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Barbie the movie is hilarious, tongue in cheek, and very aware of what it's playing with. But how well does it deal with 'feminism'?
There’s no ‘of course’ about it, but of course I have a Barbie journey. I had several Barbies and I loved them. I had my own ‘weird Barbie’ except she was a Doctor Barbie whose hair I cut off and pretended she was a boy and since I didn’t have any boy Barbie clothes I just played her naked against the other Barbie whom she eventually would end up kissing. (I’m totally queer and I blame that naked Doctor Barbie for it.)
For the most part, my Barbie didn’t make me feel bad about myself or my body. I had plenty of real world advertising in India to make me feel like shit; an unrealistic blonde doll wasn’t going to make a difference one way or another. Do you know what I mean? I was a lonely child and I had fun with my dolls and stuffed toys.
So yeah, I grew up and I read Rebecca Solnit and I outgrew my Barbies and I went through a stage where I hated the colour pink and I once read a ‘Barbie magazine’ which talked about how Barbie could be anything and she had a 36-24-36 body, which was perfect, and I grew up to realise it was not, and perfection was stupid, and things were complicated, and –
*Some minor spoilers alert*
But The Barbie Movie looked fun. You have to admit it looked fun. Which Barbie were you? (Or are you “just Ken”? I was “Going to see this movie and have fun” Barbie. My sensible friend who came with me was “One of the few people here not dressed in pink” Barbie.
This is one of the first times I’ve been to a movie where there were mostly girls and women in the audience. It’s also the first time it’s been girls behaving loudly in a cinema – one of the groups began singing Barbie Girl just before the movie started, and we all whooped and catcalled the screen a few times. We were all there determined to have fun.
Which wasn’t difficult. The Barbie movie stars multiple actresses as various Barbies – Writer Barbie, President Barbie, Reporter Barbie, Mermaid Barbie, Doctor Barbie. There’s a forever pregnant Midge, a Weird Barbie (who represents dolls whose owners “played too hard” with them). They are introduced in pastiches of 2001: A Space Odyssey, simultaneously hilarious, surreal and disturbing.
But Margot Robbie, who is basically the current platonic ideal of the blonde and blue eyed thin beauty of Hollywood, plays Original Barbie. Stereotypical Barbie. She is the first among her Barbie equals, celebrating in their every success, condescending to the many Kens (and one Allen) who populate her matriarchal world where she is the unspoken queen. The production and cinematography are wonderful, very much of the same style as the Barbie dream houses (are they still making those?). The Barbies are smooth, polished, almost uncannily valley-esque in their disjointed movement. They wake up perfect. They float to the ground perfect. They eat and drink (nothing) perfect.
Which, by the way. Let’s talk about “Just Ken”, undermined, taken for granted, and wanting more. Barbie’s plastic fantastic life has no room or conception of romance, of partnership, of more. Ryan Gosling’s Beach Ken jostles against other Ken’s for space and attention, wanting more, not knowing specifically what that more his.
And the plastic life fantastic is beginning to crumble. Margot Barbie is thinking of death. What is she thinking of death? We don’t know, she doesn’t tell us. But she is thinking of death, her heels are touching the ground, she grapples with a small patch of cellulite. Barbie’s death crisis is contained entirely in her body, and we are told she must find the answer in the Real World, where a girl who is playing with her is sad. Ryan Ken goes with her, because he wants to.
But the real world is a terrible place to look for your eternal summer. Faced immediately with the radical notion that Ken is a person and that Barbie is an object of harassment, the two now are on divergent journeys – Ryan Ken basically falls down a Jordan Peterson rabbit hole, while Margot Barbie must learn that she is *not* a role model, and that the real world sucks for women. It’s like watching someone go through their teens in ten minutes. Margot Barbie is also seeing human beauty for the first time – a truly moving moment in the film and the first time I rooted for her to find whatever she needed.
(She also goes to jail twice. And is let go very quickly, because Original Barbie and Ken are both super white.)
The cause of all this existential angst is Gloria, whose role in this movie is “Mom whose teen daughter hates her for some undefined reason”. Gloria doesn’t have much backstory or personality. She loves her daughter, a snobby too-smart and just-woke-enough tween who seems to exist to be mean to people, and is sad and lonely.
Things devolve from there. The hilarious results are felt all through Barbieland (now Kendom), ruled by Kens who dominate brainwashed Barbies with a 48 hour deadline before things are ruined forever.
This movie is hilarious, tongue in cheek, and very aware of what it’s playing with. I laughed through most of the (tight) runtime – this movie was essentially made for women like me who have read our Rebecca Solnit and Facebook-learned our feminism. The final showdown leaned all the way into the farce and ridiculousness. It was LOVELY.
You could probably write a long essay about the visual genius of the Barbie movie or of its exploration of the phenomenon of being seen or its exploration of what it means to be the person who creates, rather than the person who is doing the creating – but a lot of that work is done more by suggestion than by actual character development in the movie.
In between the unnecessary Mattel-wank (a wasted Will Ferell and an even more wasted Rhea Perlman), the only character line that is followed through organically is Ken’s, while Barbie’s is pieced together from random bits and pieces that the movie doesn’t bother to fit together. Gloria (whose name I forgot and had to look up for this writing) has a deep issue which never gets explored – and her daughter frankly is betrayed by the costume department after the emotional climax. There is no point in telling me I can be anything if I HAVE to be pink to do that!
There is also an unexplored through line about motherhood here, and creation, and our relationship with our bodies. The theme is there for anyone who wants to think their way through it, but if you want to see how Margot Barbie as a person is dealing with that, or how Gloria as a person is dealing with that – or how Sasha is dealing with that – we don’t get to see that. Gloria exists to support Barbie, remind her that she is beautiful and not to feel bad about herself. Sasha exists to be a feminist who supports femininity in the end. The final fifteen minutes of this movie are a betrayal of the characters who deserved more but were sidelined for Original (white, thin, Margot Robbie) Barbie.
Barbie the movie is full of ideas – excellent ideas – it doesn’t allow its characters to live through. I wish they had stuffed their run time with a little more character development. They had the time and space for it – but Great Gerwig has leaned into the in-jokes and memability and homages at the expense of her characters as people.
I was a pink pixel in the mostly pink sea that spilled out of the theatre after. In the end I’ll probably remember the fun much more than the plot or characters – a niche cult classic that gets rewatched “ironically” by my generation, hopeful that the next set of dolls will have more to say.
Rohini Malur is a writer based on Bengaluru. She is a founding member of All Sorts of Queer, and annually organises open mics for Namma Pride in Bengaluru. In a parallel universe, she captains a read more...
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Does Ranbir Kapoor expressing his preferences about Alia using lipstick really make him a toxic husband?
Sometime back, a video of Alia Bhatt with Vogue went viral where she shares her go-to make-up routine and her unique way to apply lipstick. It went viral not for the quirkiness but because she said that after applying the lipstick, she “rubs it off” because her then boyfriend and now husband – Ranbir Kapoor likes her natural lip colour and asks her to “wipe it off”, whenever they are out on a date night.
Netizens had gone crazy over this video, calling RK toxic and not respecting AB’s choice to wear makeup. I saw the video a couple of times to understand the reason behind the uproar but I failed to understand it. I read many comments and saw people saying that asking your partner or dictating terms on how they should wear makeup is a major sign to leave the person.
Modesty or humility is viewed as the hallmark of a well-brought-up girl, which makes it hard for us to be open to any real compliments without feeling like an imposter.
Why is accepting that compliment so hard?
Colleagues: Have you lost weight? You look good!
She (who has spent months doing Keto and weights): It’s the dress that’s making me look thinner!
Guests: Your house is so beautiful and neat!
She (who spent the last five hours mopping and polishing): It could be tidier; there is just so much dust.
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