Why the new Barbie movie is the feminist epic we deserve
When it was first announced that there would be a Barbie movie, way back in 2016, there wasn’t much hype. Nor hope that it would be anything particularly revolutionary or subversive. Amy Schumer was attached to the project at the time and it was tipped to be a “fish out of water story” reminiscent of nostalgic films like Splash, Enchanted and Big.
Sure, it had some wafts of feminism: Schumer apparently wanted her Barbie to be an “ambitious inventor”, but the studio suggested her invention be a “high heel made out of Jell-O” and even sent the comic actress a pair of Manolo Blahniks to celebrate the collaboration. “The idea that that’s just what every woman must want, right there, I should have gone, ‘You’ve got the wrong gal,’” Schumer said, when discussing the ins and outs of the live-action project she subsequently pulled out of.
Nearly two years passed. Then, when Barbie seemed all but dead in the water, Greta Gerwig (director of Ladybird and Little Women) signed on to direct, and people sat up and started paying attention. Gerwig’s directorial work has become widely beloved and known for its feminist slant: in her 2019 adaptation of Little Women, for example, she made an active choice to reform the character of Amy from an infamously spoiled brat to a well rounded woman with thoughts and feelings of her own, as well as a fully fledged understanding of the socioeconomic institution of marriage.
But the character of Barbie carries a little more weight than Amy March, despite clocking in at approximately 7.25 ounces (and being a proportional paradox). Amy March may have been annoying and a little overly-boy-oriented, but Barbie is perhaps one of the biggest anti-feminist symbols of all time - or at least she used to be. In recent years, there’s been concious effort to improve the diversity of Barbie’s offering, from ethnicity to body type. Today the doll is available in both disabled and plus sized forms, as well as a variety of aspirational occupations. So the concern wasn’t necessarily Mattel, Barbie’s parent company, but rather the film industry. You know, the same industry that insisted on Jell-O shoe inventions.
A lot has changed since 2016, when Schumer was first linked to the project. The world turned upside down, Harvey Weinstein went to jail and feminist slanted films became regular Oscar frontrunners (and box office hits) instead of sidelined pet projects. In other words: the world is ready for feminist Barbie.
Issa Rae is President Barbie, Hari Nef is Doctor Barbie, Emma Mackey is a Barbie with a Nobel Prize in physics
And it looks like we’re getting it. The whopping cast selection that was revealed last month meant we could glean some information on the direction of the plot, with its myriad of different Barbie characters, all with varying, distinctly impressive, professions. Issa Rae is President Barbie, Hari Nef is Doctor Barbie, Emma Mackey is a Barbie with a Nobel Prize in physics, Dua Lipa is… a mermaid Barbie. All of the male characters in Barbie World, however, are simply called “Ken”. Ryan Gosling’s promo picture even refers to him as “Just Ken.”
It doesn’t take a Barbie with a Pulitzer prize to work out what is going on here. It’s literally in the film’s tagline: Barbie is everything and he’s just Ken.
All of the male characters in Barbie World, however, are simply called “Ken”. Ryan Gosling’s promo picture even refers to him as “Just Ken.”
Then, yesterday, Robbie’s interview for her American Vogue covershoot dropped, and we got more insight on the Barbie movie’s actual substance than ever before. There were a few key details hinting further towards the film’s feminist slant - firstly, Barbie is routinely spoken about in Biblical terms.
“Barbie was invented first,” Gerwig told Vogue as part of Robbie’s interview article. “Ken was invented after Barbie, to burnish Barbie’s position in our eyes and in the world. That kind of creation myth is the opposite of the creation myth in Genesis.”
Robbie also told Vogue that Gerwig penned a poem about Barbie before she wrote actual the script, and while Gerwig refused to share the poem, she revealed that it related closely to The Apostles' Creed, a piece of text which summarises the Christian faith. It goes a little something like: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary,” and so on, so forth. One can only assume God and Jesus were replaced with the word Barbie.
Because Barbie is everything. “Barbie has a great day every day,” Helen Mirren narrates at one point. “Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.”
Then, later in the film, Barbie’s journey is shaped by her gaining sentience and self awareness, in a way which Gerwig compared to how teenage girls grow to understand the world around them and develop insecurity. “They’re funny and brash and confident, and then they just—stop,” Gerwig told Vogue. When writing, she says she thought to herself: “’How is this journey the same thing that a teenage girl feels?’” All of a sudden, she thinks, Oh, I’m not good enough.” Pretty heavy stuff for a doll to deal with.
Given what we know so far, there is no doubt that Barbie will be a feminist epic, and young girls everywhere will watch it while sitting in front of their living room TV sets, mouths agape, for years to come. Absorbing its message well before they can understand its hidden adult jokes (“nobody’s gonna beach anyone off!”). For the millennial plus generations, however, the feeling is somewhat bittersweet. Perhaps if we had grown up watching this Barbie movie, instead of just playing with standard issue Barbie’s, we’d have been slightly happier Barbie Girls. In a (slightly more) equal Barbie World.