Barbie, co-written and directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, is on track to become the highest-grossing film of 2023, raking in over $1 billion USD in box office revenue. But really, what even is this movie? The Guardian called it a feminist fantasy, while Forbes described it as a two-hour Mattel commercial.
Gerwig’s Barbie is a funhouse mirror for our patriarchal society. Far from being the bubblegum feminist fantasy that both rabid conservatives and shallow progressives hailed it as, Gerwig’s work is a wry and effectively packaged message about the dangers of inequality—with, sadly, one major flaw.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
Margot Robbie’s character, unrepentantly named “Stereotypical Barbie,” starts her day, as she always has, in Barbieland. It’s a plastic wonderland populated by all the various Barbies and Kens Mattel has ever produced, and one Alan. The Barbies rule Barbieland, occupying every role of significance including the presidency and all nine supreme court seats. Helen Mirren’s narrator even tells us that in Barbieland, all problems have been resolved (or more accurately, never existed at all).
But Barbieland isn’t perfect. “Beach Ken,” played by Ryan Gosling, has one obsession: being validated by Stereotypical Barbie. The movie introduces us to him when he tries to impress Barbie by surfing a plastic wave with predictably tragic results. He joins her dance party to try to get close to her but is edged out by a more athletic Ken, played by Simu Liu. Beach Ken eventually asks Barbie if he can spend the night at her dreamhouse, but he can’t because, as she explains: “It’s girls’ night,” and he never will because “every night is girls’ night. Forever and ever.” It’s important to note that Barbie doesn’t say this to be mean: she’s just oblivious to Ken’s need for validation and identity.
The real problems for Barbie begin when America Ferrera’s Gloria (a “real-world” secretary for the Mattel Corporation, makers of the Barbie doll) starts injecting her all-too-human thoughts of angst and morbidity into Barbieland. Gloria once played with Barbies but has since become disillusioned with the inequality she sees and experiences in the world every day. Barbie absorbs this disillusionment and starts asking questions which leads her to travel to the real world. Along the way, Beach Ken stows away and pops out of the back seat like a puppy, both desperate and happy to finally be alone with Barbie.
Upon their arrival, both dolls learn that the real world is a very different place from Barbieland. While Barbie tries unsuccessfully to discover and diffuse the source of her angst and morbidity so she can return to her perfect life, Ken discovers patriarchy. Amazed to find that he is accepted and respected in the real world for simply being a man, Ken returns to Barbieland with a singular mission: spread patriarchy.
Barbie, Gloria, and Gloria’s teen-daughter-and-Barbie-skeptic, Sasha, also journey back to Barbieland to escape capture by Mattel. On the way, Barbie tells Gloria and Sasha how great Barbieland is, with Barbies holding every position of power. Barbies don’t need Kens, she explains, because Kens are “superfluous.” But upon their return, they witness first-hand the effects of the “Kentamination”: Barbieland has been overrun by patriarchy. Barbie and her companions are aghast to find that all the other Barbies have been reduced to Stepford wives. Their dreamhouses have been taken over by Kens, re-christened “Mojo Dojo Casa Houses,” and converted to fraternity-style crash pads. In an act of casual vindictiveness, Ken kicks Barbie out by nonchalantly dropping the line, “Every night is boy’s night.”
It’s here where Beach Ken says what might be the most important line in the film: “How does that feel? Not very good, is it?”
Barbie and company set about deprogramming Barbieland one Barbie at a time, with Gloria giving voice to the cognitive dissonance of being a woman living under patriarchy. The rescued Barbies then pit the Kens against each other by fomenting competition and jealousy between them long enough to hold a constitutional convention without them. (Now that’s how you do disenfranchisement!)
At the end of the movie, Barbie gets her house back, all the Barbies return to their original empowered positions and Beach Ken goes off to find his own identity apart from Barbie. Like Ken, Barbie leaves Barbieland in search of her own identity and eventually becomes human.
The Barbie movie is more than a one-dimensional girl-power propaganda piece, but it isn’t quite three-dimensional either, in that it doesn’t propose any immediately importable solutions. Instead, this film is a two-dimensional mirror that reflects our reality back to us in a way that we don’t have to like but can learn from.
Pre-Kentamination Barbieland is clearly hierarchical and exclusionary. Its sugary variety of inequality is only more digestible than the real world because Barbieland is a well-meaning oversimplification of the real world. We are expected to see Beach Ken as the main villain, but the tools the Barbies use to undermine the Kentriarchy are the same tools and techniques men have been using to divide and disempower women for centuries. Can one appropriate the master’s tools to tear down the master’s house without becoming the new master? At the end of the film, Barbieland is restored, but Barbieland was and is perfect only if you’re a Barbie.
So, if “Barbie” isn’t about girl-bossing the world to perfection, what is the point? I would suggest there are two points.
For us men, that point is empathy. Remember that the Barbie film is a mirror, and we are Barbie. We are CEO Barbie, Lawyer Barbie, Scientist Barbie, Doctor Barbie, Pilot Barbie, and President Barbie. Without even stopping to consider the consequences, we get to say, “Every night is boy’s night.” While it’s true that Barbie may not want to personally hurt Ken, the Barbietocracy, as a system, doesn’t provide much for its non-Barbie citizens and the Barbies let it happen. But after the Kens take over, Barbie must confront the reality that she has been a good-hearted but complicit actor upholding an oppressive system. This can be that moment for us. Up until now, every night has been our night, every day our day. But it doesn’t have to be. We can remember that Ephesians 5:21 comes before 5:22: empathy and mutual submission are not elective. Toward that end, remember that stream of inequalities Gloria uses to deprogram the Kentaminated Barbies? Those lines weren’t written for the female members of the audience (as if they needed to be reminded). That part was written for us. If they made you, as a man, feel even a little uncomfortable, you’re starting to get it. It doesn’t feel very good, does it? So how about we do something about that?
But what if we men put off empathy and mutual submission until it’s convenient? As the poet-philosopher Ice Cube once admonished: “chickity-check yourself before you wreck yourself.” Learn to share power, or the Kens of the world will rise up and fight back, and you might not like what that looks like if you’re a Barbie. If there is one thing the film demonstrates consistently, it is that the victor does not have to share power.
The film’s message for women, as told through a combination of Ken’s limited arc and Gloria’s expositions, is far less inspirational: keep speaking up and developing your identity apart from men. It’s here that I have my only real issue with the film. Seeking your own identity is not an effective way to overturn systemic oppression. This is particularly the case when, once women find their God-given identity, the ecclesiarchy tells them, “Sorry, girls aren’t allowed to be that.” It’s especially frustrating when you consider that Ken (women) must find his own identity in a context where the Barbies (men) still control everything of value in Barbieland (sound familiar?). Intentional or not, the movie pokes some fun at its own inability to resolve this problem: after the Barbies take back power, President Barbie says that she doesn’t want Barbieland to go back to its pre-Kentamination state because “no Barbie or Ken should be living in the shadows.” But when the Kens ask for a Supreme Court justice they are only allowed, maybe, a circuit court judge. Presented with the choice between true equality or tokenism, the Barbies chose to keep the vast majority of power for themselves and make only piecemeal concessions.
In the end, Gerwig’s “Barbie” gives our patriarchal society a chance to laugh at ourselves, question ourselves, and maybe, just maybe, change for the better. It may be a funhouse mirror with pink tint, but the essence of our inequality is still there, staring back at us. It’s our own fault if we don’t like what we see.
Photo by Jeppe Gustafsson on Shutterstock.
 David Cox, “Barbie’s Muddled Feminist Fantasy Still Bows to the Patriarchy,” The Guardian, August 4, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2023/aug/04/barbies-muddled-feminist-fantasy-still-bows-to-the-patriarchy.
 Erik Kain, “The ‘Barbie’ Movie Isn’t Feminist Propaganda, It’s A Two-Hour Mattel Commercial,” Forbes, August 5, 2023, https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2023/08/05/the-barbie-movie-isnt-feminist-propaganda-its-a-two-hour-mattel-commercial/?sh=48941d053de1.
 Tommy McArdle, “Read the Powerful ‘Barbie’ Monologue About Being a Woman That America Ferrera Performed ’30 to 50’ Times,” People, July 28, 2023, https://people.com/read-the-powerful-barbie-monologue-about-being-a-woman-that-america-ferrera-performed-30-to-50-times-7565806#:~:text=%22But%20always%20stand%20out%20and,never%20get%20out%20of%20line.
 Ice Cube, “Check Yo Self,” track 6 on Bootlegs & B-Sides. Priority Records, 1993, compact disc.