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Barbie in Review and Why it is Not a Threat to Men

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at SPU chapter.

Walking into the movie theater amidst the sea of pink outfits, I had few expectations for the Barbie movie. It blew the box office out of the water with the biggest opening weekend for a film directed by a woman (Greta Gerwig), and the Barbenheimer craze had helped both Barbie and Oppenheimer dominate this summer. When Barbie opened, I was an intern at a publishing company with particularly conservative employees who shared their disdain for the movie because it was “too woke.” With that comment in mind, I couldn’t wait to see it. Barbie did not disappoint. On the surface it was full of pink, perfectly quaffed hair, dazzling sets, and a plethora of outfits displayed ingeniously for Mattel marketing and sales. Beyond the visuals, though, Barbie, with its on-the-nose humor and deep look at the human condition left me feeling more seen and understood by a movie than I have ever felt in my life. The narrator (Helen Mirren) follows Mattel through its history with Barbie and Barbie Land. She makes comments about discontinued dolls like Midge, a pregnant Barbie, and how Barbie became an icon of diversity and female empowerment, inspiring young girls to become doctors, astronauts, ballerinas, or vets. You name it, Barbie has done it. 

This leads us to present day Barbie Land, where Margot Robbie plays “stereotypical barbie,” a white blonde who doesn’t have a prescribed career path. In Barbie Land every Barbie has their own house, and every day is the same: full of magic and fun. The Kens join the scene for the day, where Ryan Gosling’s Ken battles it out with the other Kens to impress Barbie. At night Ken attempts to stay the night with Barbie, to which he is given a cold rejection because every night is girl’s night at Barbie’s house. 

This opening sets us up for an adventure with Barbie who starts to lose her everyday magic, starting with her flat feet. She visits weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) who gives her the option of a stiletto or a Birkenstock, which I particularly laughed at, living in the pacific northwest. To Barbie’s dismay, weird Barbie is not actually giving her a choice, but sends her on a quest to find her owner in the real world who must be having a hard enough time that her emotions are affecting Barbie. In the midst of Barbie’s reservations she is determined to make things right, and sets off alone. Ken, wanting to win Barbie’s heart for certain, hides in her car, surprising her with his company. However, Ken doesn’t support Barbie; he slows her down, doesn’t listen to her feelings of unsafety, while they skate around venice beach, and promptly leaves her at a bus station, leading him to discover “patriarchy,” which consequently turns Barbie Land on its head. 

Sidebar on Ken for a moment. Many complaints I heard about Barbie were from men who felt slighted by the portrayal of Ken. One man I spoke to shared that there was no one in the Barbie movie who he aspired to be. Another was disappointed that all the men in the movie, including the ones in the real world, were idiots. It’s almost as if the movie was objectifying these airhead men, with six pack abs, and sparkling smiles….why does that sound familiar? 

Oh right, because that is how women have been portrayed in most movies. Does it make this portrayal right? No. But that’s not the point. Could the Barbie movie have tread more delicately to make men feel better? Sure. But with all of history to cover, there was not enough time. The movie was not trying to threaten masculinity, but give everyone an opportunity to step into the shoes of women. Women have been treated as the cherry on top of films since films were created. They rarely had powerful roles that stood on their own, but tended to be compliments to men, who treated them as trophy wives. In Casablanca (1942), Ingrid Bergman plays a woman escaping occupied France with her husband who is a resistance fighter. This movie is a beautiful classic, and it won the Oscar for Outstanding Motion Picture; but Bergman’s character relies on Rick (Humphrey Bogart) to choose adultery or an escape to America, instead of standing on her own moral ground. 

Another movie As Good as It Gets (1997), won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, and took home both Oscars for Best Actor and Actress with Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson. This film portrays Jack Nicholson, an OCD bachelor, who befriends a waitress, Helen Hunt. He preys on her kind nature, asking her to accompany him on a weekend trip. As Nicholson and Hunt fall in love, Nicholson’s OCD habits start to lessen, and the audience is supposed to find Hunt’s affect on him endearing. However, I viewed this movie as a lesson in grooming tendencies from a creepy old man who takes an interest in this single mother who has little way to support herself. Neither Ingrid Bergman or Helen Hunt play aspirational roles, and both create the narrative that women should be pretty and submissive. Just in case you’re not familiar with those two movies, take a look at the absence of consent and diversity in body type in any of the Disney Princess movies up until maybe Princess and the Frog. But back to Barbie. 

Once Ken leaves Barbie at the bus station, Barbie notices the array of emotion contained in the real world. She sees a couple laughing together, a man with his head in his hands, and a few different pictures of life that bring tears to her eyes. Next to Barbie sits an old woman, played by Ann Roth, an Oscar-winning costume designer. Barbie calls her beautiful to which the woman answers “I know.” This was the first moment I cried in the film. Earlier, Barbie had discovered cellulite on her leg and was willing to do anything to get rid of it. I was disappointed at this scene because cellulite is such a natural part of aging and it should not be put to shame. However, the bus stop scene with Roth showed a growth in Barbie’s idea of beauty. Instead of shuttering at Roth’s old age and wrinkles, she sees the beauty in age, and is met with the confidence of a woman who knows her own beauty as well. As Barbie journeys throughout the real world she sees the complexity of humanity, and difficulties that come with cultivating loving relationships, and how even the Barbie franchise has been problematic to female norms and body image issues. 

Interestingly, the real world continued to portray men similarly to the shallow Kens in Barbie Land. This was inconsistent with the difference in how the Barbies acted versus the women in the human world, and I could understand how this was an ill-representation of the many real-life men who are quick to empower women. However, considering the history of male and female portrayal in movies it makes sense that Greta Gerwig (director) wanted to drive the point home and make all men act how women have often been told to act. 

Towards the end of the film, Barbie returns to a broken Barbie Land, rescues the other Barbies from patriarchal brainwashing, with the help of the mom and daughter duo played by America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt, and tries to mend things with Ken. When Ken excludes Barbie from his Mojo Dojo Casa House, she realizes that her norm of having girls night every night is harmful too. Her closing conversation with Ken was the second point in the movie that brought tears to my eyes. This talk revealed Barbie’s struggle to learn who she is without a prescribed career path and Ken’s struggle to know who he is without Barbie. In the bigger realm of the movie, it also showed that neither Barbie Land, nor the real world are supposed to be the ideal. In “perfect” Barbie Land, the Kens were ignored and made to feel small, and in the real world, gender roles were more complicated on every level. The Barbie movie was not advocating for women to take over, or to raise men as eye candy, but it was asking the audience to consider how we can do better together. Ken and Barbie’s last conversation made me cry because I understand how it feels to want to be a strong independent woman whose want for connection and whose lack of a life plan or career path does not make her weak. 

In the end, Barbie chooses to live in the real world and find her life’s calling, which fittingly started with a visit to the gynecologist because women’s health has nothing to do with a career path. Ken decides to figure out who he is without Barbie, and thus Barbie Land and Human Land continue to find their way out of brokenness. This movie is a beautiful portrayal of the difficulties in gender roles, finding one’s identity, and navigating relationships. It made me laugh and cry, and prompted many in-depth conversations. Ultimately, a movie will only make you feel less than if you let it, and great movies will show you parts of who you are, and parts of the world, which is what Barbie did for me.

Audrey Rekedal is a junior at Seattle Pacific University and a new writer for Her Campus! She is double majoring in Political Science and Economics, and is still figuring out what that means for her future. She is from sunny southern California, but has learned to love Washington even with the gloomy weather. Audrey keeps busy with her involvement in SPU's rowing team, walking on as a freshman, and now starting her third year on varsity. Outside of school, Audrey loves hiking or doing anything outside, she loves painting, reading, and watching movies. Audrey is excited to share her perspective on Her Campus on anything from social justice to why Trader Joe's is the best grocery store.