The Barbie movie is overwhelmingly popular among female audiences for many reasons:
- It is a fun and fanciful comedy with a good score, stunning sets, and humorous choreography. It is a cinematographic confection of pinks and bright colors.
- It offers nostalgia for all of us who played with Barbies.
- There are funny characters. We have all seen or participated in creating the Weird Barbie character, played by (who else?) Kate McKinnon. In our youth, we might have cut Barbie’s hair in the mistaken belief that it would grow back. Or we drew on their faces using permanent markers unaware that they were, indeed, permanent. The Weird Barbie character is a real life concoction of those mistakes.
- Barbie offers inside jokes, clever puns, and references to historical dolls from the Barbie franchise. We can sit back and enjoy the experience while paying close attention to the dialog.
- It is funny. The very talented actors seem to be enjoying themselves and have great comedic timing.
- It is a delightful experience for all generations of women. I saw mothers, grandmothers, and their daughters in pink coming together to bond, laugh, and enjoy the movie. Perhaps later they discussed the important messages that were surreptitiously delivered.
- It turns the Barbie franchise, oft criticized by feminists, into a feminist story.
- It delivers important messages about women and the struggles that we have faced.
I know of only one male friend who saw the movie. He was a good sport, but never having played with Barbies (his loss); he didn’t get many of the underpinnings of the plot, inside jokes, and characters. Wanting to learn more, he researched the underlying meanings, sent me some columns and suggested that I write this column.
Let’s be clear, this movie is a reversal of Hollywood Standard Operating Procedure. In a mind-blowing change, the woman, Greta Gerwig, who was the director and the co-author is getting most of the credit. The other screen writer, her partner Noah Baumbach, is rarely mentioned. Women directors are relatively new to Hollywood after having been shut out for decades. The Me Too movement and a scathing documentary exposed the old boy director’s network and recently opened the door for female directors. Women have come bursting through.
But despite the feminist messages (which I loved) and fun of the film, overall I didn’t love Barbie. Because I didn’t like how the male characters, Ken (played by Ryan Gosling) and Allan (played by Michael Cera) were marginalized and dismissed.
(Other feminists disagree. They believe that the Ken character should be marginalized. In the movie, he doggedly pursues Barbie to go out with him even though she is not particularly interested. He is also the villain who tried to change Barbie Land into a patriarchy where Barbies gave up their careers and catered to men.)
But it slowly dawned on me that marginalization is one of the many messages that Gerwig is trying to deliver, namely, to think about the way Hollywood has often treated female characters. I have been so conditioned that I didn’t notice the way how actresses were (still today) downgraded in Hollywood, until I saw these male characters sidelined in the same way.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, it begins in Barbie Land, a paradise where women run the world, supportive of each other, and enjoy spending time together. Barbies are the doctors, astronauts, architects, and even president. They believe that Barbie Land mirrors the real world. But when Barbie suddenly thinks of death (an unacceptable thought in Barbie Land) and notices cellulite, she goes to the real world for help. Ken begs to tag along and once they get there, they discover that the real world is a patriarchy, the opposite of Barbie Land. The real world is run by men, not women. In the movie, even Mattel, the creator of Barbie, is run only by men; the CEO played by (again, who else), Will Ferrell.
In Barbie Land, men are extras; Ken was a handsome himbo (a male bimbo) trying to get Barbie’s attention and Alan was a not so handsome good guy.
Think how well these reflect the characters that women often portray? In most films, men are the protagonists and sensual women are the supporting cast. Pretty in the cinema seems to be sexual…women are barely clothed (or not), with big breasts, full lips, and shapely butts. Sadly, young women have been brainwashed by this ideal and cosmetic procedures in this demographic are thriving. Breast augmentation (1% of US population, mostly cosmetic), lip fillers, Botox, and butt enhancements are common procedures. When the heroines do show courage (which they rarely did before the 1960s) it is in the service of assisting the male lead.
In Hollywood, pretty women are rarely smart (since they are primed for sex, no time for brains). A numbing example was the television show Big Bang Theory. Another stereotypical character is the “helpmate” woman. Unless she is a future love interest, this character is either marginally attractive or unusual looking. Her job is to aid the male hero on his quest. And these are the exact stereotypes that Gerwig used for the men in the movie. Ryan Gosling, as Ken, was eye candy and not particularly smart. Allan, an average looking guy, played by Michael Cera, helped the real life woman (played by America Ferrera) return Barbie Land to its original matriarchy.
I had been so conditioned that I didn’t even notice these demeaning stereotypes; until they were done in the reverse.
The genius of Greta Gerwig is that she hides her messages in plain sight. In this comedy, women can get a new message…we are not caricatures. Pretty is more than sexual. Pretty women can be smart. Pretty women can be successful. Pretty women can be curvy. Pretty women don’t need to get the guy. Women can define their own beauty (via the real-life characters in the movie). In Barbie, women advocate for themselves, they are strong, they are the heroes of the story.
What a great message for young girls. And it is just one of the many messages that Barbie offers, all wrapped up in pink cotton candy bow.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.