WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
It all began with a doll in a bathing suit.
At least, that’s what Barbie tells us.
In a fictional retelling of the history of playing with dolls, Stereotypical Barbie, played by Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn, The Suicide Squad) is beamed down, like an alien, from the sky. In the classic striped, strapless bathing suit, she instantly disrupts the girlhood tradition of playing with baby dolls. Thus, a new time is born—and out of it, Barbie Land, a fictional utopia where Barbies of all kinds live in peace and harmony. There’s President Barbie, played by Insecure creator Issa Rae, and Nobel-Prize-in-Physics-winner Barbie, played by Death on the Nile’s Emma Mackey. In this matriarchy, everything is ruled by the Barbies. Angsty and always competing for the Barbies’ attention, the Kens, an array of beefed-up men, exist solely on the sidelines, cheering on the Barbies when the latter play volleyball. As the film’s tagline says, “She’s [Barbie] everything. He’s just Ken.” In Barbie Land, everything is perfect (and pink).
However, trouble looms. The typically joyful Barbie is struck by thoughts of death during a dance party. The next morning, she awakes with bad breath. Her heart-shaped toast is burned. Even her perfectly arched feet become—gasp!—flat. Recognising that this issue is greater than even the smartest Barbie, Robbie’s Barbie visits Weird Barbie (played by Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon). There, she’s charged to return to the Real World to find the source of her problem—the girl who’s playing with her.
Following a superb marketing campaign that will be studied for generations to come, Barbie has become the highest grossing film of 2023, raking in $1.36 billion—thereby making it the most successful female-directed film. Why has this toy-based film dominated box office screens since its release in late July?
Firstly, Barbie is smart! Before watching it, I wasn’t quite sure what direction Greta Gerwig, the film’s captain, would go in. Would it be like the animated Barbie films, where the humans didn’t matter? Or like Transformers, where the Hasbro toys were non-existent? With its mix of fantasy and realism, Barbie successfully merges these two visions. Like a human, Barbie is conscious and can feel a limited range of emotions, from joy to panic. However, she and the other Barbies are aware of the Real World, where they are played with like dolls—though she turns on her shower, no water comes out; when she tips her milk carton over her cup, no milk comes out either; and walking on her tiptoes is part of her characterization.
Secondly, Barbie is fun! Barbie lives in her quintessential Dreamhouse, and everything in her world is a riot of posy pinks, bright blues, and gregarious greens. She and the other Barbies have dance parties to hits by Dua Lipa at night, because “every night is girls’ night”. Their mornings are filled with a chorus of “Hey Barbie! Hey Barbie!” as she and her fellow Barbies run into each other, supporting one another in court and at award shows. And everything is over-dramatised: when the Barbies discover that Stereotypical Barbie is malfunctioning, they scream “Flat feet!” before miming a cacophony of retches. Beach Ken, played by The Notebook’s Ryan Gosling, is ridiculous: overdrawn in his pining for Barbie, he repeatedly insists on a “beach off” with Simu Liu’s (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) Ken; and, in embracing U.S. American patriarchy, he parades around in a huge mink coat and a tasselled leather waistcoat. Then, following his journey of self-discovery, he wears a tie-dye hoodie that says, “I am Kenough” (pun intended).
However, Barbie is also profound. Barbie Land is a dream for women’s empowerment. Everything is possible for women in Barbie Land, because “what can’t Barbie do?” The Barbies own their accomplishments, instead of shying away from them as women in the Real World are wont to do, and they own their emotions, too, something that women in the Real World are condemned for showing. As Lawyer Barbie (played by My Mad Fat Diary’s Sharon Rooney) says, “I have no difficulty holding both logic and feeling at the same time. And it does not diminish my powers.” Women hold each other up, instead of tearing them down. Finally, there’s a Barbie for everyone.