Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers for the Barbie movie. Read with caution.
Who expected the Barbie movie to convey a searing indictment of the patriarchy, its impossible expectations of women, and the alarming erosion of women’s rights through recent legislative and judicial oppression?
Here’s what surprises most women when I give them my brief impression of Barbie: Bring tissues.
Far from a saccharine romp hearkening back to sweet childhood nostalgia, this film accurately nails the dark humor and despair present for women witnessing the rapid and heartbreaking demise of feminism in America.
You will cry – a lot.
You will laugh, too.
Remember the scene from Encanto featuring the song Surface Pressure where many overburdened, stressed-out moms in the audience, exhausted from trying to fulfill our society’s impossible expectations, sobbed because we finally felt seen? Consider this movie a feature-length film expansion of that song.
I vibe with Barbie. Ask my children. Every Apple device I own carries a Barbie name, including Barbie (cell phone), Big Girl Barbie (tablet), and Work Barbie (work cell phone).
Additionally, I like to wear pink, a lot of pink, sometimes head-to-toe pink. Once, when I held a leadership position within state government, a male consultant told me not to wear pink to work because “No one would take me seriously.”
Read that sentence again.
“No one would take me seriously.”
For the record, I hold four degrees total (two undergraduate and two graduate) and have 27 years of professional experience, a third of it in leadership, yet wearing pink clothing prevents me from being perceived as competent and intelligent?
While Elle Woods, pink-clad legal icon from 2001 would disagree, Barbie highlights how much ground the feminist cause has lost in the past 20 years. It reclaims our right to wear pink and be taken seriously. It lays out an impassioned plan for the work required to restore our rights to our bodies, minds, and choices.
As Lizzo sings, “Pink Goes with Anything,” including freedom from the patriarchy’s oppression of women that has gone on for far too long.
At first glance, Barbie Land represents an idealized vision of female empowerment. The Barbies – for almost every woman in Barbie Land is named Barbie, with the exceptions of Midge and Skipper – own all of the real estate and hold every major government office and judicial post.
The President of Barbie Land is a woman of color.
Awards ceremonies in Barbie Land honor women for their intellect, literary prowess, and scientific discoveries.
Barbies compliment each other, support each other, and collaborate respectfully in running Barbie Land. Every night is girls’ night.
While the Barbies know the Real World exists in a separate parallel, but accessible, plane of existence, they assume they don’t have to worry about what goes on there anymore. As the Barbies state confidently, “We fixed everything” by creating representation for women in every possible career field.
When we meet the Kens, and in particular Ryan Gosling’s Stereotypical Ken to Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie, we realize that not every resident of Barbie Land experiences the freedom and privilege enjoyed by the Barbies.
Ken is not represented in any level of government.
Kens do not own real estate and, in fact, at one point in the film, Barbie remarks, “Wait. Where do the Kens live?”
Ken shares that he only has a good day if Barbie notices him and pays attention to him, and we see quickly that Barbie’s attention frequently shifts to the other Barbies and away from Ken.
Ken feels invisible, marginalized, and taken for granted. He holds a silly non-job (“Beach”) and experiences daily frustrations as he struggles to gain a foothold in a world built by and for Barbies.
In other words, Barbie Land shows men what women experience in the Real World. Barbie’s matriarchy ignores the Kens and undermines their rights and basic needs, just like the patriarchy systematically oppresses women and little girls in the Real World.
In the middle of a ‘70’s-inspired dance party, Barbie suddenly blurts, “Has anyone ever thought about death?” bringing an awkward silence to the party.
After brushing off this dark idea, Barbie continues to dance, but this moment sets off a series of changes in Barbie. She wakes up with bad breath. Her breakfast burns. The water in her shower is cold. Poignantly, her feet, so perfectly shaped for high heels, suddenly go flat, causing her significant distress and leading her to confide in the other Barbies about the changes she’s noticing.
After hearing Barbie’s concerns, the President advises her to consult with Weird Barbie, a regular Barbie who little girls played with too hard and who resides outside of town on a hill in a more boldly colored architecturally eclectic home. Weird Barbie gives off vibes of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the wise outsider who can interpret disturbances in Barbie Land.
Walking up the many steps to Weird Barbie’s home, Barbie, wearing moderate heels, mutters to herself, “Why would anyone choose to wear these shoes if your feet are shaped like this?”
Exactly, Barbie. Cue the sardonic laughter.
Weird Barbie explains that the little girl who played with Barbie in the Real World must be feeling sad, and her sadness is creating a portal between the worlds, causing the disruptions Barbie experiences.
As it turns out, gender-based discrimination and the burden of oppressive gender roles did not resolve for women in the Real World, despite the Barbies’ assumptions that they deserve a “thank you and a hug” for their service to women.
Weird Barbie gives Barbie a choice: put her high heels back on, remain in Barbie Land, and ignore the signs that everything did not stay fixed for women in the Real World, or put on Birkenstocks to accommodate her newly flat feet and travel through the portal to the Real World to support the little girl whose sadness is now affecting Barbie.
When Barbie tries to revert to her high heels, Weird Barbie re-directs her to the Birkenstocks and her obligation to find and help the girl who played with her, wielding further unpleasant changes (like cellulite!) as consequences for ignoring the problem.
Believing her little girl is a high schooler named Sasha, Barbie shows up at her lunch table, only for Sasha to spurn her for the unrealistic expectations of beauty Barbie represents.
Sasha goes on an extensive rant about Barbie’s ideological link to rampant capitalism and consumerism, finishing off her diatribe by calling Barbie a “fascist.”
Sasha’s invective points out Barbie’s innate contradiction, being both a representative of an unrealistic yet still beloved and nostalgic feminine past, and, at the same time, showing the chokehold expectations about the female body and general appearance continue to have on American culture. This paradox causes Barbie to cry real tears. Understandably, Barbie’s concept of herself as a hero to real woman shatters when confronted with this righteously angry teenage girl.
In a parallel track, Ken, after stowing away in Barbie’s car on her trip to the Real World, feels the attention and recognition he has been painfully missing in Barbie Land. A white male, Ken suddenly gains and delights in visibility, recognition, and respect wherever he goes, while Barbie feels a violated sense of objectification and dread as she moves uncomfortably through this male-dominated world.
In an homage to Back to the Future 2, where Biff misuses time travel to serve his own brutal ends, Ken discovers books about the patriarchy (and horses!) in the high school library and brings his new knowledge back to Barbie Land.
While Barbie attempts to navigate the Real World and ameliorate the sadness of the little girl who played with her, Ken rallies the Kens in a patriarchal takeover of Barbie Land, including a vote that would forever strip the Barbies of their hard-won rights.
For all the talk of Barbie, America Ferrara is the real star of this show. When she picks up her daughter, Sasha, from high school, she watches, rapt, as FBI-like Mattel security guards pick up a distraught and tearful Barbie from the same school and whisk her off in large black SUVs with tinted windows. Recognition dawns when the audience discovers it is she, not her daughter, who played with Barbie and whose sadness crossed over into Barbie Land.
While the name of America Ferrara’s character in the film is apparently Gloria, I never caught that because she is meant to be a stereotypical American mom, disillusioned in her own right by her ongoing and escalating experience with patriarchal oppression and simultaneously despised by her teenage daughter. She inhabits a no-win situation. Most moms can relate.
Working as the executive assistant for the C-suite at Mattel (disappointingly all white men) Gloria, despondent over the decay of women’s rights in America (the name of the actress does not feel like a coincidence here), sketches out darker versions of Barbie, including Thoughts of Death Barbie, at her desk. These sad ruminations create the portal that brought despair and disruption to the idealistic and female-centric Barbie Land and its optimistic leader.
The intersectionality of Gloria’s identities feels particularly relevant since she is a LatinX woman of color and not like the Barbie she preferred as a plaything. It’s not a stretch to infer that some of Gloria’s grief is her internalization of this unattainable beauty ideal represented by Barbie.
Gloria delivers the best speech of the film when her rage can no longer be contained.
Confronted with the harsh reality of Barbie crumpled in a depressive heap on the floor of Weird Barbie’s house after returning to Barbie Land to discover Ken’s installation of patriarchy, Gloria rails against our culture’s impossible expectations of women.
Her assessment is painfully accurate and caused quite a bit of sobbing and cheering from women in the audience.
To Gloria’s ultimate point, if iconic, perfect Barbie can’t win in a patriarchal society, then no woman stands a chance.
Towards the end of the film, Gloria advocates to her boss, the CEO of Mattel played to smarmy but deceptively innocuous perfection by Will Farrell, for Average Barbie, Ordinary Barbie, Mother or Not a Mother Barbie, and so on, emphasizing that feminism is about choice.
Wearing pink and being taken seriously, choosing to become a mother or not, being extraordinary or just ordinary – all of it is valid, and all of it is feminism. We need the right to choose how we show up for ourselves and for other women, and we need to celebrate how every woman in our life chooses to show up.
Her daughter’s evolving perception of Gloria becomes the most poignant turnaround in the film.
When Gloria’s childhood idol comes to find her, Gloria remembers herself and who she is beyond her socially oppressed roles of wife, mother, and executive assistant to the cadre of male executives who run Mattel. Able to see her mom as a fully formed human being exhibiting reckless and carefree behavior as Gloria embarks on a car chase to lose the white male Mattel board members trying to put Barbie back in her box, Sasha develops respect and compassion for both her mother and Barbie, rallying the fight to save Barbie Land from the hyper-masculine Kens intent on stripping the Barbies of their rights.
Rejecting the patriarchy’s use of Barbie as a scapegoat for the oppression of women through impossible ideals of beauty and behavior, the film puts the blame squarely where it belongs: on men who perpetuate a power structure that dismantles the rights of women and on the women complicit in their own disenfranchisement. It’s not an accident that the secondary hero of the movie is Weird Barbie, who has been scorned and ostracized by her female peers. Barbie takes issue with patriarchy and also with the toxic way women uphold male power structures.
The Barbie movie is a searing response to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe versus Wade ruling that codified a woman’s inalienable right to exercise autonomy over her own body.
The film represents a recognition and criticism of rape culture and how it breeds perpetual anxiety in women.
Balancing the rights of all, the film also gives voice to white cisgender-heterosexual men focused on what they might lose in the fight for equal gender rights, while fully failing to realize how the patriarchy robs them of their humanity at the same time it robs women of their power. (The character of Allen, a white male Ken sidekick isolated and alone in Barbie Land, joins the Barbies in their quest to reclaim their rights.)
Ultimately, what Barbie teaches us, as women and as mothers, is that now is the time to fight the patriarchy because we’ve lost too much already.
It’s time to fight for our reproductive freedom.
It’s time to fight for equality in pay and opportunities.
It’s time to fight for recognition, respect, and safety as we move through the world.
The film speaks to our nostalgia for Barbie and the shattered dreams of our childhood selves, those hopeful little girls who continue to watch in horror the erosion of their autonomy over their bodies and thus, their lives.
Barbie asks us the hard question: what are we going to do about it? If we won’t fight for ourselves, if we won’t fight for our daughters, will we fight for Barbie and all that she means to us? Will we fight for her because she deserves better than to be the scapegoat for patriarchy and capitalism?
We can do it, after all. It’s not hopeless.
Women outnumber men in our society. If we stop enabling and voting for the patriarchy’s oppression of our rights, we could win back our dignity, respect, autonomy, and choice. It begins with self-compassion.
Can we overturn the oppression of internalized patriarchy and love ourselves and all women enough to rise up? Can we overcome the exhaustion of child-rearing without enough paid family leave, high-quality childcare, or universal social supports to start claiming the seats at the table – from those in the Mattel board room all the way up to those in the Oval Office? I think we can.
The solutions involve women supporting women, unconditionally, compassionately, and logistically, from places of nonjudgment and endless positive regard. To continue oppressing us, the patriarchy relies on turning us against each other in our quest to win the attention of men. We hold the keys to our own liberation. We can do it. I believe in us. Do you?
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