Barbie: a spoiler-filled breakdown

Share this Article:

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is more than just an IP-based blockbuster – there’s a lot in it to unpack, so here are some spoiler-filled thoughts…

We’re all Barbie girls in a Barbie world right now, certainly by all indications of a stupendous box office take and growing that could see Greta Gerwig’s film become one of the most successful films of 2023.

This really is no mean feat. When you remove the ‘Barbenheimer’ effect – the cultural moment of people embracing Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer going head to head – and even the stellar global marketing job from Warner Bros Pictures, the fact that Barbie has stormed both the box office, critical responses and pop culture interest goes beyond expectations.

It has certainly given me hope that audiences want more than just the seventy-fifth Marvel movie. I love popular cinema, the traditional blockbuster, and I’ve invested in many a franchise over the years, but even I’m thirsting for the kind of original flavour Gerwig serves up here. A film, though tethered strongly to a toy company, based on a globally recognised intellectual property, and potentially the vanguard of an entirely new franchise niche (the toy adaptation), which manages to still say something.

This isn’t to say the dominant franchises don’t try. Marvel always attempt to inject some form of geopolitical allegory (see the recent, powerfully boring, Secret Invasion), Mission Impossible is dabbling in AI being the next great existential threat, etc… but all of these properties exist within a veneer of familiarity. You have an idea what you’re getting every few years, or less. Barbie still manages to fit the IP box and feel like an independent movie.

Gerwig, of course, comes from quirky indie cinema. As does her writing/life partner Noah Baumbach. They are indie intellectuals, with Gerwig consistent in displaying a strong feminist angle. Barbie might seem a stretch for them both but it isn’t, certainly not the take they have delivered here. This isn’t simply a movie mechanism for a Barbie/Ken plastic adventure, Gerwig’s film is a feminist rallying cry in the shape of a fun, frothy, vibrant and colourful comedy. You can see why the nebbish conservatives of this world such as Ben Shapiro have their panties in a bunch.

Truth is, Barbie has a lot to unpack. Gerwig isn’t holding back here. Some commentators have wondered quite how Mattel gave her script the green light, but perhaps they appreciate that expressly using the Barbie iconography as a vehicle for promoting modern female empowerment and challenging toxic masculinity is precisely what an audience likely to watch a Barbie film these days want. Some of it might go over the audience’s head. I’m convinced in my showing it did at times. But perhaps not forever.

As many have been, my showing was packed in a way that, even for an afternoon during the school holidays, I haven’t seen in a long time. There was a buzz about Barbie that felt palpable. But I do wonder why some of these audience members were here. The marketing has done well in presenting the film as a quirky, bright comedy. Margot Robbie and especially Ryan Gosling have their fan bases (and beyond them, much like Oppenheimer, the supporting cast is a stellar mix of old hands and fresh faces). Though while Barbie isn’t subversive, it’s pointed. It isn’t empty headed like Ken. It wants you to feel something.

My wife, who accompanied me to the film, ended up feeling a sense of surging feminist resolve when she walked out of the movie. It sparked in her an underlying frustration at male entitlement that is built into Western society, which via Ken’s (hilarious) search for ‘the Patriarchy’ and subsequent importing that into the female empowered Barbie Land, Gerwig is specifically shining a light on.

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in Greta Gerwig's Barbie.

America Ferrera’s barnstorming speech about how contradictory and difficult being a modern woman is was striking. As a man, while I understand the meaning, it’s hard to truly reconcile the feeling. Much as in having open minded sympathy for a person of colour, unless you live that experience, how can you understand it as a white person? The same is true of men and the female experience Barbie unpicks. What Gerwig absolutely wants, though, is for us men on Mars and women from Venus to meet halfway and find a middle ground.

We must talk about Margot Robbie for a second. She’s exceptional, as she often is. What a year she is having after Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, a film I’m convinced only a handful of us loved, but in which Robbie is a swirling, hedonistic yet earnest and loveable revelation. Barbie is no different, except Robbie here ends up challenged by existential crisis rather than a corrupted old Hollywood of vice and self-destruction. Robbie is building a career on playing beautiful starlets who have a self-deprecating charm, plus an earnest level of self-reflection, all the while radiating wholesomeness. Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was the same. For a woman who radiates sex appeal, Robbie is oddly quite sexless on screen in some ways. She’s perfect casting for a Barbie grappling with her own ‘stereotypical’ blonde bimbo image.

Equally, it’s hard to imagine who else could have essayed Ken other than Ryan Gosling. Maybe Ben Stiller twenty or thirty years ago. There is something of Derek Zoolander about his empty headed, childlike but charming portrayal of Ken, whose function is to exist as an idealised representation of a Barbie boyfriend. If Barbie undergoes her own Cartesian journey of existential realisation, she influences Ken into turning away from the toxicity of masculinity that becomes a by-product of female emasculation. Gosling, like Robbie, can be imprinted on. He carries pre-existing audience expectations and awareness that help us still like and sympathise with Ken (and find him funny) even when he rejects Barbie’s growth and doubles down on swaggering male entitlement.

He also, weirdly, works as a sexless agent, despite being one of the sexiest male actors on the planet. It feels like Gerwig and Baumbach are, in part, examining the sexlessness of modern franchise cinema as much as the comedy of Barbie and Ken having no genitalia. Naturally this is because Mattel intended Barbie and Ken, when they arrived in the late 1950s, to represent the idealised female and male form, and for Barbie a visual example of female success and empowerment to young girls. Sex didn’t come into it.

Even if the idea of a Ken in relation to Barbie was crucial, as Rhea Perlman’s almost mystical Barbie creator Ruth Handler says to Barbie: “Humans have only one ending. Ideas live forever.” As Barbie questions her own existence, Mattel as a company understand the ideas behind these dolls will outlive them.

Plenty has been written on the sexlessness of cinema recently over the last few years, how perhaps audiences are becoming more prurient in the age of Gen Z. The response to what turned out to be a rather anodyne sex scene in Oppenheimer compared to historical examples makes that point for me. Ken desires Barbie, but even he doesn’t quite understand what happens if he stays over the night.

But we, as an audience, bring a built-in cynicism and awareness. Gerwig actualises this when they reach the ‘real world’ and toxic men immediately objectify Robbie’s Barbie sexually, and Ken begins to idealise the masculine form (hilariously of Rocky-era Sylvester Stallone!). The teenage character of Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) underlines said cynicism. She points out all the ways Barbie as a concept has damaged young girls over the years, going as far as describing her a fascist.

Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in Greta Gerwig's Barbie.

This is, of course, quite ridiculous, and Gerwig is at pains by the end to have Sasha realise she’s far too deep down the Gen Z rabbit hole, reconnecting her with Ferrera’s genuinely nice mother figure Gloria and softening her in Barbie Land. But that self-awareness, that level of consciousness about feminine symbols and male entitlement is key to the film’s message. Perhaps to make the point that Barbie turned out somewhat differently from what Mattel might have imagined, corporate executives from the company came to see Gerwig while shooting, asking her to remove the ‘fascist’ line once they got wind of it, as she describes:

They were coming anyway, so it wasn’t like, “Stop everything, we all have to go to London!” But with that scene in particular, my awareness of Barbie as a thing in the world completely corresponded with me knowing the arguments against Barbie. I didn’t think there was any way to do this without giving that real estate and having well-articulated, correct arguments from a really smart character given to Barbie against Barbie. Also, I grew up with a mom who was kind of against Barbie, so that’s how I knew all that. If you don’t give voice to that, then you’re nowheresville. It wasn’t like I ever got the full seal of approval from [Mattel], like, “We love it!” I got a tentative, “Well, OK. I see that you are going to do this, so go ahead and we’ll see how it goes.” But that’s all you need, and I had faith once it was in there and they saw it that they would embrace it, not fight it.

This nicely mirrors the presence of Mattel executives in the film itself, spearheaded by Will Ferrell’s loud, buffoonish CEO (the kind of textbook role he is so good at, especially with the right material), who are depicted as all male corporate figures terrified at the prospect of a self-aware Barbie damaging their IP in the real world. No one rests until this doll is back in a box! the CEO says, pointedly. Barbie’s evolution threatens their entire business model in a way perhaps, in our world, Mattel’s fear that questioning Barbie’s cultural goodness could damage their brand. Perhaps they simply didn’t quite understand what Gerwig was doing here. If they had, maybe she wouldn’t have gotten away with it.

It’s fascinating how once Ken transforms Barbie Land into his ‘Kendom’ (a name in itself which implies dominance), Mattel instantly make huge profits from his ‘mojo dojo casa house’ appealing to boys. The point is clear: corporations might signal about virtue and tolerance, but their only interest is the bottom line. It’s no revelation but it adds to the cultural opinion of the moment that such entities are themselves toxic and amorphous. I did wonder if seeing the WB Discovery building outside the window of those Mattel scenes was more of a pointed rebuke than an in-joke, given what David Zaslav has been up to of late. One to debate.

I wouldn’t say Barbie as a film is reinventing any kind of wheel. Characters meeting their creators and exploring the real world has been done many times before. There are elements of other conceptual ideas driving this – Toy Story, The Truman Show etc… – and Gerwig and Baumbach provide a relatively straightforward quest narrative plot structure for Barbie and Ken. Indeed, I found the final act a little messy as Gerwig works hard to really spell out an enormous amount of internal subtext and thought process in order to complete Barbie’s journey (it gets away with this because her rationalising her existential crisis outwardly is the entire point). This doesn’t mean Barbie has a great deal new up its sleeve, nor is it particularly surrealistic in approach or design.

Yet something about this film has struck a chord. There are likely to be numerous reasons, beyond ‘Barbenheimer’ or impressive marketing, or even the yearning of audiences for something new. Barbie perhaps also contains a nostalgia for many, the kind of nostalgia Ferrera’s Gloria wallows in when she feels rejected by her daughter, thereby triggering in Barbie a middle-aged maternal angst. It feels like a film that will be received differently by varying age groups. Mothers might see the virtue of Barbie. Daughters might not. Children might simply enjoy the colour and sparkle of Barbie free of those very human, very adult, life expectations. Men, perhaps, will see themselves in Ken, mansplaining The Godfather to their wives. Others, no doubt, will angrily reject the message and double down on cuckolded grievance.

Ultimately, when what otherwise could have been a standard slice of IP in a summer marketplace can have those interpretations and ask all of those questions, and still become a rampaging hit, you know there is something special going on. Barbie, at the very least, will be a defining film of the early 2020s, I suspect. And a world that our sons and daughters – maybe even their sons and daughters – will be visiting for a long time to come.

Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.

Share this Article:

Related Stories

More like this