Have this article read to you, listen to it like a podcast
Making history as the first film directed solely by a woman to make $1 billion at the worldwide box office, it’s no wonder that Barbie has become a global sensation. But with all the hype surrounding it, it’s easy to not form an original opinion about it and fall victim to the pink glitz and glamour. A lot of the criticism around Barbie that’s gotten attention has been from fragile men saying that it’s anti-men, and while the memes around these reviews have been funny, I haven’t seen anything deeply evaluating the film. People have praised Barbie as a profound statement about womanhood and the mother-daughter relationship, but in many ways, to me, the movie was as artificial as the doll it was based on.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Barbie. She was probably the gateway drug that made me into the doll junkie I am today. And I actually enjoyed the movie a lot! It just… didn’t make that much of a statement to me. But let’s face it, Gerwig was probably in an impossible place to do that, since the movie was sponsored by Mattel. It attempts to say something about sexism in a corporate setting through the CEO character played by Will Farrell, but it ultimately goes nowhere. They explicitly state that there are no women in the boardroom, and by the end of the movie, nothing has changed. Women are still excluded from that position of power. They even had an opportunity to correct the lack of women through America Ferrera’s character, Gloria, a talented doll designer. The film brings her in like she will replace the CEO, but again, that subplot is lost, and I found the ending unsatisfying because there was no justice. That being said, I don’t think the answer to solving gender inequality is for women to girlboss their ways to the top. I just didn’t understand why they had to introduce the idea if there was no payoff. The film had the opportunity to touch on the idea that the Barbie doll didn’t create unrealistic beauty standards, the company did, but it is restrained with its Mattel critiques. It doesn’t come down hard on either side, that Barbie empowers women or that she pressures girls to conform to gender roles. This might not have bothered me so much if the movie wasn’t so ham-fisted with its other points.
Because Mattel ponied up the dough, I understand why the filmmakers might not have wanted to or were unable to hammer the company as much as they could have. In that case though, I would have removed the Mattel storyline entirely so the movie could have focused on the relationship between Gloria and Sasha. Their narrative could have been much stronger. It had moments where they paralleled the relationship between Ruth and Barbie, but I found myself wanting to see more. If the filmmakers had spent more time on their dynamic, we could have learned more about why they drifted apart and Sasha’s disillusionment would have been more convincing.
To me, the movie was about the idea of growing up, the loss of innocence, and the transition to the pressures and expectations of adulthood coupled with sexism. It was a fairy tale like The Little Mermaid or Peter Pan; the character goes through a transformation. In Peter Pan, Wendy wants to stay a child forever but in the end, she realizes she has to grow up, the same way Barbie realizes she has to become human. They both understand that’s the only way to feel. Peter Pan can never grow up because it would mean having deep feelings, things he can never access, and Barbies cannot have complex emotions either; by the end of the movie, Barbie realizes she will never be the same as the other dolls. She has felt too much. Barbie was afraid of change, but the film shows that change is necessary.
Maybe that’s why I felt disappointed with Sasha and Gloria’s storyline. As Sasha is getting older and becoming more disenchanted with the world, Gloria is coming to terms with her daughter growing apart from her. This could have connected to the theme of growing up, but the film doesn’t spend enough time on them to explore that sufficiently. On the contrary, the theme of growing up and the mother-daughter relationship was the most successful through Barbie and Ruth Handler. Rhea Pearlman as Ruth Handler was actually the most authentic character who made the most insightful points. I related most to what she had to say about how being human is uncomfortable, and how when we become parents, we trade our dreams for someone else’s, to witness our children’s progress.
The movie didn’t say much to me, but I think it means something that it’s gotten so many people talking. Ultimately, Barbie is a highly personal experience. The same way that you project your hopes and dreams onto a doll, I think the audience reflects their own experiences onto the movie. There is a concept in mysticism of a Tulpa, a being that is materialized through spiritual practice. That is what a Barbie is to me – a manifestation of our desires for a better future or what we want to become, the best part of ourselves. As stated in the film, ideas live forever, and that is what Barbie is, an idea that can never die that will leave us with discussions for years to come. But if I want to watch a movie with a similar message and better execution, I’ll stick with Legally Blonde.