'Barbie' Can't (and Doesn't Really Try to) Solve Feminism — but That's Okay

Directed by Greta Gerwig

Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman, Will Ferrell, Michael Cera, Dua Lipa, Emma Mackey, Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ncuti Gatwa

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

BY Allie GregoryPublished Jul 20, 2023

A bit of Barbie press circuit trivia (that may or may not be true) continues to lend a hand in strengthening its lore: last year, Ryan Gosling told Jimmy Fallon that he accepted the role of Ken upon seeing his daughter's Ken doll face-down in the mud next to a squished lemon, telling director Greta Gerwig, "I shall be your Ken, for his story must be told."

As much as this capital "F" feminist movie is about Margot Robbie's Barbie (as well as Dua Lipa's and Emma Mackey's and Issa Rae's), it's also about Ken — a supposedly canonically unhoused, unemployed dude whose main purpose in life is getting Barbie's attention and "beach." Gosling (and Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ncuti Gatwa, etc.) fully inhabits the role of himbo Ken, playing the forlorn second fiddle to his woman counterparts in a make-believe place called Barbie Land where the patriarchy doesn't exist and women are the lawyers, doctors, presidents and space explorers.

With all the Barbies and Kens under the illusion that their model lives have solved all the problems of the real world, the onset of ennui and preoccupation with death that Margot's Stereotypical Barbie suddenly bears leads her to sheepishly seek the help of Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who sends her to the real world to track down the girl who owns her and make her happy again so that Barbie's feet won't be flat anymore. Ken stows himself away in Barbie's car, and they are both forced to contend with reality and the inverse experience of gender on Earth.

It's a premise that, as presented in its trailers and over the course of its year-long promotional period, seems innocent and goofy enough to provide a brainless vessel for bubblegum-flavoured fun and child-appropriate viewing. What instead results from Gerwig and Noah Baumbach's script is a film that, like its conspicuous Barbie Land setting, straddles the pink world and the less shiny and insidiously more plastic reality, anchored by the clownishly evil Mattel CEO (Will Ferrell), whose board of directors aim to capture Barbie in the real world. 

Fourth wall breaks and humour are balanced with Robbie's disarmingly emotive performance throughout, landing the film somewhere in the middle ground between Oscar fodder and a Shrek-level kids' movie. The complex topics addressed within (feminism, the patriarchy, fascism, consumerism, existentialism, etc.) aren't exactly parsed enough to offer anything more than buzz-wordy virtue signalling to base-level lefty adult audience members, while they're also introduced too plainly for younger audiences to understand. But that's sort of the point!

Requisite Gone Girl-ing ensues to prove that Barbie at least understands the existential paradoxes it attempts to unfold (which led to an in-theatre round of cheers from women, if that's an indication of anything), and the film does seem to pave a path to understanding how Barbie Land (read: society) can fix the patriarchy.

Is Barbie a goofy romp or a heady subversion of genre? It tries to be both while not necessarily succeeding at either; Gerwig and co. probably hope that they've concocted a secret third thing, and while that perhaps remains to be seen, it's still an extremely funny, aesthetically pleasing, heartstring-pulling watch. And that's all it ever needed to be.
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

Latest Coverage