Womanhood and what it means in today’s world are explored often in media, but discussed alongside the doll that for many children represented womanhood makes Barbie a wholly unique exploration of that topic. Barbie the product creates unrealistic expectations for little girls, and Barbie the character learns exactly what those expectations are. Life in Barbie’s perfect plastic world is just a fantasy, and not truly fantastic, as Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” indicates. Greta Gerwig’s vision is eye-popping in its candy coating, but it’s an emotional commentary on the molds and stereotypes that women and men are often forced to conform to. It can feel heavy-handed at times but it’s hilarious and Kenergetic.
There are many Barbie girls in Barbieland, but the version that the film follows closely is Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie). Blonde and perfect from head to toe, she lives in a dazzling pink palace surrounded by an entire world of colorful toy sets. Her life in plastic seems fantastic on the surface, translating into the joy of a child opening their Barbie dreamhouse for the first time. It’s a grown-up iteration of this fantasy, brought to life with incredible Sarah Greenwood production design. From Barbie’s closet, styled like the inside of her box, to the fake water in the pool and fake food in the fridge, every detail brings authenticity to the experience of seeing this world come to life. Even Jacqueline Durran’s costume recreations evoke a feeling of potent nostalgia, and a technicolor disco number introduces the sparkling energy that the film is imbued with.
Stereotypical Barbie interacts with many different Barbies in this world, and they all possess something she doesn’t: careers. There’s a doctor (Hari Nef), a writer (Alexandra Shipp), a physicist (Emma Mackey), and even a president (Issa Rae). If they don’t have a career, they possess a trait that makes them stand out from the rest, like pregnant Midge (Emerald Fennell), Mermaid Barbie (Dua Lipa), or Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) with her hair cut and face drawn on. Soon, Stereotypical Barbie begins to have an existential crisis, as she doubts her place in this world, lacking a uniqueness that often only befalls Allan (Michael Cera) or the Kens (Ryan Gosling, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Simu Liu, Scott Evans, Ncuti Gatwa) of this world. She fits a Western ideal in looks, which in turn means that because she’s the “perfect” woman, she can’t possibly also be anything else. All she has is perfection, but then, that starts to fade. As she notices physical and psychological changes within her, cracks also begin to appear in her monotonous life. With the guidance of Weird Barbie, she’s encouraged to travel to the Real World to figure out why she’s changing. Breaking out of the confines of her box and driving down a Wizard of Oz-inspired bubble gum pink road, Barbie will learn that life and womanhood are complicated. The Real World isn’t perfect like she’s expected to be, and she has to discover where she fits in the messy imperfection.
Barbie, along with her lovestruck himbo Ken (Gosling), who comes along for the ride, leaves Barbieland and sets off to the Real World in an adventure that feels like Toy Story for adults. Like the Truman Show, the pair learn that the world that was created for them is much different than what lies outside of it. Barbie is introduced to the ogling eyes of men who see her more as an object than a person, a play on capitalism selling the idea of a woman. Meanwhile, Ken discovers the patriarchy, leading to the male fragility anthem, “I’m Just Ken,” that pokes fun at conservatism and shows his struggle with the cognitive dissonance between who he is versus how he feels he should be.
Going to the Real World begins Ken and Barbie’s journey of discovering what it means to be human and forming their own identities, combined with an empowering examination of gender performance and expectation – often unrealistic – with commentary on femininity and masculinity. The transformation into becoming your own person is universal, and Barbie learns that the things she thought made her were actually all created by men selling their idea of female empowerment. The men at Mattel (led by Will Ferrell as CEO) are anxious to get their doll “back in the box,” but navigating this world and all its complexities sees Barbie having her own agency for the first time.
It’s true that much of Barbie is on the nose or heavy-handed. The themes are spoken to the audience with frequency. But seeing Barbieland come to life feels like something akin to Tim Burton, in the way that both he and Greta Gerwig are mad scientists in their creation of a singular vision unlike any that has been seen on film before and has their personalities written all over it. Behind the plastic, the candy-coated sheen of Gerwig’s creation is a funny, relatable world full of existentialism and satirical and meta-humor. What at first would seem like product placement, turns into artistic genius.
Along with Gerwig, all the actors help to bring this world to life, elevating its zany tone and bringing a lot of emotion to the piece. Robbie was born for this role, not only because she looks like a real Barbie doll, but she is able to masterfully tap into the conflict her Barbie is going through, creating a film that’s not only entertaining but especially heartfelt. Gosling, who is often overlooked as a comedic actor, steals the show here. He plays himbo like an art form, fully embracing the film’s absurdist, unapologetically silly humor. His performance of “I’m Just Ken” is Oscar-worthy. Another standout is America Ferrera as Gloria, an employee at Mattel who, along with her daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), helps Barbie in the Real World. She delivers a powerful monologue about how exhausting and troubling it is as a woman who feels they must follow patriarchal rules. Gloria is the soul of the film, representing the women in the audience who once loved playing with Barbies but who wished they looked more like them. The inclusion of her and Sasha also brings the theme of motherhood to the forefront. It’s threaded through the film in a touching way, leading back to Barbie’s own creation by Ruth Handler, and showing how difficult it is for mothers to see their children change and go off alone to become who they’re meant to be.
The music is also a highlight of Barbie. “Pink” by Lizzo sets the tone, acting as a perfect intro to Barbieland through its lyrics, and also lends an early look at the film’s humor. Charlie XCX’s “Speed Drive” adds fast-paced mojo that plays up the entertaining escapades. But it’s “What Was I Made For?” by Billie Eilish that delivers the biggest impact. The main question Barbie asks is in the title, and it’s a question that lingers in women’s minds throughout their lives. “What’s the point?” or “Why am I here?” creep in too occasionally, especially in a world that often feels like it wants to see us fail. Eilish’s song is woven throughout to elevate the film’s emotional moments, creating a poignant experience.
There’s so much joy in getting a new doll. Opening that box and untwisting those plastic ties. You wish you could be Barbie, but then you grow up and realize you can’t be – and that’s okay. Gerwig thoughtfully and beautifully explores the uniqueness of women; the feminine in its beauty and in all forms and imperfections. We don’t fit in a box – and never will.