Emily Articulated: Barbie

A column by and about Millennials

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

This article contains spoilers about the Barbie movie. Steer clear if you’re still planning on watching (and also, what are you waiting for?).

My $14 ticket to Regal Cinemas contributed to the $162 million other sales brought in by the Barbie movie during its long-anticipated opening weekend. I was gobbled up by the film’s massive marketing campaign, thrust into my theater seat by sheer hype and the star power of director Greta Gerwig and co-leads Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling.

From the opening scene to the closing credits, the live-action Barbie movie joyfully and self-deprecatingly explores the world of Barbie — a pink, plastic and matriarchal utopia in which Barbies hold all positions of power, from the Supreme Court to the presidency. Its introductory “Hi Barbie,” montage features Doctor Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, Pilot Barbie, Nobel Prize Barbie, Lawyer Barbie, Construction Site Barbie and many more classic Barbie characters (including Midge, the discontinued Pregnant Barbie). 

This fantasy realm is contrasted by the hyper-reality construct of the “Real World,” or present-day Los Angeles, in which patriarchy is still alive and well, if not quite as stark as Barbie Land.

Emily Erickson.

The worlds inevitably and hilariously begin to mingle, with pieces of the Real World seeping into the perfect life in plastic enjoyed by the main character — Stereotypical Barbie — manifesting as irrepressible thoughts of death, morning breath, flat feet and cellulite (gasp!). 

Barbie, with Ken in tow, must venture from Barbie Land into the Real World to repair the portal that has opened between them — specifically, by finding the sad human who’s playing with her and make her happy again. 

The plot unfolds in a series of ridiculous occurrences, following Barbie as she navigates an unfamiliar male-dominated society, which she’s shocked to find doesn’t unanimously celebrate her. Ken, on the other hand, feels relevant and powerful for the first time in his life and is dazzled by the concept of patriarchy. It’s simple, playful and benignly feminist.

Which is why the roar of backlash by popular conservative voices vilifying the movie feels laughably outsized. A review by far-right media figure Jack Posobiec called Barbie a “man-hating Woke propaganda fest.” This was matched by Sen. Ted Cruz declaring it “Chinese propaganda”; author Peachy Keenan describing it as “insidious packaging of feminist cliché and trans grooming”; and media personality Ben Shapiro ranting for 43 minutes on YouTube (which he opened by lighting Barbie dolls on fire), claiming the central message of the film was, “Either you’re a third-wave feminist who hates men — truly hates men — or you’re brainwashed.”

These reactions were so extreme and off-base that the people sputtering them either didn’t watch the movie or were so triggered by the direct use of the words “feminism” and “patriarchy” that they missed the point entirely (which, I guess, coming from the same voices that would rather rewrite history than acknowledge a modicum of privilege, isn’t that far of a stretch). 

Being mad about a movie depicting the “life” of Barbie — a doll literally created to help little girls imagine themselves as women with careers, dream homes and campervans, with Ken sold separately as an accessory — because it addresses feminism is like being mad at the movie Elf for talking about Christmas.

Contrary to the backlash claims, the Barbie movie was meant to be a lighthearted caricature of feminist ideas and rudimentary feminist critique. This was driven throughout the movie by quips and jokes like Lawyer Barbie describing her professional experience: “I have no difficulty holding both logic and emotion at the same time, and it does not diminish my powers. It expands them.” 

Then there are the primary character arcs and narrative points, like Real World mom Gloria, played by America Ferrera, having to save the Barbies from the patriarchy wreaking havoc in Barbie Land — a phenomenon introduced by Ken (who, admittedly, was only motivated by horses and owning his own “mojo dojo casa house”), that spread like a virus within the previously unexposed matriarchal Barbie society.

Poking fun at itself, the movie has Gloria save the Barbies by introducing concepts of feminist critique in a monologue that serves as an ideological inoculation to patriarchy, thus restoring their empowerment. 

In the monologue, Gloria explains to the Barbies the complicated and contradictory expectations that make womanhood uniquely challenging. “You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin… You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas.

“You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people… I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.”

I know, if that doesn’t scream “man-hating, woke and Chinese propaganda” then I don’t know what does. *Queue a very dramatic eye roll beneath my Barbie-pink plastic sunglasses*.

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