I grew up in a Barbie household, as well as a deeply feminist household. Along with My Little Pony, Cherry Merry Muffin, and (prized above all) my extensive collection of She-Ra action figures, my mother gave me and my sister Barbie dolls for “imaginative play,” something Mom encouraged just as much as she encouraged us to play video games — for hand-eye coordination and for our potential careers in STEM, naturally. Our TV habits were mediated with feminism in mind, too; I watched and rewatched She-Ra: Princess of Power on VHS, but I barely knew He-Man, whom I considered as irrelevant as Ken. As I grew older and met other kids, though, I realized I had been living in Opposite Land. Everybody else knew He-Man better than She-Ra. The female-dominated world of Barbie, She-Ra, My Little Pony, and so on was a farce. The real world was made for Ken.
Heading into the press screening for Barbie, I regressed back into the beautiful, childlike misconceptions of my toy collection. I spent my drive to the movie thinking back on my love of Margot Robbie in Birds of Prey and I, Tonya, as well as my admiration for Greta Gerwig’s body of work, from Frances Ha to Little Women. Even knowing this movie would have to wrestle with Mattel’s involvement and control over the massive Barbie brand, I knew director Greta Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach would find their own way to unpack and analyze modern standards of femininity and feminist thought. I figured it’d be a little funny, a little deep, maybe a little too basic, but hopefully smarter than The Lego Movie.
I did not expect Barbie to be a movie about Ken — and more importantly, a movie Ryan Gosling steals with such glorious aplomb that I can’t even be that mad at him for it.
[Ed. note: Minor setup spoilers ahead for Barbie.]
Don’t get me wrong. Margot Robbie is no slouch as what the movie calls “Stereotypical Barbie” — the blond bombshell that kids in Mattel focus groups point to when presented with diverse Barbie dolls and asked, “Which one is Barbie?” Stereotypical Barbie starts the movie as a confident woman who knows exactly who she is, and doesn’t ever want anything to change. She lives in Barbieland, a fantasy realm conjured by Mattel that’s powered by the imaginations of kids who play with Barbie dolls. It’s a world ruled by Barbies, and unashamed of traditional feminine tropes. The president is a Barbie (played by Issa Rae, in a pink silk “President” sash). The Supreme Court is all Barbie. And every Nobel Prize winner in history is — you guessed it — a Barbie. Every pink-washed DreamHouse mansion in Barbieland is owned by a woman who makes her own money and spends her free time indulging in “girls’ nights” where everybody shares a glorious communal wardrobe.
Stereotypical Barbie has no reason to leave this beautiful feminine realm. She’s forced to trek into the harsh world of Reality only because somewhere, someone is playing with her while experiencing such intense existential angst that their emotions are reaching Barbieland and drilling into Barbie’s psyche. Her real-world owner is inadvertently causing her to think about death, get actual cellulite on her thighs, and even develop articulated ankles that experience all-too-real pain when she stuffs her feet into stiletto heels.
But even before the wall between Barbieland and Reality starts breaking down, it’s all too clear that this is Ken’s movie. At the film’s outset, Barbie has it all, and Robbie sells Barbieland’s bland, uncomplicated happiness with a frozen-but-satisfied smile. For Ken, though, it’s never been that simple. Barbie is happy by default, but Ken is only happy when Barbie acknowledges him. In a world where every night is girls’ night, Ken can never experience satisfaction.
Ken isn’t just frustrated about competing with all the many other Kens for Barbie’s affection — although that is an issue, with hot, comparatively youthful it boy Simu Liu playing a version of Ken who makes Gosling’s Ken sweat bullets. Ken lacks purpose in Barbieland, and he wants that to change. Without Barbie, he’s nothing — and most of the time, Ken is without Barbie. He’s an afterthought whose main role in life is holding her purse.
Barbie starts off slow, doing the work of establishing the cutesy realm of Barbieland so there’s a clear, dark contrast when the film eventually enters Reality. But even in this opening act, Gosling swipes each scene from the sidelines, his face wracked by the near-constant heartbreak of Barbie’s lack of interest in him. As a viewer, I was far more drawn to his arc, even as I worried, Is it a bad thing that Ken is the best thing about the Barbie movie?
But Barbie stays one step ahead of that thought, because it’s all leading up to an expert commentary on how little girls will always realize, sooner or later, that the real world is run by men, and that its Kens have more power than its Barbies. And once Gosling’s Ken makes it to Reality, he realizes this too, and he goes full men’s rights activist, transitioning from Barbie’s placeholder boyfriend into one of the most fascinating antagonists in modern pop cinema.
The film’s comedic yet incisive commentary on toxic masculinity is its strongest throughline, as it infects Gosling’s Ken, and eventually all of the rest of Barbieland’s Kens and Barbies. Whenever the movie is joking about the patriarchy and the very idea of the men’s rights movement, it sings. It also literally sings, with frequent in-jokey background songs, and a sequence where all the Kens bore their respective Barbie girlfriends to tears by whipping out acoustic guitars to sing at her rather than to her. We all know what we don’t want in a man. The far more difficult point to make, it turns out, is about Barbie herself, and what she represents. Who is Barbie in 2023?
Margot Robbie’s Barbie asks that question in a lot of different ways, but the answer becomes no clearer once she visits Reality. It’s useful to capitalize Reality when describing Barbie, because unlike Splash or Enchanted, this movie does not attempt to depict a recognizable version of our human world. Reality as depicted in Barbie is as much of a caricature as Barbieland, stuffed with recognizable tropes: sexist, catcalling construction workers; fist-pumping gym bros; and well-heeled white-collar executives who helpfully explain how the patriarchy works. That works perfectly to illustrate the extreme cartoonishness of men’s rights as interpreted by Ken, but it falls a bit short when it comes to illustrating the complexities of Barbie’s identity as a doll, a global brand, and a social phenomenon, much less a character attempting to understand contemporary American womanhood.
There’s a third rail that Gerwig and Baumbach scarcely dare to touch in Barbie: body image. Barbie designers at Mattel have struggled in this arena, too, as Barbie’s nonstandard but idealized body proportions have remained controversial, even as the company has introduced several variations in recent years. (They include a “curvy” Barbie, a “petite” Barbie, and a Barbie with articulated knees who can use a wheelchair.) Yes, Barbie can have every career imaginable — she can be president, even if real-life women can’t — but can she manage to rise above a size 6?
In the Barbie movie, she certainly can. Robbie definitely doesn’t have the proportions of the original “stereotypical Barbie,” although I’d say she’s close enough. (I don’t care to look up the numerical comparison, because it would only depress me.) But this movie’s full cast of Barbies would absolutely not be able to share their outfits, which the movie never explicitly addresses or resolves. Sharon Rooney of Hulu’s My Mad Fat Diary gets to be a Barbie without her size ever being mentioned. Hari Nef, the first transgender model to sign with IMG Models, is also a Barbie. Like all the other Barbies (and unlike so many trans people), she never has to worry about anybody questioning her genitalia, because nobody in Barbieland has any genitalia whatsoever.
Barbieland is a fantasy of perfect inclusion, yet it’s also a flattened one, because even in Reality, the issues facing non-Barbie-type women never fully surface. They get a quick, pointed acknowledgement from the mouth of Gloria (America Ferrera), a put-upon Reality mom who works for Mattel and still loves Barbie in spite of all the baggage that comes with her. At one point, Gloria runs down the ever-expanding list of double standards that modern American women face, such as the pressure to be “thin,” which women must claim is because they want to be “healthy” so they don’t look vain or shallow, even though they’ll really just be judged for not being thin. None of the non-thin Barbies react to this point, because they don’t quite work in a narrative that has to simplify all the social and gender issues it raises, at least if the credits are ever going to roll.
By the same token, the nonwhite Barbies and Kens argue about “the patriarchy” among themselves upon learning about it, but they don’t ever seem to learn about racial politics, even though Simu Liu’s Ken wouldn’t have existed 13 years ago. (The first-ever Asian Ken doll was, um, “Samurai Ken” in 2010.) And Kate McKinnon, playing a so-called Weird Barbie who experienced an extreme haircut and makeover at the hands of an experimental child, never actually answers the question anybody would have upon seeing her gay-ass haircut and knowing the actor’s sexuality. Yet even if no one says it, Weird Barbie is clearly Gay Barbie.
Skipping over all those conversations isn’t an oversight: It’s a series of intentional decisions designed to keep an already overstuffed, heady, and cerebral film moving along at a sprightly pace. I don’t need the Barbie movie, brought to me with Mattel’s approval, to offer incisive political commentary on every issue of the day. It’s more than enough that it unravels so many of America’s masculine anxieties of the moment, and that it does its job backward and in high heels.
Barbie the doll has to be everything for everyone, and she’s never succeeded. Barbie the movie has been asked to perform the same impossible trick — and just like I still feel a sentimental attachment to Barbie, I feel an overwhelming fondness and admiration for the movie’s daring attempt to make it work. I had forgotten that I had ever even experienced the dream world Barbieland offered me as a young girl. Barbie made me remember. That alone is enough to make the whole movie sparkle with surprising, refreshing fire.
Barbie opens in theaters on July 21.