Analysis Hollywood Hegemony

Barbie: A beautiful mess of contradictions

At the box office, Barbie seemed an inevitable success long before it landed in cinemas alongside Oppenheimer – but what might have surprised more people is the level of social and political dialogue it has inspired on the road to that success. Having expected to “have more criticisms of the film”, writer Rowan Queerly takes a look at the flawed brilliance of Greta Gerwig’s unlikely feminist polemic.

I loved watching Barbie. I’m sure you’ll find reviews which are far more focused on its cinematography, or which will tell you about the impeccable choreography, gorgeous costuming, exquisite soundtrack, the brilliantly timed physical comedy. It is a film with intensely perfect production values, as befits a movie about the world-famous childhood icon that is Barbie, who is after all nothing short of a vision of perfection. 

Instead, my perspective on the film centres more on the fact the movie spends a long time belabouring the contradictions of living as a woman under a patriarchal system. The constant striving for an impossible to achieve standard of perfection: you have to be everything, to everyone, at all times, but not too much or trying too hard.

The movie itself feels very similar. From the very first minutes it contains some impressively refreshing feminist and liberational messaging. That said, it also falls short for me in so many ways. Even so, I would argue that just as we should do for each other, we can celebrate Barbie the movie for its achievements, without ignoring the ways it could do better. 

Reasons to be cheerful

And there is much to celebrate! First and foremost, the popularity of Barbie, the movie, will undoubtedly introduce a lot of teenage girls to feminist thinking.

After the Space Odyssey introduction, lovingly voiced by Helen Mirren, tells us of girls wanting to be more than just mothers, we are dropped straight into ‘Barbieland’. We see a long montage of the Barbies, showing all the powerful and important roles held by Barbies: lawyers, doctors, chess-players, Nobel prize winners, the entire supreme court and of course the president. The Barbies openly share how proud they are of their achievements as they line up for accolades. Lawyer Barbie (Sharon Rooney) tells us, “This makes me emotional and I’m expressing it. I have no difficulty holding both logic and emotion at the same time, and it does not diminish my powers. It expands them”. This completely unsubtle feminist messaging would feel contrived anywhere else, but here in Barbieland, it sets the tone perfectly. Everything is larger-than-life, bold, bright, perfect. Oh, and Ken’s here too.

We follow Stereotypical Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) as this perfect world stops working for her. She starts having irrepressible thoughts of death, and then a montage of what we previously took to be her perfect day replays, with every moment going wrong. As a viewer in the real world, it just looks like she’s trying to go about her day with a bad flu, or hangover. Not necessarily the end of the world.  As a Barbie, however, that’s unthinkable. She has to journey to the ‘real world’ to find whoever is causing this – hoping that by fixing the problems of the real world she can fix her problems in Barbieland. 

Along this journey, we meet Gloria (America Ferrera) as she juggles being the head secretary to Mattel with trying to be the perfect mother, and her daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), a bratty teen who hates Barbie. These characters bring stark contrast to the idealistic female empowerment of Barbieland, highlighting the cognitive dissonance of being a woman under patriarchy, exploring the ways that the perfect Barbie image can be both a powerful inspiration, and an impossible standard of perfection. Their relationship to themselves and each other grows through them learning to embrace and share their more real, less idealised selves.

The other mother figure in the film is Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie (played by Rhea Perlman). She talks poignantly on the importance of letting your children grow beyond you, and further highlights the films strong values of independence and choice. The movie talks surprisingly meaningfully on the struggles of motherhood, embracing the messiness and contradictions of humanity, and even on the existential fear of ageing and dying.  It brings these topics up in ways that feel accessible and emotive. Not unthreatening, but not overwhelming either.  It makes such weighty human fears approachable in a way rarely seen, especially in something broadly marketed as a fun fantasy-comedy.

Alongside these female and Barbie driven narratives, we have Ken’s arc. Ryan Gosling’s leading Ken bases his entire identity on his relationship with Barbie, with very real feelings of hurt and rejection when she doesn’t reciprocate.

Once in the real world, he is stunned to learn of male empowerment. He mirrors the audience’s joy at the empowered Barbies from the opening scene, mooning at billboard advertisements showing men in sport, in government, in medicine, etc. This discovery of patriarchy offers a clear parallel to real life misogynistic radicalisation, as men struggle to find their place in the world and gravitate towards a philosophy that lets them indulge in misogynistic power fantasies. 

Ken’s story is handled with impressive sensitivity. Both humorous and sympathetic, his feelings are shown as important drivers of his behaviour, without ever excusing it or suggesting that it should be Barbie’s responsibility.  Ultimately the solution has to be for Ken to learn who he is without being defined by Barbie – as he figures out in song, “I’m just Ken, and I’m enough”. This is a radical departure from the impossible Catch-22 of women being told to just be nicer to men so they don’t feel rejected, or perhaps less nice to them so they don’t get the wrong idea.  It is also a loving demonstration for men, and anyone else who may be struggling with similar feelings, that it is ok to feel hurt by rejection, not ok to use that hurt to fuel misogyny and to subjugate others.

The treatment of Ken in the conclusion of the film feels liberational.  Ken has done harm to Barbieland by introducing patriarchy, and once the harm has been set right, and Ken has stopped perpetuating harm, the Barbies see no need to punish Ken. While I suspect the filmmakers did this to smooth the plot out, rather than to further any liberational thinking, the end result still feels akin to prison-abolitionism goals – restoring the victims and perpetrators of harm to full humanity, with the least amount of coercion and the maximum amount of care. We love to see it.

It is also intensely refreshing to see a film without a single classic romantic arc. The idea of a happy ever after, that can only be achieved by finding the one true love, is intensely pervasive through society, and intensely damaging. It is all too common for people to base their sense of self-worth around their relationship or lack of, putting intense pressure on all involved, and viewing breakups as a sign of failure, rather than a sign of incompatibility. The lack of romance in Barbie challenges this, showing that it is possible to have fulfilling stories, and fulfilling lives, without centring a romantic relationship.

The ‘but

I came in expecting to have more criticisms of the film, but the more thought I’ve put into it, the pettier each criticism felt. Barbie is a great movie, and I strongly recommend it.

That said, nothing is perfect, there are always flaws. Though I am not a screenwriter, I suspect many of the things I would want to see differently in Barbie are not feasible without adding to the runtime and reducing the coherence of the film.


Impossible standards exist so that we can strive to be closer to them, even while never meeting them. So let me share my criticisms, regardless of how unavoidable they might be:

Midge, Barbie’s pregnant friend, does not get fair treatment by the film. She is introduced, and summarily dismissed. It is clear this is supposed to be a satire of the way mainstream media and society overlooks pregnant people, but it is indistinguishable from that which it satirises. Midge at the very least could have been more present around Weird Barbie’s dreamhouse, home of the discontinued toys.

Elsewhere, the presentation of gender throughout seems extraordinarily second-wave-feminist. By this I mean men and women are completely opposed, much as Kens and Barbies. They have different jobs, different social roles, it feels a little like I’m back in the 90s watching “battle of the sexes: which sex can do it better?” programming. They do try to counteract this: there is a brief and hilarious interaction between Ken and a female doctor in the real world. But with so much of the film pitting men against women, or Kens against Barbies, I can’t help but feel an overall adversarial tone between the sexes throughout the film.

When the patriarchy comes to Barbieland, the Kens have power while the Barbies are reduced to being secondary citizens for a change. They become brainwashed simpering cheerleaders, to laugh at the Kens’ jokes and to serve brewskis. They dress much more revealingly, and are much warmer towards the Kens, who revel in this attention.

When they are freed from this brainwashing, they go back to their normal professions and go back to lording their control of power and resources over the Kens. I cannot help but read this as sex-negative, almost separatist – suggesting the only reason Barbies would be interested in Kens is through coercive control.

I don’t think this is a deliberate message on the part of the director, Greta Gerwig, her co-writer Noah Baumbach, or any of the filmmakers. But the idea that female attention is something men need to obtain by force or trickery is an insidiously common cultural trope and it is hard not to take influence from it.

It would also be nice to see more community from the Kens. Their conflict as they fight over the Barbies is important for the plot, but after the resolution of the major plot beats we could surely have spared a moment to see Kens sitting together sharing friendship. 

Perhaps that might have undermined what they were going for with the film’s final punchline, though. Barbie, the movie, has no utopian vision of an equal world. No shining perfection to strive towards. The ending, deliberately, leaves a sense of unease as the Kens are told “maybe one day, with hard work, Kens can have just as much power as women do in the real world!” in response to their pleas for equality. 

I cannot criticise the clever and biting cynicism shown here, and though I’d have liked a clearer cut happy ending, perhaps it’s better this way. Just as Barbie and Gloria learn through the film that it is ok to be imperfect, it is also ok for the film to be so, and for you and I. 

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