Unboxing Barbie: A Filmic Ode to Empowerment and Self-Discovery


Before you settle in to read this, be warned, there will be spoilers that will most certainly impact the way you experience the Barbie movie if you have not yet seen it. We highly recommend this movie to everyone, and not because we want to give Mattel and Warner Brothers more ticket sales, but because we believe there is something meaningful for everyone in this film, and the best way to see it, is to see it without expectation so you can have your own unique experience with the film. It will touch your heart and mind in unexpected ways. 

The Barbie Monolith

Looming larger than life in her original black and white swimsuit from 1959, we see Barbie for the first time in a scene straight out of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and honestly, we freaking loved it. I cannot think of a more perfect way for this movie to have begun. Released in 1968 Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” opens the film with depictions of a monolith that upon discovery changes the course of human evolution forever. Could not the same be said for Barbie’s impact on the toy industry and generations of play time?

Of course, upon the debut of “2001,” it quickly got the reputation for a ‘good trip’ for its long drawn out mesmerizing scenes. While there is never a dull moment in Barbie, Barbie has mesmerizing sparkle and dance numbers in spades. Beautifully and masterfully shot, this is one of many nods to cinematic icons from writer and director Greta Gerwig. Every scene, every line, was thoughtfully written and expertly executed by some of the most talented creators in the business. Below, in the bonus section you’ll find an interview with Greta where she shares some 30+ film references that helped inspire Barbie, for all us cinephiles out there.

Playful Lessons, Profound Impact:

The Trojan Horse of Barbie’s Message

There is a charming disarming quality about Barbie, after all, she is just a doll. But is she really? This is a doll, and a brand, that has taken a stand on the side of empowering women through its toys for decades. In 1965 Barbie was an astronaut four whole years before a man ever stepped foot on the moon. In 1968 Mattel introduced Christie, a friend of Barbie and the first black doll to show their support for equal rights. In 1980 the first black and hispanic Barbies hit shelves. And in 1992 Barbie started running for President.  Barbie gave children, predominately young girls, permission to dream and aspire to be whatever they wanted to be when they grew up.

Or at least those are the rose colored glasses Mattel has viewed Barbie through over the decades while historically turning a blind eye to their own missteps as a company.  Probably the most blatant oversight, which is called out in the film through their depictions of Mattel, is their lack of women CEOs. There was a woman CEO for only seven years out of the sixty-four year history of Mattel. Mattel has had eleven CEOs, only three of them were women and none of them, including the founder, lasted more than three years in the role. Not to mention the outlandish beauty standards and expectations Barbie set for girls and young women. These standards in many ways stymied early waves of feminism as called out by the character Sasha (played by Ariana Greenblatt) when tearing Barbie from her naive view of herself and her contributions to society.

None of these celebrations or criticisms of Barbie, escape this film. This is a truthful look at all the good, bad, and everything in between that Barbie has brought about as a cultural icon. And because Barbie is such an icon, she has a large fan base that made this film the biggest blockbuster of the summer. Gerwig honors the history and legacy of Barbie, while also elevating criticisms of her. All while offering audiences various levels of critique of our current political moment from overly simplified, yet never condescending, to sophisticated examples of the hurt and suffering we cause each other through various systems of oppression.

The film clearly depicts a matriarchy in Barbieland that causes harm and frustration to the Kens that bars them from being able to fully participate in society. It also depicts our real world Patriarchy and the trauma and anguish it causes women.  In both places, one group is holding power over the other and there is suffering.

It also illustrates how fragile some of the institutions we as a democracy depend on when in a single day Ken is able to overthrow Barbieland and everything Barbie depended on as stable and true, was taken away. Hmm… did this bring up feels of violation for anyone else? Gerwig couldn’t possibly have been playing on the recent political traumas that have rippled out since 2016… .

And then there is America Ferrera’s monologue.

To hear those words spoken aloud, in a mainstream movie theater tied to the cultural icon that is Barbie, was the best therapy session I’ve ever received. I felt validated in the complexities of someone raised as a female bodied person. And I was not alone. This speech went viral and for good reason. It speaks to the lived experiences of women and the cultural pressures thrust upon them.

In an effort to regain power, Barbie devises a plan to distract and divide the Kens so that they are so busy fighting each other, she and the rest of the Barbie’s are able to regain power of Barbieland. Is that not the classic ‘Divide and Conquer’ from “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu? Is this not, quite literally, the oldest trick in the book of imperialism and colonialism? And is it not what we’ve seen manifest in fascist dictatorships right up to our current political moment?

And then we have our bridging moment. Where Barbie reaches out to Ken, and encourages him to find out who he is, not who he is solely in relationship to her. In Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, the way we can begin to build bridges back to one another, is through self awareness, self acceptance and compassion for each other and our differences. We need not be defined and limited by the labels bestowed upon us, who we are in relationship with, where we live, our professions, or other self limiting beliefs tied to identity. Instead, it is our call to be our truest most authentic selves, even when we’re not sure who that is. In an interview with the New York Times, Greta shared this “My hope for the movie is that it’s an invitation for everybody to be part of the party and let go of the things that aren’t necessarily serving us as either women or men.”

Because in the end, we are all ‘Kenough’.

By Benn Marine, August 4, 2023


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