of death. To fix these horrifying wrongs, she must travel to the Human World in order to understand herself and discover her true purpose. Her kinda-sorta boyfriend, Ken, joins her on this trip (uninvited) because his entire existence depends on Barbie’s opinion and acknowledgement of him. On this journey to their enlightenment, both discover harsh truths about the Human World, and about men, women, and society.
Gosling’s Ken shines in Barbieland as he goes from Barbie’s needy, desperate situationship of sorts to a swaggering, horse-obsessed, beer drinking, manly man. He throws himself headlong into how he thinks a real man should behave after learning the concept of patriarchy in the Human World. Robbie is undoubtedly a delight in Barbieland too, but it’s in the Human World where she’s the real star of the show. When faced with misogyny, she feels real emotions for the first time. It’s difficult to look away from her having that heartbreaking newfound experience that women go through every single day. From almost robotic smiles and multitudes of Hi Barbie!, to a single tear and eventually a depressive breakdown, her performance is undoubtedly the strongest in the movie.
Despite the dramatics and the magical musical numbers, both Barbie and Ken are redeemed, and Ken has a great sendoff in the end. They have equal journeys of self discovery, although they end up going in opposite directions. Ken begs Barbie to love him back as he feels that he has no identity or purpose without her, she responds with “You can’t make your girlfriend your entire personality”. Barbie, on the other hand, chooses to leave Barbieland to go back to the human world, with the hopes of experiencing true femininity, and meaning in life.
Other than the largely positive reviews, the main concern critics and watchers are having is that the movie is “too woke” or that it “isn’t woke enough”. The answer changes depending on whom you ask. I think, Barbie is easy feminism. It doesn’t get into complicated feminist discourse (to the disappointment of many twitter users), but doesn’t make it feel like surface-level feminism that falls flat either. A user on tiktok posted: “It is as important for men to watch Barbie as it is for women. Oftentimes the doorway to feminism is looked down on, but this can be a great start to understanding what it actually is. It talks about how patriarchy damages women AND men.”
It calls out the toxic male environment that currently exists, and encourages men to learn and do better. Gerwig and Robbie play it safe, not daring to wander too far into misandry; they settle for their own ideas of feminism and equality instead. Gerwig, while talking about Barbie, was quoted as saying, “I’m interested in how life is complicated and messy and that there is nothing that’s either or, either good or bad, mostly it’s both. It can be all these things at once.” She takes what could have been an easy chance to capitalize on something and make it an accessible political conversation about gender politics, consumerism, and the radical act of finding self-worth. The movie is well made for its time (seriously, there’s a Depression Barbie!), a time where the conversations it provokes need to be urgently had.
The movie makes you smile as much as it makes you think. Probably every woman watching related to Ferrera’s character Gloria delivering the famous Greta Gerwig monologue, which in this instance, outlines the maddening and contradictory expectations women must negotiate. She begins with an unspoken truth: “It is literally impossible to be a woman.” Watching her, my mind couldn’t help but wander to Jo March’s monologue from Little Women (2019), “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it.” Barbie encapsulates this feeling throughout.
The set design is impeccable, Barbieland lives up to its name. The specific shade of pink paint, Pantone 219, was so prominently used that it resulted in an international shortage, a testament to the attention to detail. The musical score, crafted by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt, along with songs by Nicki Minaj, Dua Lipa, and Ryan Gosling himself, perfectly complement the visuals.
As I walked into the theater, it was swamped with Barbies and Kens, all dressed in different shades of pink; and the women’s bathroom was a different world on its own. The experience is delightful, the movie is pretty, it’s pink, and it’s fun while being clever. Undoubtedly, it is THE movie of the summer.
Asma Siddiqui is an independent journalist