This Barbie’s Not Saying Much! : Barbie Film Review

By Jilliean Soison

2023 | Directed by Greta Gerwig 

Feature Film (1hr, 54 min)

“Thanks to Barbie, all problems of feminism have been solved”.

– the Narrator 

From its gen-z centered marketing and ground-breaking global success, to its star-studded cast,  watching Barbie (2023) has almost become inevitable for the general population.

The movie stars the talented Margo Robbie as Stereotypical Barbie who, upon having initial thoughts of death and discovering *gasp* cellulite, seeks help from Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon). Since each Barbie’s thoughts are directly connected to its owner/player, Stereotypical Barbie is advised to cross into the real world and console her owner into having normal thoughts again, returning Stereotypical Barbie to her own plastic normalcy. Along the way, she discovers the imperfect realities and lack of societal progression in the real world, whilst Barbie Land is turned upside down by the new-found ideas of the patriarchy introduced by Ken (Ryan Gosling). 

I really had high hopes for this movie. If it had been made by any other director, I would have just left it as a 3 out of 5 – not perfect, but at least it was fun. However, the fact that it was directed by the talented Greta Gerwig, known for works like Little Women (2021), Marriage Story (2019), and Lady Bird (2016), I have to say, I left the cinema pretty disappointed. 

The patriarchy, as the movie suggests, moves more subtly in our 2023 society. Gerwig should have explored this a little more instead of listing down all the microaggressions women feel. Perhaps it would have saved it from coming off as a haphazard tweet as opposed to a movie. And I disagree with the self-aware comment made by the Narrator about the ineffectiveness of giving an actress like Margo Robbie the line “I don’t feel pretty anymore”. It would have been very interesting (and ironic) to explore how someone as conventionally beautiful as Margo Robbie (or Barbie) could still be entrapped by the oppressive beauty standards ingrained into the female psyche by the patriarchy.

Throughout the movie, we are constantly reminded about the capitalist and consumerist ideals behind Barbie the toy, and brand. Fair point. However, when Gloria suggests a ‘Mediocre Barbie,’ the CEO of Mattel (Will Farell) quickly agrees as it would appeal to modern girls, which means more sales. To me, its commentary on capitalism and, to an extent, feminism felt performative. It felt like Mattel wanted to appear self-aware enough without the expense of selling more Barbie products. The amount of marketing and Barbie collabs were inescapable (and I work in retail, so I know). 

What’s worse is that if Barbie isn’t pinned as the anti-feminist ‘fascist’ that ruined the childhood of Sasha and supposedly millions of other girls, then she’s the woke, femme fatale that led Ken on. To have Barbie be the one who needs to apologize and explain herself without seeing the real puppet masters behind her is counterproductive, to say the least. Apparently, it wasn’t the CEO and executives of Mattel who were in control of what gets put out. So I guess it’s Barbie’s fault for selling girls the ideal beauty standard, boxing them in as objects to fulfill the male fantasy. To quote Woody from Toy Story, “[She’s] just a toy!”. 

There were parts of the movie (glimmers of hope) where I did see a bit of Gerwig’s thoughtful writing. The scenes where Margo Robbie was the main focus were written and directed incredibly well and with much pathos. As a woman, it pulled on my heartstrings and validated my own experiences. Unfortunately, every time the movie had a chance to breathe and be sincere, it got undercut by insistent meta jokes and Ken’s naivety. 

Tonally speaking, the tenderness in Robbie’s scenes, compared to the rest of the scenes, felt like they were from two different movies. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think satire and meta-commentary can be very effective when done well. Ken’s country rendition of Push was hilarious, with compelling undertones of misogyny and violence packaged as a love song. But its comedic heavy-handedness pushed any potential empathy towards Barbie and its feminist messaging out of the movie. 

Yes, the film is visually stunning. Yes, the comedy is great. Yes, the feminist points are valid. I’m not trying to distract from the movie’s global impact. But I’m just not sure if it’s the feminist icon it’s been hyped up to be if all my female friends reported, “I loved Ken!” after seeing this movie.