Six months after the release of the summer’s box-office hit that was Barbie (2023), Film and TV Editor Ciara Whelan speaks her truth and admits that the film was not what she had hoped for.
It’s been six months since ‘Barbenheimer’ swept the global box office, six months of Margot Robbie serving iconic looks on the red carpet, six months of Ryan Gosling’s Ken-ergetic one-liners, and six months of trying to find the right words to articulate my feelings about this movie.
After sitting with Barbie for these last months, I’ll say that I wanted to love it, I really did. Yet, having had time to reflect, it is indisputable that for all of the film’s merits, the Barbie movie is flawed as well. With many nominations to a range of prestigious awards categories, the opinion of the general public has divided increasingly in the last few months.
Many audience members gathered via social media to share their opinions of Barbie after it was released in theatres last year and users have continued to express mixed emotions toward the film in recent weeks. The criticism that has gained the most traction are the reviews which argue that Barbie’s political agenda markets a simplified feminism. Yet, this critique has garnered backlash from viewers that speak of their own and others’ experiences of the film, enlightening their personal belief systems and enabling them to liberate themselves from toxic relationships. It is this bilateral argument, however, that is flawed and insufficient to begin with.
It is important to acknowledge that despite the moderacy of Barbie’s gender politics, this ‘entry-level’ feminism remains a necessary part of the media’s political pedagogy for many audience members regardless of gender and sex. It is not necessarily the simplicity of the film’s political agenda that is problematic, but the trouble of the essentialist logic that plagues this film narrative. While the inclusion of transgender actress Hari Nef is a welcome addition to a diverse ensemble cast, her presence in the film is interpolated in the explicit gender binary that is stereotypically perpetuated in the ‘Barbies’ and the ‘Kens’ dynamic of Barbie Land. Barbie’s essentialist representative logic is antagonistic to its status as a female-centred film that ostensibly speaks to a range of women across the globe.
It is important to acknowledge that despite the moderacy of Barbie’s gender politics, this ‘entry-level’ feminism remains a necessary part of the media’s political pedagogy for many audience members regardless of gender and sex.
These logical discrepancies are perhaps expressed the clearest in the infamous monologue at the film’s climax. Before the film’s theatrical release, Barbie’s previews left several critics lauding the superb speech that is delivered by America Ferrera’s character, Gloria. While many expressed their attachment to the scene as it articulated ineffable feelings of subjugation and dejection, others have criticised the generality of Gloria’s statements. The primary issue with this speech is that Gloria is meant to represent the plight of women as a collective, which is both impossible and detrimental to the viability of her characterisation. With this scene, Gloria at once forfeits her individuality and falls short of impossibly representing half of the global population with a speech that articulates a highly Western experience of gender inequality.
The other core issue with this speech is that even with these shortcomings it still wasn’t quite earned by the film’s narrative up to that point, and it is obvious that throughout the film Greta Gerwig’s vision is repeatedly interrupted by the interests of the studio. There are plenty of elements to the film that are insightful and meaningful, and it is undeniable that the film boasts some gorgeous moments, like when Barbie meets an older woman and tells her that she’s beautiful. However, these brief scenes feel disconnected from a wider film that is disturbed by Mattel’s commercial and consumer interests. Frequent product placement - including a car chase that is blatantly an advertisement for the Chevrolet Blazer EV - highlights this explicitly. This routine shift in the tone and emotional register means that the film’s pacing feels slightly sporadic by the end.
The film’s narrative and ideological elements are further problematised by the prominence of the Ken sub-plot. Ken’s storyline speaks a valid message about fragile and toxic masculinity that is made visible to the point that it frequently overshadows the primary storyline and contradicts the film’s merit as a female-centred text. The problem of this sub-plot is further revealed as it enables the film’s treatment of the patriarchy as an abstract and arbitrary concept when there is no such thing as ‘The Patriarchy.’ Now, at the risk of making what may appear a highly misogynistic argument, I’ll clarify that what I mean is the patriarchy is not a singularity, it is not a finite entity or grand narrative of male supremacy. The grand structure of gender inequality is actually an assemblage of patriarchies, it is an amalgam of familial, social, and institutional power relations organised along a gendered line that coalesce to constitute the oppression of women and other feminised ‘minority’ groups on a national and international scale. The patriarchy is not a contagion of sexist misogyny, but a constantly and often consciously enacted set of inequitable gender-based relations of power and autonomy. For Ken to introduce ‘The Patriarchy’ to Barbie Land in the sweeping manner that he did is to falsely understand that gendered power structure as a sort of anthropomorphic essence that is easily instilled in society and that which can be removed in equal measure.
The grand structure of gender inequality is actually an assemblage of patriarchies, it is an amalgam of familial, social, and institutional power relations organised along a gendered line that coalesce to constitute the oppression of women and other feminised ‘minority’ groups on a national and international scale.
This criticism of Barbie is not to say that there are elements of the film I didn’t enjoy. I laughed at Will Ferrel’s easy delivery of jokes and physical comedy, and I cried at the closing montage sequence set to Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?”. However, I ultimately left the cinema feeling like I wanted more from the experience and the film, I wanted it to have been better. With this in mind, it is important to mention that any argument against the film made out of misogyny and disrespect for the female-centred themes, not unlike that made at the Golden Globes earlier this month, is redundant and has no place in the discourse surrounding this film.
In short, I did not care for the Barbie movie to the extent that it is an essentialist text and commercialised product that is still regarded by many as the magnum opus of contemporary feminist media.