“Hi, Barbie!” is one of the newest trending phrases in modern popular culture. The reason for this trend, in which women and men randomly wave to one another in passing while referring to one another as “Barbie” or “Ken,” is the recent release of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” based on the wildly popular, plastic, fashion doll that we all know and love.
With this film, Gerwig takes a storytelling approach that is seldom seen in film or television adaptations of intellectual property targeted toward children. With this film, Gerwig decided to tell her story in a mature fashion that takes this children’s toy and places Barbie in a narrative more geared towards the adults who grew up with her. Barbie faces many obstacles that are not commonly portrayed with such vulnerability in children’s media. In one scene, Barbie is catcalled and touched inappropriately by a man, and in another a Barbie doll gets bleeped out in a line where she uses a hard expletive. Furthermore, Gerwig decides to use this narrative of a Barbie doll in Barbie Land to depict struggles of depression, anxiety and even body image struggles, which are all common struggles that women face, but that can be dense and complex concepts for any story to tackle, let alone a film about a plastic children’s toy that wears sparkly dresses and lives in a bright pink dreamhouse. However, Gerwig’s masterful writing makes it all work in the end.
One common complaint of this film is that it seems to force a sexist, ultra-feminist agenda that can be seen as praising women as superior to men. While the film is definitely a feminist story (which the world needs more of, to be honest) it actually paints a beautiful image of the ways in which men and women (or, in this case, Kens and Barbies) can coexist with one another in a healthy manner that does not actively oppress or put down either gender. The majority of the film depicts the main Ken (Ryan Gosling) discovering the patriarchal societal structure of the “real world” (the modern day United States). This is a pivotal moment in the film because in Barbie Land, the gender roles are basically polar opposite. The Barbies run everything and hold all significant positions of power, while the Kens spend all of their time mindlessly chilling on the beach looking pretty. This sets it up so the perspectives of life in a functioning society are immediately flipped upside down for both Ken and Barbie (Margot Robbie); Ken learns that the “real world” gives men the majority of the roles of high authority and power, while Barbie learns that women are not respected anywhere near as much as they should be. These changes in perspective cause two very different forms of character development for each. Ken’s ego inflates and he goes back to Barbie Land with a new trashy and entitled attitude, while Barbie becomes deeply troubled and has a mental breakdown while she tries to wrap her mind around the difficult issues and struggles that women face.
Despite this somewhat polarizing central conflict, Gerwig does not for even a second let the film lose its sense of playfulness and outright goofiness. That’s the real glue that holds this film together as a crowd-pleasing and wildly entertaining film. Additionally, everything that occurs throughout this film is tied back to something so obviously ridiculous, such as the fact that everything the Barbies and Kens do or say in Barbie Land are meant to be the kinds of things a child would make their Barbie doll say when playing an imaginary game with their dolls in their bedroom. Another example of this is when Ken injures himself, he goes to the doctor but doesn’t even need treatment because his plastic limbs instantly heal and never actually hurt.
Overall, Barbie is a bold and colorful film that takes a staple of American childhood and pairs the juvenile nature of the toy with a raw and vulnerable story of the flaws and holes in modern political systems and societal structures, as well as the true conflict of gender equality that pervades those systems. The theme, at the end of the day, is that despite our human failings and senseless arguments, we are all (men and women alike) “Kenough.”