“Barbie”: Balancing Feminism, Humor and Blonde Fragility

Spoilers for the live-action Barbie movie ahead!

My childhood was surrounded with plastics; my storytelling began with it too. I recall one Christmas season, I was searching throughout the house for any hidden presents. Then, behold, below my mother’s bathroom sink, I found her: Barbie. I pulled the doll out, admiring her and all of the stories I would create. Before my excitement took control of my actions, I put her back and began my wait for Dec. 25.

I can mentally replay the sound of stripping cardboard from a plastic enclosure, a plastic body falling neatly into my hands. I would brush her saran blonde hair, admiring our similarities in color and style. I would switch her outfits, change her name and give her a new situation to solve. I would watch her on screen, listen to her songs and play dress up with my sisters. Though my eldest sister was past her Barbie-age in middle school, I made her stick around and play with me, extending her youth by enhancing my own, thereby instilling me with some of my most precious memories of today. That’s why, on July 21, I was proud to enter the theater to go see the movie built by a franchise that formed my values and adolescence with my sisters and mother by my side. 

“Barbie” has been in the works for many years, and considering its massive marketing campaign, it is not surprising that the movie has turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the year. On opening night, “Barbie” surpassed its budget of $145 million by garnering $155 million at the domestic box office and $337 million at the global box office. As of reporting, the movie has broken the following records:

  • Best Monday Box Office gross in Warner Brothers history, according to Variety
  • Biggest opening weekend for a movie released in Australia in 2023, per The Guardian
  • Biggest domestic opening of 2023, CNBC revealed
  • Biggest opening ever for a female director, The Guardian reported
  • Biggest opening for a movie based on a toy; biggest opening ever for Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling; biggest opening weekend for a movie that isn’t a sequel, remake or superhero movie, stated by a tweet from Pop Crave.

Furthermore, Pop Crave stated that “Barbie” is expected to make $1 billion at the global box office.

Besides the power of pink, Greta Gerwig’s past successes and the already popular character, what made “Barbie” amount to this success? Is it the celebrity actors? The picture-perfect casting of Margot Robbie as Barbie? The fun and colorful set? Was the marketing worth every contribution? How about the many famous artists on the movie’s score, such as Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish, Lizzo and Nicki Minaj? I believe “Barbie” was able to attain this success and recognition due to the aspects aforementioned; however, I also believe filmmakers’ obsession with nostalgia contributes as well — though, this time, it is for the better.

I would describe the “Barbie” movie as being self-aware. Rather than avoiding conversations of discomfort, the characters and plot directly discuss pressing topics surrounding the stereotypical doll. 

The film opens with a monologue by a narrator relaying the origins of Barbie, from what the introduction of a woman doll (as opposed to a baby doll) meant for girls to how this woman was made into the many Barbies of today. The plot begins when we meet Stereotypical Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, as she begins another perfect day filled with friends (fellow Barbies), Kens, the beach and a party. In a world where Barbie holds all positions from president to construction worker, we see this pink world holding possibilities and positivity. Even if the Kens (and Allan) are not seen as a fundamental and crucial aspect to a functioning society, they are still treated kindly.

However, Barbie’s perfect life takes a sharp turn when she takes a cold shower, her feet fall flat and she has negative thoughts. This then begins the journey of going to the real world in order to find the child who owns Stereotypical Barbie. 

I appreciated and enjoyed “Barbie” for three overarching reasons, the first of which is feminism. This term, too often misconstructed, is defined by Oxford as the following: the belief and aim that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men; the struggle to achieve this aim. “Barbie” tackles feminism head-on by showing the juxtaposition between Barbieland and the real world. In Barbieland, the Barbies and Kens had objectives and roles, while in the real world, Barbie was objectified as a result of her gender. From being catcalled on Venice Beach to being almost under the control of the Mattel CEO (played by Will Ferell), Barbie and Ken were seen as vastly different from the world we created when we were younger. 

Gloria, the mother who happened to instill Barbie with the negative thoughts, and her daughter, Sasha, travel to Barbieland to try to rectify their situation. However, after Ken brings home the ideology behind male dominance in a patriarchy, Barbieland is far from what it used to be. Unfortunately, this takes its emotional toll on Barbie, leading her to give up and hope another Barbie can fix their world. It is in this third act that Gloria tells Barbie: “It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart. And it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, you have to always be extraordinary. But somehow, we’re always doing it wrong. […] And it turns out, in fact, that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also, everything is your fault. […] And if all of that is also true for a doll, just representing a woman, then I don’t even know.”

Another reason I found “Barbie” to surpass my standard of enjoyment was due to the comedic genius of the writers, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. “Barbie” was so ridiculously funny that, even when discussing some prominent issues of today, they found a way to lighten the plot not long after. An example of this is the narrator’s lines after Barbie calls herself not stereotypical-Barbie pretty: “Note to the filmmakers, Margot Robbie is the wrong person to cast if you want to make this point.” Not to mention Ryan Gosling’s masterpiece of a song, “I’m Just Ken” and his obsession with horses

The final aspect that made this movie special was its uniqueness. Gerwig and Robbie, who was also a producer, added a warm energy to a piece rooted in girlhood. In addition to telling a compelling and emotional story, Gerwig seemed to create a special behind-the-scenes energy. In an interview with Good Morning America, she discussed how she planned a sleepover for the cast: “In a way, I wanted to do something that felt part of childhood to bond everyone because so much of making a Barbie movie is remembering your childhood.” Additionally, near the end of the film, there is a sequence of videos from all ages and years and environments. Robbie revealed in an interview with radio station Capital that, “They’re all the cast and crew. They’re all of ours.”

“Barbie” did many things well, from set design to casting to comedy; in particular, Robbie’s character was an easy one to find solace in. Stereotypical Barbie was under the impression that her existence made the world a better place as she gave girls reasons to hope, dream and achieve, only to find out the real world is quite rough for females. “Barbie” continues the important conversation of intersectional feminism, with Barbie being the front runner. However, the individual that critics are demanding an Oscar nomination for is not who you may be thinking of. Rather than Robbie, the main actress, or Gerwig, a record-breaking director, the media is calling for Ryan Gosling, the actor of the main Ken, to receive a nomination and a win. Art imitates life, right? 

Furthered by the success of “Barbie,” Mattel seems to want to ride their screen-adaption journey for longer. In early July, Insider released an article discussing the 17 movies Mattel currently has in the works, including a Polly Pocket movie with Lily Collins, a surrealist Barney movie, an Uno heist comedy and more. 
“Barbie” is currently playing at your local theaters.