Barbie has been a cultural icon since her conception in 1959, becoming the source of controversy and contempt for many people across the globe. The doll has been seen as a symbol of unattainable beauty standards that would negatively influence young girls or as the archetypal blonde bimbo. Greta Gerwig’s 2023 film “Barbie,” however, seeks to reexamine the doll’s legacy and its impact on women throughout the years.
Released in theaters on July 21, 2023, “Barbie” quickly became a box office success, and was praised by critics and audiences alike. Since its release, “Barbie” has become the highest-grossing film directed by a female director—having earned over $1.4 billion across the global box office—and has resonated with its audience members, particularly women. The film explores themes of female empowerment, women’s roles in society, and growing up through its rich characters and storyline, with plenty of humor sprinkled throughout to balance the mood.
Margot Robbie portrays the titular character, Barbie, who lives in “Barbieland,” a matriarchal society shared with other Barbies and Kens. One day, however, Barbie notices that things are amiss in her seemingly perfect life, and she is forced to travel to the real world in order to find the source of the problem. In the real world, she discovers that women aren’t treated as well as they are in Barbieland, and she begins to question her existence as a whole. Her companion throughout the first half of this journey is Ken, played by Ryan Gosling, who learns about the patriarchy while he is in the real world. Overwhelmed and underappreciated by Barbie, he goes back to Barbieland, transforming it into an oppressive patriarchal society.
Margot Robbie is truly the star of the film, and her performance as Barbie is one of its highlights. Robbie’s performance allows us to witness Barbie’s highs and lows, observing her gradual transformation as she relinquishes the illusion of perfection following her real-world experiences. One of the most impactful scenes in the film shows Barbie sitting beside an elderly woman on a bench, where she starts crying as she calls the woman beautiful. This is meant to contrast with an earlier scene, where Barbie is upset because she has developed cellulite on her body, which had been one of the reasons why she had decided to travel to the real world in the first place. Through this scene, however, the audience is able to see how much Barbie has grown since she came to the real world; she no longer sees change as a bad thing and is able to compliment the woman’s appearance despite their differences. This point is further emphasized when the elderly woman playfully responds, “I know it!”
Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Ken is equally memorable and noteworthy. Ken grows from an insecure companion to Barbie to someone who learns to accept himself and find who he truly is by the end of the film, and his character’s song, “I’m Just Ken,” has become a fan favorite by audience members. Other notable performances in the film include America Ferrera as Gloria, a Mattel employee who helps Barbie in the real world, and Will Farrell as the Mattel CEO, a comedic character who wants to help preserve the dreams of little girls through Barbie and her legacy, though he often comes off as misogynistic and condescending.
The film’s soundtrack is a highlight of its production, with artists such as Ice Spice, Nicki Minaj, Charli XCX, Tame Impala, and Lizzo being featured artists on the film’s original soundtrack. The film’s soundtrack enjoyed heightened popularity on TikTok, where many of its songs—particularly the new version of “Barbie World” by Ice Spice and Nicki Minaj and “Pink” by Lizzo—went viral on the app. In addition to this, “Barbie” has a distinct set and costume design that is beautifully shown throughout the film. The set was built to resemble modern-day Barbie playhouses, and the crew’s dedication to accuracy even contributed to a worldwide shortage of pink paint.
Despite its strengths, however, “Barbie” is not without its flaws. For one, Ken’s character arc ends up consuming half of the movie’s screen time, and he is typically seen as the more popular character to Barbie. While I normally wouldn’t mind this, Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” was made with the ideas of female empowerment in mind and was supposed to satirize women’s traditional roles in film by having Ken and Barbie switch places in the narrative. The film doesn’t succeed in this aspect, however, because Ken ends up being the more memorable character, as opposed to Barbie, causing the film to come off as being the very thing it was trying to satirize.
Additionally, the film falls short of delivering a truly profound feminist message. While the film’s themes of women’s roles in society and growing up are extremely profound and executed well, the film doesn’t make any revolutionary comment on feminism and girl empowerment that hasn’t already been made before, and I wish this aspect of the film could have been explored in more depth.
Overall, “Barbie” is an extremely well-crafted film that brilliantly reexamines the Barbie doll’s legacy for modern-day audiences, with a strong cast, excellent soundtrack, and set and costume design to boot. I highly recommend that everyone sees “Barbie” at least once, if not for the plot, then at least for some of the comedic moments.