My First Reaction to Barbie
My thoughts right after watching the movie. Major spoilers ahead, obviously!
I’m trying something different from my usual essay format today: I’m sharing the thoughts I jotted down immediately after watching Barbie. There were a thousand different directions I could go in when writing about this movie, but so much has already been said about it that I figured I might as well just share my personal, unfiltered thoughts!
Let me know what you think: Do you want more stream-of-consciousness reflections in the future? And would you like me to share more of my past writing about Enthusiasts episode topics and fandom culture more broadly, or should I stick to K-pop-themed writing? I’m all ears!
First of all, I love the way the movie allowed me to embrace both halves of me: the half that will always love Barbie and be protective over the brand and what it did for me, and the half that will always resent the consumerist and fake-feminist “girlboss” culture in which she’s thrived. I loved getting swept away in imagined scenarios for hours of Barbie playtime, but I also grew more critical of the brand as I grew up and took more sociology courses. I became more cynical towards the entire premise of commodifying the ability to feel free and equal. Barbie taught me I can take on any career I want and pursue any interest I want… at a literal price.
All kinds of people can get something out of watching this movie, but it is extra valuable to people like me who have a history with Barbie. This movie could have easily been a complete take-down of the brand or a completely groveling ad for it. Instead, it was something much more nuanced. The critiques of the brand were subversive and at times took a backseat to letting long-time fans like me just reminisce. I saw SO many fun details throughout Barbie that really took me back! That slide and pool! That pantry and kitchen setup! TANNER!!! The curtain beads! The RV!
It was really smart in the ways it didn’t straight-up worship Barbie, though. After all, the character is… nothing. She’s not actually inspirational. She barely understands literal definitions of feelings. She isn’t exactly courageous and gives up as soon as the going gets tough. She keeps almost throwing in the towel and doing the right thing just begrudgingly - taking the Birkenstock over the high heel (IYKYK!), trying to restore female leadership instead of succumbing to Kendom, etc.
The human characters aren’t exceptionally likable or brave either. America Ferrera’s character says some great things and saves the day with her plan, but otherwise, she’s just an ordinary person trying to get through the day.
Whether idolizing a product (America Ferrera’s character) or being the product (Barbie), no one feels truly fulfilled in this story. No character is thriving. No one is an easily packageable, two-dimensional, hero-or-villain character. No one feels fully understood.
When Ruth has the dramatic walk and talk with Barbie, it’s so key to the story that she mentions the arbitrary nature of concepts like patriarchy. Humans come up with meanings that last long after the humans are gone. It’s such a key, ironic insight: The things that are real (humans) die, while the things they make up (ideas) linger.
In the movie, Barbie wants to be real, a mortal, no longer an immortal yet incomplete idea.
Barbie is so shocked when she visits the Real World and isn’t met with a parade. No one congratulates her for solving gender inequality?! For girl-bossing the world?! Didn’t a doll that tells girls “You can be anything” lead to them actually surmounting the obstacles towards becoming anything?! Of course not!
Real-world change will never come from purely visible markers of progress, let alone ones that are literal toys. Capitalist celebrations of gender equality do NOT equal true equality, which sounds obvious, but lots of (male) executives pat themselves on the back for it anyway, and if you think that’s crazy, as America says in her monologue, you’ll just be called a bitter woman who needs to shut up!
Life imitates art, and vice versa.
Barbie is nothing AND everything.
She is an idea only, but she is also us, the customers.
She lets us see ourselves in any profession - but it better be a marketable one!
She lets us live vicariously through her, but with marketing-related limitations. She frees our minds, but not without caveats.
The movie really crystallized for me why Barbie endures: she is a blank canvas, an empty vessel. She is us, our projections - our ways of making visible our ideal appearances, our career goals, etc. She is a face for our dreams.
But she is only a face.
The fascinating contradiction at the core of the Barbie brand is this ability to be a creative, therapeutic outlet for people like me AND the reason we need a therapeutic outlet from this unequal and materialistic world in the first place!
As surface-level as the movie’s Barbie is, she really does mirror human feelings: a fear of change, of aging, of not being able to handle what life throws at her next… We project our ideals onto her, but we also project our fears onto her. We imbue her with humanity. We are keeping her legacy alive, for better and for worse. We are ensuring she remains immortal, because we are perpetuating the idea of Barbie. We buy Barbies, Mattel makes and markets more Barbies, we (maybe) criticize their way of selling our dreams back to us, we buy the Barbies anyway, and the cycle continues. We keep her relatable and relevant.
Besides the talk with Ruth, I find most worth reflecting on the scene where she smiles at the old woman at the bus stop, calls her beautiful, and the woman responds, “I know it!” That felt downright RADICAL. When was the last time you heard a woman respond like that to a compliment?! That scene really sums up Barbie World: It’s where women have zero imposter syndrome. They reply to compliments with “I know!,” something that feels absurd in the Real World. They lack all self-doubt and any sense of obligation to be modest. This realization got me thinking about how the movie frames the blurring of lines between Barbie World and the Real World as a problem, but it ends up being Barbie’s solution.
True fulfillment comes from not taking all our feelings out on material things or hoping those things save the day. Material things can be tools to help, but full contentment and clarity come from an understanding of abstract feelings and ideas, as well as our roles in creating and maintaining those feelings and ideas.
So, can Barbie be the hero? She is just an abstract idea… yet she is also just a material thing.
The movie has me thinking about the things we turn to to make meaning, the limitations on doing so, and how it might or might not be possible to fully merge the best attributes of our dream worlds with the real one. Can an ideal world be created out of an anything-but-ideal, consumerism-geared system?
Two of the most emotional moments for me in the movie:
1) When Barbie realizes she was sent to the Real World to find America’s character, not the young girl she originally thought she was supposed to help. I really saw myself in that moment. Barbie being sent to reconnect with America’s character is like both past sources of pain AND childhood dreams coming to pay me a visit. A visit from Barbie is basically a visit from part of my psyche!
2) The montage at the end, featuring home footage and pictures. It is such a summative moment of Barbie’s appeal: not in who she is but in what she becomes to us over time. How we assigned meaning to her as we grew up. How we gave her both her best and worst qualities.
I also find it so smart how the film prompted all this deep reflection BUT was also just super fun! “I’m Just Ken” goes OFF, as does the whole soundtrack! The sets and musical numbers are ridiculous in all the best ways! Watching is time that really flies by!
Sometimes, the most effective way to get a message across is by using the very thing being criticized. It can also be super-effective to send heavier messages through levity, like a silly soundtrack and jokes about things like “Kenergy”! The movie revels in the very sense of superficiality it critiques; it gets viewers distracted with frivolous fun and then effectively sneaks in jabs at the way that fun is turned into a brand and a cure-all.
I hope lots of people who dislike Barbie watch this movie. Trust me, it is SO much more than what is in the ads. The context behind the teasers is NOT what was expected, and parts of the plot that are advertised as if they’re the biggest plot points (like Barbie and Ken getting arrested) are brief blips in a much fuller story.
The story will make you feel validated in both your love and loathing for Barbie. It prompts both warranted critiques and praise for her, and it does so in really amazing ways.
I urge you to see the movie if you have not already and to spend time reflecting on it afterwards. Just focus on fun in the moment, but then let it sink in what messages were sent through the script while you were busy rocking out to a power ballad and counting up the number of nostalgic references you caught!