We need to talk about Barbie.
This statement may feel fairly redundant. After all, it seems as though there are few places in which people aren’t talking about Barbie, and for good reason: the film has blown all expectations out of the water to become Warner Brothers’ highest-grossing global release in history. That in and of itself is quite the feat, particularly because of the film’s femme-forward storyline, direction, and cast.
The movie certainly gives us much to discuss, and it does quite a lot of things really well. It’s a visually intoxicating tale of self-discovery, power, and persistence that’s laden with clever critiques of patriarchy – much of which are as hilarious as they are potent. What’s not to love? I laughed A LOT during the film. Watching Barbie in a body that is so glorified by impossible beauty standards was unsettling. Yet I just sat with it as there was so much in the film.
*Please note: spoilers ahead!*
A scene towards the beginning of the movie shows Barbie arriving at a middle school and having a brief and fairly contentious experience with an outspoken young woman, Sasha, and her group of friends. As someone who grew up knee-deep in Barbies and diet culture, I was thrilled when Sasha points out Barbie’s less-than-rosy legacy. “You’ve been making women feel bad about themselves since you were invented,” she bristles. “You represent everything wrong with our culture. Sexualized capitalism. Unrealistic physical ideals.”
This accusation is certainly one that millions can get behind, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one breathing a sigh of relief when the elephant in the room finally got roped into the conversation. I was disappointed, however, that the discussion about Barbie’s complicity within diet culture didn’t continue – at least, not in a particularly potent way. The mentions of it here and there throughout the rest of the film felt like crumbs we were being thrown and came nowhere near to doing the topic justice.
I suppose I’d been expecting – or at the very least, hoping for – a storyline that included Barbie taking accountability for her unfortunate legacy of impossible beauty standards. Sadly, though the film addressed important topics, this one felt like more of an aside.
I also felt uncomfortable later on,when America Ferrera’s character snaps the Barbies out of their subservient role with a powerful speech – one that’s been circulating all over the internet for weeks. It was awesome watching each Barbie realizing how they have been manipulated, and it did a lot to represent the way we so often fall prey to gaslighting from cultures of oppression. I loved the strong speech and have enjoyed seeing it come up again and again online. What I had to grapple with, however, was the fact that America Ferrera – who offered so much for challenging beauty standards in Real Women Have Curves and Ugly Betty – had lost so much weight that I did not recognize her. Further, what I found during an online search for America Ferrera was page after page of…her weight loss strategies.
It’s important to note that I do not fault Ferrera for the desire to lose weight. How can anyone work in the context of Hollywood without falling prey to unrealistic beauty standards and body ideals at every turn? Ferrera isn’t to blame here – but the industry that does so much to create, perpetuate, and uphold these standards very much is. I get so frustrated with the entertainment industry: all the power it holds to influence societal norms, yet it takes none of the responsibility for doing so when those norms cause such devastating harm.
All that said, I walked out of the theater feeling conflicted: I was thrilled and amused at the creative critique of patriarchal culture I’d just seen, yet I was holding disappointment as well.
Author and activist Virgie Tovar observes that “the film’s core conflict feels off, or at least askew. If the new Barbie movie is about addressing and righting past wrongs – and I think it is – the central plotline doesn’t tackle the right one, the big one. When it comes to Barbie, it’s not toxic masculinity that needs to be reckoned with. It’s Barbie’s long-time correlation with negative body image and lower self-esteem in girls.” Virgie does an incredible job of addressing why this movie is not the utopia it’s being made out to be – see her article here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/virgietovar/2023/07/28/theres-a-body-image-sized-hole-in-the-new-barbie-movie/amp/?fbclid=IwAR0Q_hnTPI35AdwTEF4qecWMnnraNbklc8qwAQGq_ZmwQNZG3Eg_z8py6pY
This fair and honest review of the film by Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs echoes a lot of my own feelings about it, particularly that of representation. Given Barbie’s ties to harmful beauty standards, one couldn’t be blamed for hoping a wide range of body types would be represented in the film. Sadly, this wasn’t the case: while two plus-size Barbies were included, played by Nicola Coughan and Sharon Rooney, they were given supporting roles and did not have any particular prominence in the film. As St. Bernard Jacobs notes in the review: “If we only get supporting roles, is it really representation?”
Additionally, this review critiques the film from an intersectional and abolitionist perspective, offering strong points about the white feminism and desirability politics inherent to it, all of which are deeply entwined with patriarchy itself and could have been addressed in more impactful ways. I realize it would be impossible to address the entire structure of patriarchy, as well as its many intricate intersections with various systems of oppression, in two hours – and, I think acknowledging those limitations could have improved the Barbie experience for me, as well as for countless viewers with marginalized identities everywhere.