The doll known by many was brought to life this summer in Greta Gerwig’s newest film Barbie and though the film was a global box office success, its messaging and plot was met with mixed reviews.
Starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, Barbie was brought to life on July 21. The film grossed 1.3 billion dollars in the worldwide box offices’, as a result, one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. Critics and viewers alike share their opinions on the comedy’s strong messaging and satirical script.
In the film, Barbie Land replicates the toy world Mattel sold to us growing up. Meant to be a utopia, the Barbies in Barbie Land are always happy, their feet are never flat, they’re thriving in any career they want, and they all represent a conventional beauty standard showing no physical flaws—no cellulite, no stretch marks, just shiny plastic.
After all, Barbies were made to be what every girl wanted to be.
It isn’t until stereotypical Barbie, unsurprisingly played by Robbie, starts to see her perfections falter, and she’s told to go to the real world to mend the relationship of the girl who used to play with the stereotypical Barbie’s doll.
When in the real world, Barbie is met with the reality of being a woman. She gets catcalled by men, passed off as “a bimbo” by a high school teen, and discovers women are marginalized. At the same time, Ken learns about and becomes enamoured with the patriarchy.
Ken returns to Barbie Land to overthrow the Barbie system and turns Barbie Land into “Kendom”—the Kens’ patriarchal haven.
The Barbies become marginalized, losing their power and status, and become subjugated into submissive roles as girlfriends and maids.
At the climax of the film, Gloria—played by America Ferrera—dives into the contradictions and expectations of womanhood as a product of the patriarchy after Barbie tells Gloria she feels like she’ll never be good enough.
Despite being categorized as a comedy genre, many see the film to hold thematic messaging that acts as a commentary on womanhood, gender roles, and how the patriarchy affects both women and men.
“Barbie does well flipping the script the movie shows us a world that women have long lived in. A world where women are sometimes perceived as decorative,” Holly Richardson from Deseret News said.
The accurate depiction of gender stereotypes is also commended.
“Barbie the movie exceeded all my expectations. Gender stereotypes are debunked and flung on their heads. Female sexuality is weaponized with hilarious results and the patriarchy is lampooned and attacked,” Emily Maddick from Glamour wrote.
On the other hand, others argue that while the film believes itself to be a feminist feature, it reinforces the same things it tries to critique.
Department Head of Gender Studies Professor Sailaja Krishnamurti discussed this paradox in an interview with The Journal.
“The movie thinks it’s making fun of [the stereotypical Barbie beauty aesthetic], but at the same time its reinforcing it,” Krishnamurti said.
“It’s both embodying and critiquing a kind of white feminism that privileges corporate success and really white beauty standards […] We have a Latina mom and her daughter who kind of become the human heroines of the show, but they’re implicated in white beauty culture in different ways.”
According to Krishnamurti, it’s important to acknowledge how Whiteness and blondeness operate as subtext of the film, despite the film attempting to be the thing it claims to critique.
There’s few Black women characters we see in the film. Issa Rae, the most prominent, is portrayed in a way where she’s adhering to those standards and norms.
While showing some representation in its cast, the film missed the mark.
“I think there’s something important to think about how queerness is represented in the film. In Barbie land you can’t be gay. Because then you just end up being weird Barbie. If we’re thinking about a fantasy world in which real world feminism, mainstream feminism is being critiqued, why not go that step of thinking about queer representation?”
She said that while Barbies don’t fully understand what sex is, they know its only to be performed on a heteronormative basis.
As a scholar, Krishnamurti is interested in the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and disability. For her, she not only thinks about how feminism is how women and men should be equal but rather how women can achieve liberation from all kinds of oppression for all people.
“If I think about it from that point of view—I can see why this film thinks its feminist. To me, it’s like a fun mainstream film, that maybe leaves some women feeling empowered, but I don’t see it as a big feminist intervention.”
“I don’t look at the film and think this is something that’s going to push feminism forward. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to push feminism backward either. It’s a film and it’s a cultural moment.”
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