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The surprising vulnerability of “Barbie”

Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster serves style, sisterhood and slick social commentary

<p>Beneath its Barbie-mania, Gerwig’s blockbuster examines the delicate balancing act of American womanhood, exploring the complicated relationship between girls and the dolls designed to represent them.</p>

Beneath its Barbie-mania, Gerwig’s blockbuster examines the delicate balancing act of American womanhood, exploring the complicated relationship between girls and the dolls designed to represent them.

Life in plastic — it’s fantastic! Or is it?

Even before hitting theaters on July 21, the latest “Barbie” movie sent pop culture into a hot pink frenzy. Celebrities and influencers channeled the film’s colorful aesthetic through the Barbiecore fashion trend. Moviegoers clamored for collectable Barbie cups sold in Cinemark theaters. “Barbenheimer” memes have proliferated on the internet, poking fun at the tonal contrast between “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” a World War II-era biopic released in theaters on the same day. Margot Robbie, who stars as Barbie herself, drew inspiration for her press tour outfits from decades of real Barbie dolls.

The movie’s extensive marketing campaign and star-studded cast paid off in the box office, where “Barbie” broke the record for the first weekend for a woman-directed film, selling $162 million worth of tickets in North American theaters.

Director and co-writer Greta Gerwig employs the familiar trope of toys coming to life, but “Barbie” ventures beyond the scope of animated films like “Toy Story” and “The Lego Movie” with its existentialist reflections and sharp-edged social commentary. Beneath its Barbie-mania, Gerwig’s blockbuster examines the delicate balancing act of American womanhood, exploring the complicated relationship between girls and the dolls designed to represent them.

The story opens in Barbie Land, a feminist utopia where women can be anything. Barbies own dream houses, pursue high-powered careers, drive luxury vehicles and throw glamorous parties without a hair out of place. In the titular role, Robbie plays a self-proclaimed “Stereotypical Barbie” who passes one perfect day after another — until “uncontrollable thoughts of death” and cellulite threaten her perfect reality.

Gerwig renders the colorful world of the Barbie-verse with exquisite attention to detail. Barbie’s Dream House, a mid-century modern architectural delight, pops plastic waffles out of a toaster and lacks running water in the shower. 

Barbie Land features discontinued Barbie models like a pregnant doll, Ken’s friend Alan and “Growing Up Skipper,” a controversial, breast-growing toy from the 70s. When Barbie steps out of her heels, her feet stay artfully slanted. Kate McKinnon plays a hilariously jaded “Weird Barbie,” whose choppy hairdo and facial marker scrawls serve as the battle scars of rough playtime.

To save her skin texture, Stereotypical Barbie leaves her pink-and-plastic paradise for the Real World, where she discovers women face professional barriers the citizens of Barbie Land could never imagine. Human girls do not revere Barbie dolls as the empowering, feminist symbols the Barbies believe themselves to be, and a preteen girl rejects Stereotypical Barbie for reinforcing a patriarchal ideal of womanhood.

For a character based on a picture-perfect doll, Stereotypical Barbie displays a surprising vulnerability, grappling with the same anxieties as human women. She struggles to accept change, feels overwhelmed by responsibility and experiences painful emotions. 

Her character questions the expectation that American women gracefully balance their career and personal lives, keep their emotions in control and maintain an hourglass figure — all while navigating a society built to keep men in power.

Gerwig critiques the Barbie franchise — as much as commercial boundaries allow — for holding women to an unrealistic standard of perfection. Instead of striving to be Barbies, the film suggests, women can lead fulfilling lives by accepting their imperfections and embracing the highs and lows of being human.

Stereotypical Barbie’s boyfriend Ken, played by a heart-eyed Ryan Gosling, loyally tags along on her Real World adventures. While Barbie faces sexism, harassment and objectification, Ken encounters a male-dominated reality for the first time. Ken returns to Barbie Land to share his understanding of patriarchy, and the Kens begin to seize power from the women who run their world.

Fans may have harbored doubts about his casting, but Gosling portrays Ken with an endearing earnestness. Barbie Land reverses the gender roles of the Real World, relegating the Kens to second-class citizenship. Kens do not have jobs, cars or Dream Houses of their own, and exist merely as background characters in the Barbies’ lives.

Slighted by Stereotypical Barbie and frustrated by his aimless existence, Gosling’s Ken adopts hyper-masculine behavior to compensate for his insecurities. He guzzles beer, establishes a man cave, bares his chiseled torso and enters an epic “beach off” with his rival.

Ken’s character arc balances the social commentary of “Barbie” by illustrating the unrealistic standards men face — and the inadequacy men can feel if they fail to measure up to an illusory ideal of hegemonic masculinity. Ken expresses such feelings through “I’m Just Ken,” an eighties-esque earworm set against deliciously dramatic choreography. In a movie that could easily fall back on broad-strokes, “girl-power” feminism, Gosling’s Ken-centered subplot offers necessary nuance.

“Barbie: The Album,” a shimmering soundtrack, supports the movie’s visual decadence with a who’s-who of modern pop music. “Pink,” a bubbly anthem by Lizzo, introduces Barbie Land under opening credits. Dua Lipa lends her signature dance-pop sound as the Barbies “Dance the Night” away.

At the emotional climax of the film, “What Was I Made For?” by Billie Eilish brings the audience to tears. Of course, no Barbie-themed album would be complete without Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” which rappers Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice sample on the track “Barbie World.”

An entertaining blend of fun and meta-commentary, Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” deserves the hype it has generated as a splashy summer smash-hit. The movie packs enough substance to transcend two-dimensional feminism while playfully riffing on the franchise at its center. As the “Barbie” trailer put it, “if you love Barbie [or] if you hate Barbie, this movie is for you.” 


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