If Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’ made one thing clear, it’s that being a woman, as joyous and incredibly nuanced an experience as it can be, is no easy feat. But, to many, that’s what makes the film so special. And with the box office stats to back it up, ‘Barbie’ has struck the hearts of moviegoers, and women in particular, worldwide. From storming movie theaters in swarms of pink to the emergence of touching TikTok trends celebrating girlhood, it’s clear the film’s success is operating on a deeper level – through ‘Barbie’, women feel seen and heard. But why? What do the film’s themes say about being a real, ‘ordinary’ woman? Here’s our take on what Barbie’s final transformation says about women’s larger struggle to have society acknowledge their humanity, the ways the film is in conversation with modern feminism, and the real conclusion Mattel needs to take from this movie’s major success.
BARBIE AND THE ORDINARY WOMAN
To the general public, Barbie has long been viewed as an extraordinary woman, an ideal of perfection, intellect, and beauty for young girls to aspire to. And our introduction to Barbieland is no different – each Barbie we meet is smart, beautiful, and talented. But by the end of the film, Stereotypical Barbie willingly trades her perfect life in Barbieland for a ‘normal’, ‘ordinary’ one as a real woman. The cellulite, bad breath, and intense waves of emotion that Barbie initially saw as things to be fixed become traits that she is ready to live with.
The human experience is laden with complicated emotions and imperfections, but ‘Barbie’ brilliantly depicts the added weight of the female experience, and what women have to go through in order to be seen as human. While her wit, charm, and confidence leads to respect in Barbieland, in the real world that’s certainly not the case. Women are socialized to go after an unattainable ideal, with the idea that once they finally reach that point of “perfection” then they’ll finally get taken seriously. But as Barbie finds out in the real world and the mojo dojo casa house, it can feel nearly impossible to get anyone to see your true value when living as a woman within a patriarchal society. But, we don’t only see this through Barbie – in fact, it’s Gloria who truly shows Barbie what it means to be a woman. While we initially assume Barbie’s real world connection is with Sasha, we soon come to find that it was actually her mother Gloria that Barbie needed to find all along. Stuck in deep mourning of her own girlhood and feeling like she’s losing her connection to her daughter as she grows into a young woman, Gloria’s sadness is the catalyst for Barbie’s malfunctions.Her “ordinaryness” is what makes her relatable – Gloria emphasizes the true sadness of growing up and discovering the harsh realities of being a woman. But, her human perspective allows Barbie to make sense of her hopelessness. Gloria’s rousing monologue brutally examines the excruciating hardships that come with being a woman, in return giving Barbie the motivation necessary to regain power of Barbieland. Through watching Gloria find her own inner confidence and sense of self-worth, Barbie also realizes her own desire for that kind of deep connection, even if it does mean accepting the downsides, too. While being a woman in a patriarchal society is fraught with problems, ‘Barbie’ makes it clear that the issue isn’t femininity or something inherent to women, and uplifts and celebrates the beauty of embracing womanhood fully. It is this ability to fully feel, and her new friends recognizing her humanity, that finally makes Barbie a ‘real woman’. And by finding confidence in her inner voice, Gloria reconnects with her daughter and creates a happier and more fulfilling life for herself. And although Barbie sheds her voluminous hair and glitzy outfits for plain blazers and gyno appointments, she has opened her heart to the nuanced yet beautiful experience of humanity. In the end, becoming an ‘ordinary woman’ isn’t about what she has to give up, but about what she gains by walking open eyed into the full experience of womanhood.
BARBIE & MODERN FEMINISM
Although Mattel might not say so, ‘Barbie’ is undoubtedly a feminist film. Yet, centering this story around a figure with such a controversial history with feminism was not necessarily easy to navigate. The team had to make the film feel relevant to modern conversations while simultaneously grappling with the doll’s past. Luckily, Gerwig’s inherent knack for emotionally moving stories centering complex female characters gives ‘Barbie’ the emotional resonance necessary to achieve an impactful feminist story. Feminism has been through many waves and changes since Barbie’s introduction in 1959, and she’s been labeled as a bad role model – or even the source of the problem – on more than one occasion. So the framing of the film, where even Barbie herself has things to learn about real womanhood, allowed the film to contend with the more problematic parts of Barbie’s past while also attempting to imagine a more positive path for her in the future.
While some of the film’s approach to feminism may feel slightly on the nose, it seems that its creators knew that it needed to be in order to get the point across to everyone. The campiness and comedy allow the film to navigate tough conversations in a relatable, engaging way. The movie is directly in conversation with Barbie’s history as a paragon of a very specific ideal feminine beauty, and the problems that has created for women and girls in the real world for decades. While it took Mattel until the 80s to add dolls of color to the Barbie roster and even longer to incorporate different body types, diversity is an inherent component of Gerwig’s Barbieland. The film is also meta in its awareness of star Margot Robbie’s beauty, breaking the fourth wall to poke fun at the idea of her being upset by becoming ‘normal’. By openly taking jabs at Barbie’s complicated history, the film assures viewers that the creators aren’t afraid of contending with the issues head on. Gerwig is aware that Barbie has not always been an inclusive figure, and uses absurdity and camp to paint a diverse portrait of femininity to the diverse audience engaging with the film.
And it’s this self-awareness that allows the film’s emotional blows to land as well, thanks to Gerwig’s sensibilities as not only a feminist filmmaker, but an indie one as well. With ‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Little Women’ under her belt, it’s clear that Gerwig has a great talent for telling intimate stories of womanhood. And rather than just being a surface level takedown of the patriarchy, Gerwig expertly weaves in emotionally grounded story components that not only give ‘Barbie’ a feminist edge, but a human perspective.
One part of the ending does slightly deflate the film’s larger conversation about the negative effects of the patriarchy, however. The relative ease with which the Barbies take back control of Barbieland makes the fact that the real life patriarchy isn’t even really dealt with at all in the end feel even more pronounced. Of course, dismantling our patriarchal society in the real world is going to take a lot more than some subterfuge during a campfire singalong, but the fact that the movie kind of seems to just accept that there won’t be any change outside of Barbieland feels out of line with the rest of the film. Gloria’s idea for an ‘Ordinary Barbie’ is powerful – as it shows not only her personal growth but also echoes the film’s rejection of universal beauty standards and unattainable ideals that hold women back from reaching their true potential. But, she still must run it by Mattel’s male CEO, who initially shoots the idea down and only accepts it not because it’s a good idea but because it will be profitable. Having one of the final messages of the film be ‘sure, we’ll pretend to care about you normies as long as we can make money off you’ from the very people that financed the movie feels incongruent with the rest of the film’s embrace of normality and loving yourself as you are. (Or, more cynically, like the company showing its hand.) It makes it clear that despite the tireless efforts of the Barbies, in the real world men (and the dollar,) still have a tight grip on society. But this doesn’t mean that the entire film’s message is for naught. Sure, the real world might not have been fixed yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be in the future. Overcoming the patriarchy in Barbieland showed Barbie and Gloria and Sasha how important it is to not give up on affecting change, even when it feels like the odds are insurmountable. And ending with Barbie making the choice to live as an ordinary woman in real life gives a feeling of hope that – with conscious effort and team work on our parts – change can come to the real world, too.
WHAT ‘BARBIE’ REALLY TELLS US ABOUT FILM’S FUTURE
The success of ‘Barbie’ was revitalizing for Mattel, who had been grappling with how to rekindle interest in brand IP for years prior to the film’s release. But it seems that they might have taken the wrong conclusion from Barbie’s stunning success. They’ve jam packed a years-long film slate with movies about toys – including content ranging from a JJ Abrams helmed Hot Wheels adaptation to Lena Dunham’s take on Polly Pocket fronted by Lily Collins. It seems that, in their minds, Barbie doing so well means people just want to see every single childhood toy they can remember living out some kind of dramatic story. But Barbie being a well known toy wasn’t what really led to the film’s runaway success.
All things considered, ‘Barbie’ was a huge risk. Yet, somehow, it worked. Not because it was a movie about a toy, but because it was a movie about women made by women. The ‘Barbie’ phenomenon proves that what women really want to see are female-focused stories capturing them as people with depth and nuance, not just surface level ‘strong female characters’ tagged onto a story for brownie points. And, importantly, it also proved that “films about women” aren’t just some unprofitable niche, but something audiences across the board are interested in and willing to pay to see. Hollywood has long shown preference for male characters, seemingly operating under the assumption that they’re seen as the “default human” that everyone can relate to, while audiences will have a harder time connecting with women. There’s also long been a bias towards male audiences because of the assumption that young men were the main people paying for movie tickets. But the truth has always been that audiences, regardless of gender, will absolutely show up to watch well written female protagonists across genres. Barbie’s success wasn’t a fluke, but a direct result of Gerwig and company working to create a character that felt real and honest, and a story that was compelling and didn’t just rest on its laurels.
While Barbie’s iconic IP was bound to create buzz regardless of the names attached, the Barbie phenomenon was so impactful largely due to the amazing creative teams both in front of and behind the camera. Production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer truly brought the world of Barbie to life with their intricate and detail-oriented sets replicating the sheer vibrant joy of girlhood. In contrast with many blockbuster filmmakers relying on building entire worlds solely using greenscreens and VFX, Gerwig and Robbie held steadfast on conveying the magic of Barbie on screen through practical designs that show their deep care for the subject matter. Throughout the production process, the women fought for their own distinct vision, warding off multiple attempts on Mattel’s end to protect the brands’ image at the expense of the story. This meant fighting for the inclusion of scenes criticizing the historical legacy of Barbie, and even rejecting a request to change Robbie’s ‘Stereotypical Barbie’ to ‘Original Barbie’. And in the end, it was Gerwig and Robbie’s distinct vision that made the movie so great. Looking at the reactions to the film, and how deeply it has moved so many people, it’s clear that the audience’s love for the movie isn’t just about their connection to Barbie, the doll created by the Mattel company. The creative team dug deeper to create a narrative that was true to the female experience, and that women and girls could all see themselves in – and that men had no problem enjoying, too. And that’s what made the movie such a huge success. So if Mattel wants to see similar reactions (and success) with their upcoming toy-related projects, they need to focus on story not IP.
‘Barbie’s success is not only a crucial moment for cinema, but for women everywhere. To have a major blockbuster film made by women, for women is no small feat and speaks volumes about the kind of content female viewers are yearning for on their screens. And while Mattel may try to recreate the ‘Barbie’ phenomenon, the karmic combination of Gerwig, Robbie, and the iconic Barbie brand is a once-in-a-lifetime type collaboration that we’re lucky to have experienced. Going forward, we can only hope that studio executives continue to bring authentic depictions of womanhood to the screen, no matter how perfect or plastic they might seem on the surface.