From the bright pink Warner Brothers logo to Helen Mirren’s irony-soaked opening voiceover, BARBIE sets itself up as a wildly vibes-based moment of silliness. But the film is so much more than that, and in many ways not even that at all. Instead, Greta Gerwig has created a sincere, self-aware, and joyous feminist masterpiece.
That energy – chaotic and candy-coated as it is – is integral to the entire story, and perhaps a reminder of the sorts of patriarchal expectations we might expect from a film widely assumed to be aimed at girls, gays and theys. The outlandish colour palette, the dance numbers, and a cast so unrelentingly beautiful that it becomes a joke in the narration are an entry point which isn’t for everyone. However, this story doesn’t need to be for everyone. Because beneath all that is a scathing, nuanced and necessary exploration of feminism, patriarchy and carving your own path.
In Barbieland everybody is Barbie, and Barbie is everything; a lawyer (Sharon Rooney), a physicist (Emma Mackey), the president (Issa Rae), a discontinued pregnant doll (Emerald Fennell) or a ‘Weird Barbie’ (Kate McKinnon) who was played with too hard. As the voiceover tells us, “Because Barbie can be anything, women can be anything”, this begins as a sardonic quip but eventually becomes a message of hope: a rallying cry for the real world. In fact, when Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling) visit the real world to repair the interdimensional glitch which has caused things to start going wrong for Stereotypical Barbie, we reach the real, big, beating heart of this feminist fairytale.
In BARBIE, Gerwig has created something empowering and self-aware. In the real world, ogled by men and deeply uncomfortable, Stereotypical Barbie says that she feels “aware, but like, of myself”. Ken, meanwhile, is having the time of his life learning all about the patriarchy. This sort of self-awareness runs through the film, the question of how to write a Barbie film in 2023 runs just below the surface of every dance number, monologue and beach off.
“…the film’s self-awareness offers an opportunity for a deeper engagement with contemporary feminism while maintaining a glossy and cheery sense of fun.”
However, the film’s self-awareness offers an opportunity for a deeper engagement with contemporary feminism while maintaining a glossy and cheery sense of fun. A scathingly hilarious comment from Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), the teenage real-world former owner of Stereotypical Barbie, is a prime example of this more involved reading. In planning how to reclaim Barbieland from the Kens and their newfound understanding of Patriarchy, Sasha quips about “white saviour Barbie”, and while this might not be a film for children, it’s certainly a film which understands the nuanced generational differences in feminism and treats young women with as much respect as their older counterparts, Barbie or human. Lines like these are not just meant to be hilarious but are vital to ensuring the film doesn’t replicate the hollow ideas of women’s empowerment heard in the opening monologue.
“…the film doesn’t replicate the hollow ideas of women’s empowerment heard in the opening monologue.”
Margot Robbie is a perfectly cast lead Barbie, and Ryan Gosling is sublime as the primary Ken, but in keeping with a world of equality where almost everyone is Barbie or Ken, the entire cast shines. America Ferrera’s Gloria feels like she could share a universe with Fererra’s Superstore character (an observation that is entirely a compliment), and Will Ferrell’s Mattel Executive is a deliciously haphazard villain. Kate McKinnon’s Weird Barbie and Michael Cera’s Allan are the sorts of loveable outsiders who will launch a thousand queer headcanons (for anyone wondering, in my head, Weird Barbie is a lesbian, and Allan is non-binary).
The first sign of things going wrong for Stereotypical Barbie is when she asks, halfway through a party, “Do you ever think about dying?” That question starts the journey at the film’s centre, which helps her and everyone around her think about what living means. This type of storytelling makes BARBIE so much more than two hours of vibes-based delight while also allowing it to be exactly that.