On July 29, I saw one of the most culturally significant films of 2023 and perhaps the rest of the decade. The Barbie movie and its stellar, star-studded cast did not disappoint in the slightest; and, contra its critics, the film is extremely well done and intellectually compelling.
Director Greta Gerwig’s design is intentional and well-crafted. The aesthetics of Barbieland are striking against the realistic Los Angeles and corporate Mattel. Barbie and Ken embrace these creative decisions with their outrageous garb and idealistic ignorance. And to top it all off, the movie was quite funny. It is directed and presented as well as it possibly could be given the complex topics it tackles.
That said, casting and production can only carry a movie so far.
Margot Robbie’s performance as Barbie fits this movie to perfection. Slim, blonde, and always smiling, Robbie is the stereotypical Barbie: She has neither an occupation nor any need to flirt with imperfections that would cut against the ideal of a woman who can be anything and is expected to embody everything.
The realities that confront many women in the real world crush Robbie’s Barbie, marking a complete departure from the fabulous Barbieland she has always known. She learns the real world sucks, but it is from that realization that beauty comes.
Despite the recent feminist attempt to dismiss Barbie as some tool of the patriarchy, it is Robbie’s stereotypical Barbie who can tell an old, hunched over woman she is beautiful. Experiencing lasciviousness, resentment, and the beauty of reality, she transforms from a doll into a woman capable of feeling emotion in such a short span of time.
The ending emphasizes her character’s growth, as she goes to a gynecologist despite earlier saying she had no genitalia. Albeit a little on the nose, the scene expresses an escape from the fantasy of false perfection. Becoming a real woman shows her that life in plastic is not always fantastic.
As second fiddle to Robbie’s Barbie, Ryan Gosling’s Ken makes a name of his own, capturing audiences with his overly infantilized masculinity and insecurities.
Ken is nothing without Barbie, a fact not only reinforced by Mattel and the narrator but even by Ken’s own admission. He seeks her attention at all costs, beefing with other Kens who hold the same occupation of beach (yes, just beach).
For a moment, however, it seemed as if Ken was liberated. In the real world, Ken is acknowledged as a person, no longer ignored as a non-entity. He gets to see all of the exploits of men in the real world that are either exclusive to Barbies or simply nonexistent in Barbieland.
He concludes that the patriarchy, a term used ad nauseam to describe both the real world and Ken’s takeover of Barbieland, is amazing. The recognition he always wanted was right in front of him for the taking. So, he returns to Barbieland and institutes his own patriarchy of Kendom, bestowing recognition upon all Kens.
Despite the implied character development, Ken never overcomes his connection to Barbie (as expressed in the wonderful “I’m Just Ken” musical number). His design, after all, is to be the second in “Barbie and Ken”; and the movie ends as it started, with Ken rejected before he can even start pursuing her.
The character of Ruth accentuates the movie’s core focus: the importance of Barbie’s meaning and becoming.
Played by Rhea Perlman, Ruth is the ghost of Barbie’s creator. She is introduced seemingly randomly as a comfort to Barbie. However, her true importance emerges after Kendom has been halted in its march and Barbieland is restored. Barbie is at a crossroads, unsure of what she wants to do.
Enter Ruth, who talks with Barbie and tells the newfound woman that she named her after her own daughter, Barbara. Ruth did this so her daughter could imagine herself as anything she aspires to be.
Ruth’s explanation frees Barbie from the shackles of perfection and the plastic world—an ironic twist. While Barbie sets unrealistic expectations, as explicitly stated by the daughter character, she herself is able to escape her design and become a real woman destined for the real world.
It would have been so easy for this film to slide down the slope of stereotypical feminism and dismiss Barbie as completely irredeemable; but, through Ruth, Gerwig and her crew make it clear that this iconic toy is far more than a hurdle to female empowerment. Barbie liberates women in her own way.
Despite this fascinating range of characters and the complex interplay of gender dynamics in the real world and toy fantasy, Gerwig’s film still falls short in the crucial area of relations between Barbie and Ken.
Ultimately, it is in light of Ken’s aggressive and attention-seeking campaign to establish the patriarchy that Barbie truly finds herself. Ken eventually learns that Barbie has rejected him and seemingly gives up, being “Kenough.” However, this is an entirely unsatisfying dynamic that leaves us where the movie started. It completely defeats the purpose of their adventure into the real world and their separation.
By the end of the movie, both Barbie and Ken are purposeless after liberation. Saying “go find your own purpose” is never the answer to a lack of purpose, especially when the Mattel CEO admits that Barbie and Ken should end up together.
In all of the caricatures this movie uses to sneer at contemporary feminism and caricatured masculinity, it falls short of offering conclusive insights. The progression of this film, up until the very end, suggests that the phrase “Barbie and Ken” would truly mean “Barbie and Ken”.
Instead, Gerwig and the writers opted for a weak ending wherein Barbie severs her connection to Ken, a man literally made for her, and goes to pursue her own powerful woman-things, like visiting the gynecologist. The potential for reconciliation between a newfound woman and a man seeking validation from the love of his life is squashed in a moment.
And while equality is uninhibitedly described as a better approach, the Barbies still reinstate their matriarchy with a mere token of positive change meant to poke fun at contemporary societal norms that exclude women from positions of power . . . like the Supreme Court.
The ending of this film is merely status quo ante. All of the conflicts reach their crescendo and then fall flat. Perhaps it is for satirical effect, poking fun at the seemingly unchanging nature of the real world’s status quo? But if so, it’s done with a density that could make one believe Ken himself penned the ending.
Barbie, as popular and controversial as it may be, is easily misread due to its inherent confusion. The concepts of equality, feminism, and motherhood are just too complex for the movie to address cohesively. Rather than reading this movie as entirely feminist or as an unorthodox critique of modern feminism, we should just take it as it is: incomplete. The story really isn’t over.
Regardless of its ambiguous leanings and unsatisfying narrative ending, Barbie is an immaculate production that is extremely thought-provoking.
* The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.