Spoilers ahead. Barbie is the feminist movie you’ve been waiting for. And I don’t mean that in a girl power, ultimate girlboss kind of way — even though it is a little bit of both of those. It’s not perfect, but (as we learn) neither is Barbie the doll. But, anyone who has seen even a glimpse of marketing for the film (so, everyone) knows one thing to be true: Barbie is everything.
And that, as the Greta Gerwig-directed movie, which is in theaters now, explains, has been true since Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler created the doll in 1959. As the story goes, Handler noticed her daughter, Barbara, giving adult voices to her paper dolls — back then, only baby dolls were widely available, encouraging young girls to take on a mommy roles even during playtime — and so decided that there should be more grownup dolls for kids. Enter Barbie, a woman who could go to space, become a doctor, compete at the Olympics, and do anything she wanted, meaning that, so too, could the little girl playing with her. “I couldn’t be like you,” the on-screen Handler (played by Rhea Perlman) tells Margot Robbie’s Barbie at one point. “So I made you like me.”
When we meet Robbie’s “Stereotypical” Barbie, she lives in the colorful utopia known as Barbieland surrounded by other incredible, high-achieving dolls like President Barbie (Issa Rae), Physicist Barbie (Emma Mackey), Doctor Barbie (Hari Nef), and Author Barbie (Alexandra Shipp). In Barbieland, everything, including the Supreme Court, is run by women who all adore each other. They are always having fun, and nothing ever goes wrong because they have it under control while the Kens are there to support them and their vision. It’s a dream — one that, if you grew up crafting stories with your Barbie dolls, feels familiar.
The Barbies know that there is an outside world occupied by humans, but the dolls believe that it functions just like Barbieland. In their minds, they have helped change women’s lives for the better since the ‘50s. It’s only when Robbie’s Barbie starts experiencing suspiciously human-like emotions and darker thoughts — which we learn from Kate McKinnon’s Weird Barbie is happening because the human playing with her is projecting those feelings onto her — that she starts to figure out something is amiss. Determined to solve the problem, she heads into the human world accompanied by her devoted Ken (Ryan Gosling).
You can probably guess how that goes. It’s in leaving Barbieland for the real world that Barbie becomes an object: she is ogled, and leered and catcalled at. “I’m conscious, but of myself,” Ken realizes, experiencing patriarchy for the first time as they stroll along Venice Beach. Barbie may not verbalize it, but that’s what she’s feeling, too — it’s an echo of something most women have felt in similar situations. Surrounded by humans — by men — Barbie’s ability to be everything no longer matters. It doesn’t matter how self-assured you are; it doesn’t matter how good your equally amazing friends are at hyping you up when you’re alone together. When you walk through spaces designed by and for men, the constraints seem inescapable.
Things only get worse for Barbie when she meets Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), the middle schooler she thinks owns her doll. She is quickly accosted by the girl, blamed for reinforcing a lifetime of patriarchy and perpetuating harmful beauty standards. Society hates women, men hate women, women hate themselves, and maybe, Sasha says, this isn’t all Barbie’s fault, but she certainly hasn’t helped matters much. It’s here that the movie starts getting deeper, speaking to the women who have been critical of the brand’s legacy, calling out its emphasis on a certain type of look and historical lack of diversity. Today, it’s not enough to simply center women in our films, TV shows, and toys for the sake of empty representation. We want the stories and tangible things we interact with to be meaningful and true, and for many, like Sasha and her friends, Barbie has never been that — something the film aims to rectify in its final act.
Gerwig does this through Sasha’s mom, Gloria (America Ferrera), a woman with a fondness for Barbie dolls who is exhausted by having to be everything as a mother, wife, and overlooked Mattel employee as she also hides, as her daughter notes, the “weird, dark, and crazy” side of herself. Meanwhile, Stereotypical Barbie is on the verge of collapse, realizing that the Barbies have failed in their mission of creating a better world for women while becoming overwhelmed by both being everything and yet not enough.
Watching Robbie’s Barbie despair stirs something in Gloria, leading her to perfectly express what every woman watching is thinking at that moment: if a doll representing the idea of a woman feels inadequate, she wonders, what hope is there for the rest of us? She gives a rousing speech about the many paradoxes and internal conflicts of womanhood — the type that will have audiences murmuring in agreement and bursting into applause. The point is clear: It’s important to make time for fun, joy, and ourselves as adult women, but we still have a lot of work to do — and that work must be done together. It’s as Nef told Refinery29 Entertainment during the movie's LA premiere earlier this month: “Being a girl is hard; no matter what kind of girl you are, it’s hard. But there’s fun to be had, especially if you lean on the other girls.”
Therein lies the magic of Barbie. Yes, it is a heavily branded movie about a mega-popular doll brand, but it doesn’t just feel like a two-hour commercial. It’s also not just one-note aspirational. Sure, Barbie is the OG girlboss — and it’s mostly happening through the POV of a white woman, leaving the rest of the Barbies unaware of how much harder matters get when race is added to the mix — but, as the team behind the movie cleverly knows, we have moved on from our need to be have-it-all types. We, just like Barbie, are so much more than that. “Hell yeah, this is a feminist movie,” Gerwig said at the premiere. “To me, it’s about allowing, in a way, this doll — who’s not a human – to be fully complex and human.”
Ultimately, the film isn’t revealing anything new about feminism or suggesting solutions to big-picture issues. In fact, I’ve joked multiple times since seeing the movie that some of the conversations contained within sound a lot like something I’d yell out over the dinner table at certain family members over the holidays. But that’s what makes it feel fresh. That is why it will stand up as, say, this era’s Legally Blonde or Clueless. Barbie, better than any other movie in recent memory, captures exactly and authentically what it feels like to be a woman in 2023. We know the story of Barbie. We have lived the story of Barbie. To watch Barbie is to feel totally and completely seen. And that’s what makes Barbie worthy of the wait.
Barbie is in theaters now.