Barbies, a.k.a Feminism 101?

Warning: Review contains spoilers.

Over this summer, the blazing-pink cinematic nuclear warhead that is Barbenheimer – the sobriquet of the dual releases of Barbie and Oppenheimer – hit theaters worldwide. In its anticipated descent and eventual blast, various memes have dominated the internet (“One ticket to [Barbenheimer], please!”) It’s fair to say that Barbie is one of the biggest cultural phenomena of the summer.

Barbie got viewers showing up to the cinema as if it was a festival and a celebration: people dressing up in frilly pink dresses (sometimes, half-crossed with the somber suits and ties of Oppenheimer), pink boots and high-heels, make-up, and chiming “Hi Barbie!” across the theater. The Barbie aesthetic is a celebration of stereotypical femininity. The movie began with Stereotypical Barbie: white, blonde, young, beautiful, and cladded in pink. She has a perfect life with her fellow perfect Barbies, who are all incredibly accomplished women in incredibly accomplished fields. In Barbieland, Barbies are the dominating sex: the President is Barbie, the Supreme Court justices are Barbies, the media are Barbies, and so are the doctors, lawyers, scientists, astronauts, writers, garbage collectors, construction workers. All in all, Barbies keep the world turning. And the world will keep being perfect for Barbie, from days flowing into Girl Nights into perfect new days, up until Barbie abruptly receives the intrusion of the concept of death. 

And so begins Barbie’s journey into the Real World, where humans live, to “fix” her “problems”. Here introduced the awkward disaccord between the body and the mind: Barbie’s physicalities, for the lack of better words, are… matured, in contrast to her innocence and child-like mind, a reflection of the little girls who imparted their thoughts and limited understanding of the real world. Like a girl entering the horror of puberty, where her body and the world’s conception of it has grown abruptly and hurriedly beyond what her mind can yet comprehend, Barbie struggles with this change: the stares, the snickerings, the pointings, the abrupt obviousness of her own sexuality that she has never had, now thrusted upon her by the world – “with the undertone of violence” – and yet she must persevere to preserve her original, innocent state. 

While celebrated for many commercial and pop-cultural feats, a portion of the Internet was torn about the real-cultural impact of Barbie. In Gerwig’s signature monologue about womanhood, Gloria (played by actress America Ferrera), Sasha’s mother, Mattel employee, and revealed as the one behind Barbie’s mortality crisis, expounds on the ridiculous requirements and restrictions upon women: “You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood. But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful.” America Ferrera’s fierce performance translates the monologue from the textbook to real-life: from sadness and disgruntlement for Barbie, a doll designed to be beautiful and perfect ultimately defeated by patriarchy, to confusion, as she navigates the expectations the world has for her, which quickly turned into convictions and anger as she discovered that their expectation is contradictory and impossible, to an ultimate weariness that clings any woman ages past what the world demanded her to be: “It turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.” 

Despite it being the emotional climax of the movie – the point of the narrative, even – these tenets offered by Barbie are criticized as being “nothing groundbreaking”. Feminists have talked about the impossible standards society demands from women and in fact, have had extensive discussion about its origins, its subtle role in subjugation, and offered ways to navigate, disrupt, or discard it completely. So what does Barbie contribute to the discussion?

In the way the question was framed above, perhaps I am trapped into admitting that the answer is “Nothing.” Growing up a girl afforded me a lesson or two on feminism and while the monologue contained ideas I already knew, I do not believe this was the point. Barbie is not meant to be some grand foundation of Feminism 2.0, but rather is meant to shine a light on the foundations already built, allowing us to reexamine them. The point was to show that weariness and conviction come from the awareness of gender and what people expect of it. It was to ask if our femininity can be defined by a doll donned with the shape of a woman. And, furthermore, this asks if we can escape our gender. The performance was heightened by how openly displayed Gloria’s emotions are: she is sad, frustrated, convicted, angry, and tired – all the negative emotions we’ve been taught as young girls to suppress. “You have to … never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line.” Displays of anger are considered ruden, bitchy, and whiny. They are condemned because they are “not constructive.” But if this is so, then why can passionate speeches move the mind? Why anger at injustice? Ferrera’s performance provides the platform to animates feminist ideals into real life, waking the silent indignation of textbooks into voices. She brings these emotions home, and demands that you not only comprehend it, but live it, bear the brunt of it, and deal with it. We see Barbie learn about the real world to show that despite it all she wants to experience life as it is – as its rich, moving, always changing, frustrated, and problematic world that brings aging and cellulites to her perfect plastic-like body – not some glorified, pink, fantastical idealism that society has deemed perfection. 

These emotions and experiences cannot be articulated properly without the language of feminism. The point of the movie is the frustration Gloria felt for the oppressive and fruitless structures women find themselves in. The point is her weariness and conviction come from the awareness of her gender and what people expect of it. The women and girls in the millions of people that watched Barbie may find themselves identifying with the speech either through their raw experiences or through the refined lens of sociological theory. But they all must see themselves with their emotions, confusions, frustration, that Gloria delivers them, and perhaps are struck with new lenses to see the world they have always known: If all this horrible and fruitless things about womanhood is true for just a doll donned with the shape of a woman, then what? Are we doomed just because we cannot escape our gender?

The narrative claims that despite it all, women still have a fighting chance. There is meaning in living, in loving, and in participating and even creating in a societal structure that is very much not designed for them. In the end, order is restored to Barbieland: the change to the Constitution is reversed, Barbies are back as the dominant gender, but for Stereotypical Barbie, things have changed. She has learned about the Real World, and despite it all she wants to experience life as it is – as its rich, moving, always changing, frustrated world that brings aging and cellulites to her perfect plastic-like body. Somehow, in her chaotic and tumultuous chase around the Real World, riddled with dangers and violence, she found meaning in the women she met: an aging woman at the bus stop, the ghost of the creator of Barbie, Gloria, and her teenage daughter Sasha.

It is a shame that the narrative structure of Barbie (which, after all, is an allegory for growing up, and the unsettling transition from childhood to adulthood) does not highlight why Barbie wants to pursue this life, but nonetheless there is an explanation in the process of Barbie becoming human, analogous to how humans often live on anyway while struggling to define our meanings, intention, and wishes for our lives: we have to define it in the nonstop motions of life, not outside of it. In the end, the emotional weight and its meaning outweigh the struggle. Yes, the world is terrible, and it is hard, and it is particularly hard in a certain way because you are born this way, but you live and you will live and you actively fight against it or you don’t, and your life still has meaning, at the end of it all. You can still be happy. 

Perhaps this is not the answer to all the questions posed by feminism, nor groundbreaking ones, but it offers hope: hope found in urging you to re-examine life, and find meaning to persist.