My review of Barbie

01 Oct 2023

I’ve decided to try my hand as a culture critic. There’s no way I was going to pay to see the new Barbie movie in the cinemas, so this is a somewhat belated review. There are spoilers ahead.

Barbie world

The movie starts in the world of Barbie, which is plucked from the imagination of a young girl. In this world, the barbies are all amazing, do everything of importance, and live in perpetual bliss. The kens are a collection of irredeemable idiots who are consigned to hanging out aimlessly on the beach all day doing nothing. This is the matriarchal utopia.

After some singing/dancing about how great Barbie world is, it becomes clear that in fact there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. The happiness is too forced, the world too boringly perfect. There’s nothing to achieve - the barbies are effortlessly amazing all the time. Nothing to learn, no real adventures to be had, and nothing for the human spirit to contend with. Everything is shallow and devoid of meaning.

There is also the hint that maybe, just maybe, the kens are being mistreated. They’re in love with the barbies and it’s clear that their existence revolves around them, and they desperately want to do something to get noticed. The barbies, evidently not in need of no man, coldly reject and exclude the kens.

Ok so clearly the naive view of a matriarchal utopia is being critiqued here. That’s a sensible idea that anyone can get on board with. So far, so so-so (that’s right, a triple (or is it quadruple?) so (and that’s to say nothing of the now triple parentheses. BAM!)).

Real world

Through a series of fairly uninteresting story developments, both Barbie and Ken find themselves transported to the real world. Venice beach, California, to be exact. Both of them immediately start being ogled by strangers. For Ken this is a welcome development - he feels admired, like he is living in the reverse of Barbie world. For Barbie, not so much. She receives a litany of unwanted sexual comments from various men, and is then groped.

A bit more of uninteresting story development later, and they end up parting ways. Ken, thinking that he is in a glorious patriarchy, walks into a fancy corporate building and demands a high-powered, high-paying job. He’s told that he will at the very least need some basic qualifications. Puzzled, he asks ‘Isn’t being a man enough?’ to which his interlocutor replies ‘Actually right now it’s kind of the opposite’. Here we have an interesting, tacit acknowledgement of affirmative action policies, now ubiquitous in the work place, that outright discriminate in favour of women and against men. Ken continues his search down the job hierarchy, trying to become a doctor and then a lifeguard, both of which he is summarily rejected for due his lack of any relevant skills or qualifications. Clearly then, the real world is not just a gender-flipped version of Barbie world, where women can and do walk into any job they want with no discernible talent. And we also have the first hint of the complete incoherence of whatever political/cultural message the movie is meant to have. But more on that later.

In the meantime, Barbie finds what she thinks is the girl from whose imagination Barbie world is drawn - Sasha. She expects a warm welcome, but instead receives a nasty tirade about how Barbie represents everything wrong with the world, including ‘sexualised capitalism’ and presenting unrealistic beauty standards for young girls.

At Mattel headquarters we join the board of directors, which is entirely populated by buffoonishly inept men. Apparently this is the only place in the real world where incompetent men can walk into jobs far above their station. They are informed that Barbie is on the loose by one of an army of male interns, who is treated like crap by everyone and seems to have a thoroughly terrible life. We’re again left with ideological whiplash - is the real world a patriarchy in which men are the oppressor class and women the oppressed class, or not?

Ken world

After some more uninteresting story development, Barbie, Sasha, and Sasha’s mother (Gloria) find themselves transported to Barbie world. Except it’s not Barbie world anymore, it’s Ken world. Ken got back before them and has taken over. The once amazing barbies that ran the world are reduced to maids and mindless sex objects. Barbie is shocked and dismayed at what has happened. She confronts Ken, and for approximately half a second he actually shows a glimpse of depth to his character, yelling “You failed me!” in a way that sticks out as jarringly real in an otherwise painfully superficial movie. It doesn’t last long though, as he promptly goes back to acting like the awful, entitled oppressor he inherently is.

The barbies hatch an inane scheme to take Barbie world back from the kens. It is during this segment that Gloria delivers an impassioned monologue, which is so important that I’m going to reproduce it here in full.

The monologue

It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don't think you're good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we're always doing it wrong.

You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have 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.

You have to answer for men's bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you're accused of complaining. You're supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you're supposed to be a part of the sisterhood.

But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful.

You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It's too hard! It's too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.

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.

This monologue has apparently moved grown women the world over to tears.

I admit that it almost moved me to tears also. Just not quite in the same way.

My first reaction was ‘Welcome to being an adult’. It turns out that people expect things of you. It is not unreasonable for people to expect things of you. There is absolutely nothing about this which is unique to women.

It turns out also that people have different opinions about stuff. No matter what you do, someone will think you’re doing it too little, or too much, or just completely wrong. Again, welcome to being an adult.

I’m also immediately reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful poem ‘If’, also reprinted in full below.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

The subject matter strikes me as almost identical to Gloria’s monologue. Here we have an inspirational rallying cry for men to take on the weight of the world, with all it’s ugliness and unfairness and messiness, to tread impossibly thin lines showing nothing but courage and fortitude. Meanwhile, anything of that sort directed at women results in lots of bellyaching. Hmm.

The revolution

Next, the barbies carry out their plan of emotionally manipulating the kens so they all end up fighting amongst each other, and signing in a new constitution that reinstates the barbies to power while the kens are distracted. However, in a moment of conscience and revelation, the barbies decides that things shouldn’t go back to exactly the way they were before. The kens, taking encouragement from this, ask if they can have just one supreme court justice in the new world. They are refused and instead offered a lower circuit court judgeship, which, being pitiful morons, they gleefully accept. So, no one has learned anything then.

Gloria petitions the Mattel CEO to create an ‘ordinary barbie’, who isn’t remarkable in any way; just a normal woman with a ‘flattering top’ that wants to ‘get through the day feeling kind of good about herself’. This, of course, naturally raises the question of what the women actually want. On the one hand, if Gloria is to be believed, then there’s nothing wrong with the real world, presumably full of ordinary, non-aspirational women like herself. At the same time the whole movie is premised upon the idea that the real world is an oppressive patriarchy precisely because there aren’t aspirational women taking up the mantle of responsibility and power. So, should women be aspirational or not? If they are, they inevitably open themselves up to impossible expectations, failure and criticism, which Gloria’s monologue indicates she is not a fan of. What’s it going to be, Barbie?

In a final plot twist, and after much unintelligible navel-gazing about what her true identity is, Barbie decides that she wants to be a real woman in the real world. The final sequence of the movie shows her dressed in a business suit, being chauffeured to what appears to be a very important meeting, and steeling her courage with platitudes offered by Gloria and Sasha. What extraordinary trial is she about to go through? Perhaps she’s interviewing to be a CEO?

She walks up to a receptionst’s desk and proudly announces:

I'm here to see my gynaecologist.

Wow. End film. Roll credits.

Final thoughts

So the ending of the movie was terrible. But it also seemed like there was an obvious missed opportunity. Instead of the kens becoming slightly less second-class citizens than they were before, why didn’t the kens and barbies realise and become the team that they were always meant to be? Why didn’t they land somewhere between matriarchy and patriarchy, in a world where men and women are treated with fairness and dignity? Why didn’t everyone coalesce around the campfire singing the kumbayas of the thing we all agree on - a sensible notion of gender equality - in a poignant, heart-warming moment of gender-based unity?

Well, there is a large team of smart, savvy, professional, highly-paid, profit-driven individuals who brought the wonder of Barbie to our screens, and this ending is so obvious there is no way they didn’t consider it. Therefore I have to believe the reason they didn’t go for it is the same reason the broader messaging of the movie was muddled to the point of stupidity. They’re speaking out of both sides of their mouth in order to placate a capricious, irrational audience.

See, if we had the kumbaya ending, we might be forced to conclude that the real world is not a patriarchy at all. As Ken found out, it’s a place where qualifications matter. Presumably this is the arrangement that the kens and barbies working together would have converged upon - assignments should be based not on gender, but merit. Maybe in a meritocracy we could have by chance ended up with more kens as supreme court justices than barbies, and more barbies as doctors. Maybe the kens and barbies are intrinsically interested in doing different things with their lives and voluntarily make different choices when given the freedom to do so. But clearly such sexist claptrap cannot be allowed to stand, and clearly the real world is an oppressive patriarchy - that doctrine cannot be questioned. So instead of the happy ending we should have got, we end up with a crummy joke about vaginas.

In this movie, you will find just about every idea or theory about gender, feminism, men and women expressed to some degree or another. Radical feminists, moderates, anti-feminists, men’s rights activists, will all find something to sympathise with. Almost no one can be universally pissed off with the messaging. I can only conclude that this was intentional - the film-makers were pandering and looking to avoid controversy. If an idea is expressed that you don’t like or disagree with, you can simply ignore it, write it off as tongue-in-cheek, or put it down to the ‘complexity’ of feminism. However, the inevitable result is a movie whose message is utterly incoherent. Decades from now, PhD students in the humanities will write many theses about how this movie exemplifies how utterly confused the feminist movement of the current era is. I can just hear them furiously tapping away at their keyboards while they should instead be spending their time acquiring skills that are actually useful in the real world.

I would also be remiss to not say something about the male archetypes of the movie. Barbie falls rather predictably into the ‘trap’ that every recent movie with a feminist agenda has. Namely, every single male character is either despicable or pathetic. Sometimes both. The only difference is power - men who have it are despicable, and men who don’t are pathetic. These are the only two options that are dreamt of in their conceptual universe. The idea of an honest, wise, self-sacrificing man in a position of power, who wields that power responsibly and whom is fundamentally motivated by the benefit of others - for the writers, this is a fantasy. And that is a profoundly sad commentary on our current cultural moment.

This brings me neatly to my final point. Even if you ignore the stupid messaging and politics of the movie, it completely fails to deliver the number one thing that a movie is supposed to do: entertain. The characters are all vapid, they don’t learn or achieve anything, the story is uninteresting, the jokes are crap. What else is there? Usually when a movie grosses astronomical amounts of money as Barbie has (more then a billion dollars!), I can at least understand why other people find it appealing, even if I don’t myself. In this instance, I will forever remain completely baffled.