Between the wave of Instagram posts captioned “my job is just: beach,” and the booming sales for Birkenstock and Duolingo as a result of their movie-adverts, the Barbie movie certainly infiltrated our real-world’s popular culture. But, three months after the movie’s original release, how will it retain any deeper cultural consciousness?
Barbie herself has always been a controversial figure. Criticised for being too exclusive and slipping too willingly into dangerous beauty stereotypes, she has often been a symptom of real-world inequality. Despite the movie’s marketing posters, Barbie has not always been everything for everyone. The movie makes an effort throughout the narrative to acknowledge these aspects of Barbie’s legacy. Helen Mirren’s omniscient narration within the movie aids this bid for self-consciousness and self-criticism. While Barbie is despairing about becoming a “normal” woman, Mirren’s voice interjects, suggesting that perhaps Margot Robbie was too beautiful to be cast as Barbie after all. It is refreshing to be reminded by the movie itself, that Margot Robbie, who appears as an epitome of Western beauty standards, might not be able to appear imperfect. The movie takes on a progressive agenda, that includes body and ethnic diversity, in order to reframe the image of Barbie, and take ownership of the message it has previously instilled.
At its core, it is the movie’s deeper allegories of girlhood, self-discovery and growing up that grants it narrative stability and, perhaps, longevity. When Barbie and Ken enter the real world, Barbie realises, for the first time, that she’s an object to be visually consumed, invaded and catcalled. Meanwhile, Ken is realising that there is a patriarchal mode of seeing, that he’s secure in his body. Where Ken experiences the powerful rhetoric of male agency, Barbie feels trampled upon, feeling a sense of fear but not understanding where it is coming from. Witnessing female reality play out on-screen, there seems to be a lot of comfort in universalising this experience through the global and “perfect” image of Barbie. Her imperfect and painful self-discovery normalises the female experience through discomfort, female bonding and catharsis. In many ways, Greta Gerwig’s portrayal of Barbie displays the loss of innocence involved in growing up – a female awakening that causes women, like Barbie, to be treated first and foremost as a sight. It is this loss of innocence that is more simply an attainment of knowledge.
Thematically, the movie’s wider cultural interests seek to impact both male and female gender roles and stereotypes. Where Barbie raises questions about the nature of female embodiment, Ken has sparked conversations about toxic and fragile masculinity. Since Barbie’s conception, Ken’s role has been largely predetermined too. After all, “She’s everything. He’s just Ken” prevailed as the tagline to most of the movie’s promotional posters. However, when Ken realises how he’s perceived in the real-world, that he’s born to fit into an accepting system of patriarchal dominance, he also realises how much Barbie’s world has subverted this dominance. The movie’s real-world narrative reinforces that many of the toxic elements of masculinity are taught behaviours, simply reified into gendered spheres. Barbie’s world becomes a fictional site for destabilising traditional gender roles. Neither Ken nor Barbie are equals throughout the movie and, whilst Ken’s “norm” is positioned as relational and subversive to Barbie, the movie highlights and satirises the discontent that arises from gender imbalance.
“Hell yeah, this is a feminist movie,” director Greta Gerwig exclaimed at the movie’s premiere. “To me, it’s about allowing, in a way, this doll – who’s not a human – to be fully complex and human.” Conflating issues of gender imbalance with the recreation of Barbie’s cultural narrative, bringing to life ”this doll” has helped to untangle and challenge the unhelpful binaries of gender agency.
Sparking cultural discourse about gender roles and stereotypes, the Barbie movie importantly unsettles the cultural signifiers of femininity and masculinity. Whilst we’re yet to see the full impact of the movie on the young girls who dressed up in pink to watch it, the movie’s forging and rewriting of narratives of female self-discovery will hopefully be its lasting undercurrents.