Barbie‘s Playful Complexity Does It All, and Does It Well

Movies Reviews Margot Robbie
Barbie‘s Playful Complexity Does It All, and Does It Well

To many, the portmanteau “Barbenheimer” is simply a fun meme the internet created to commemorate the same-day release of two widely contrasting summer blockbusters. Under more careful consideration, however, the manufactured rivalry between Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer—characterized by an acute emphasis on aesthetics, stereotypical gender expectations and Nolan’s very public disagreement with Barbie distributor Warner Bros.—spotlights deeper rooted issues surrounding corporate greed and the constant push and pull for power between the “feminine” and “masculine.” These stimulating reflections on our current cultural state, made evident through the Barbenheimer phenomenon, also exist at the heart of Gerwig’s sparkly new film. Bursting with big ideas on the complexities surrounding womanhood, patriarchy and the legacy of its eponymous subject, Barbie scores a hat trick for its magnificent balance of comedy, emotional intelligence and cultural relevance. 

The picture begins with a playful homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Dawn of Man sequence. Except, in Gerwig’s prelude, the apes are young girls and the wondrous discovery they make is not a monolith, but a 100-foot tall bathing-suit-wearing Barbie (Margot Robbie), who is there to put an end to Planet Earth’s sexism with her mere aspirationalism. The humorous scene is accompanied by narration from Helen Mirren, who acts as our guide into the dazzling world of Barbie Land. 

Barbie Land, as its name suggests, is an ultra-dreamy, ultra-pink universe where Barbies of all shapes, sizes and professions live together in perfect harmony. Here, Barbies are the doctors, construction workers, astronauts and political leaders of their peers. In addition to their extremely fulfilling careers, Barbies spend their days cruising in pastel convertible cars and enjoying elaborately choreographed dance parties with their Ken friends—how else would one spend eternity in a universe with no misogyny, sorrow or bodily fluids? Life is idyllic until Robbie’s Barbie, who refers to herself as Stereotypical Barbie, begins to experience an unprecedented existential crisis. These uncharacteristic anxieties, coupled with the fact that her once-permanently-tippy-toed feet have fallen flat, lead Barbie on a quest to the Real World in hopes of returning back to her normal, carefree self. When her adoring Ken (Ryan Gosling) joins her in her cross-realm voyage, ideologies are swapped, havoc is wreaked and major changes are brought upon Barbie Land.

One of the most significant, and unfortunate, discoveries Barbie makes in her jump from Barbie Land to the Real World is the hideousness of being catcalled by strangers in public. While roller skating down Venice Beach with Ken, Barbie is subjected to crude, unsolicited verbal harassment by just about every man she passes. In a matter of moments, the confident and self-assured leader we met at the start of the film begins to shrink into herself. In this sequence, Barbie is so naïve and inexperienced that she doesn’t even possess the vocabulary to express her discomfort or name her newfound self-consciousness. Instead, she directs the negative emotions inwards and internalizes them as shame. 

It’s a classic tale about growing up and getting crushed by society’s cruelty that proves to be endlessly relevant when portrayed through a female protagonist. We see Barbie’s journey across worlds become an allegory for our all-too-sudden shift from girlhood and adolescence to womanhood—a transition that is sometimes forced upon us prematurely by unwanted male attention or advances. Barbie, at least in this moment, is childhood, innocence, naivete—and her subjection to misogyny stings. 

On the flip side of that coin, we have Ken, who has a very different experience in Los Angeles. Once the himbo-boy-toy that was nothing more than an accessory to Barbie, Ken becomes empowered by his introduction to patriarchy. Although vastly different to Barbie’s, Ken’s journey proves equally timely, as Barbie is released as more and more boys and young men turn to misogynist media and social media personalities in search of guidance and community. 

In Ken, we witness an individual become radicalized after feeling disenfranchised by the successful women in his life. It’s through his character development where the thematic tensions between genders is most prominently on display. It’s a clash that, again, is interestingly mirrored in the real-life anticipation surrounding the simultaneous release of the film alongside Oppenheimer. Thanks to the internet, we have an opening weekend that has become almost gender-coded through the heavy focus and emphasis of what audiences should be wearing to each respective screening. That the Barbenheimer meme has become so popular speaks to the relevance of this conversation and why its inclusion in Barbie feels smart and opportune.

What’s important to note is that, yes, Gerwig is grappling with these heavy ideas of patriarchy and gender, but Barbie always maintains a delightful sense of play and lightheartedness. This is largely due to the pink, campy, absurd and absolutely bewitching set work created by Barbie’s production designer, Sarah Greenwood, and set decorator, Katie Spencer. The incredible sets that we see in the film are real, tangible places whose presence create a nostalgic desire to feel, grab and touch. The believability of the sets—“this is a real Barbie Dream House and Robbie is a real life Barbie doll,” we think—makes for an interesting meta layer for the film. We’re watching Gerwig be a giant kid and imagine, create and play, just as many of us did with our Barbies many years ago. 

This sense of self-awareness touches almost every aspect of Barbie, from the set design to the campy performances and even its handling of its source material. Writers Gerwig and Noah Baumbach obviously have a soft spot for Robbie’s character, and the beauty of humans in general, but they don’t allow their work with a large corporation like Mattel to prevent them from exploring Barbie’s complicated legacy throughout the film. What’s most refreshing is that the picture allows Barbie to be everything. She’s a happy memory of childhood and she’s a toy who forwarded impossible beauty standards. She’s a career-oriented icon and she’s something who, according to a passionate tween character, “set the women’s movement back years.” She’s never this or that, but this and that. Because that is her legacy, contradictory and ever-changing. 

Like its protagonist, Barbie is all the things all at once. Funny. Sentimental. Entertaining. Confrontational. Celebratory. Heartfelt. Heartbreaking. Kooky. Emotional. And, maybe most interestingly of all, a damn good time capsule for what was exciting and frightening in mainstream culture at this particular societal moment. 

Director: Greta Gerwig
Writer: Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach
Starring: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Issa Rae, Hari Nef, Simu Liu, Will Ferrell
Release Date: July 21, 2023

Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic, and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste Magazine, Film Cred, or Kathymichellechacon.com, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry, or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin