I just watched Barbie, the 2023 movie. And whether you like it or not is my new filter for whether we’re likely to be able to be friends.
It’s months since its release. Barbie is now available to stream on major platforms (depending on your region). So I think I can do this review including spoilers. But if you haven’t seen it — go do so now, and don’t read more!
A lot of the below probably isn’t news. But I just want to get my thoughts down on it before I forget. And I haven’t read movie reviews about it, so these are my own thoughts, some of which came after a little discussion with my partner, Jo.
At first, I thought that maybe I didn’t have to watch Barbie, as I already agreed with its feminist premise. Then, I realised I probably should watch it for entertainment value and memes.
But after having watched it, I’ve realised that you need to watch Barbie for more than just entertainment. It’s a must-watch because it’s unique in the way it presents its position and makes it relatable to so many people.
Barbie herself lacks a storyline, which is pretty obvious by the way it ends. Barbie is much more than that — she’s a vehicle through which people can viscerally experience patriarchy, gender identity, and gender-based social role expectations.
For a movie’s protagonist to lack a clear storyline, and for a film’s story to nonetheless remain so clear, is something I’m not entirely familiar with. I can’t off the top of my head remember it being done (though I’m not a film expert by any means). It’s definitely not a trope of modern pop films.
Through the lens of Barbie, a character historically loaded with various sometimes-negative connotations (also addressed early in the film), the movie invites us to witness the world from her perspective — all the idyllic simplicity of Barbie World as it initially was, and all the gritty reality of the real world to which she has to come on her quest.
Even though everyone in Barbie World greets “stereotypical Barbie” as if she’s the center of the world, Barbie is not the main character of the story nor of the film. This is intentional, as the vast majority of the audience don’t identify with a thin, white, conventionally attractive blonde woman.
Rather, Barbie quickly informs us that she’s a mosaic of various figures, echoing the sentiments and achievements of a myriad of women in our society. She reminds us often that she’s “stereotypical” and has no redeeming characteristics. Sasha, the young daughter character, even calls her “white saviour Barbie” at some point, only for even that notion to be dismissed; it was Sasha’s mother, Gloria, who did the saving.
So the movie, while called Barbie, isn’t even about Barbie. It’s about much more.
Ken, on the other hand, is a fascinating character study. I had presumed that he’d be a bit player in the movie, just as he’s a minor figure in the Barbie toy world.
But rather than playing a black-and-white role of a protagonist or antagonist, Ken serves as a reflection of many a modern man — grappling with evolving gender dynamics, societal expectations, and a quest for identity.
Ken starts out as an unrecognised man, who only exists in Barbie’s shadow. It’s sad, but it’s plainly obvious that this is intended to recall how women feel — only existing to serve the needs of men. Historically, this was true for most women, and it remains the case for many (fewer, though definitely not significantly so). It’s a little depressing how effective it is that the only way to drive home to men the reality of women’s existence is to swap the genders and show how it feels.
But Ken’s evolution has moments of realisation and acceptance that reflect many people’s experiences — those of both men and women. Ken is unable to do anything in the real world, so rather than do that, he escapes to a smaller world, where he can dominate. Ken has no idea who he is or what he does, so chooses to define it by acquiring stuff, taking things from women, and attempting to make women subservient to him — including possessing them as “long-term long-distance low-commitment casual girlfriends”.
Of course, defining himself through possessions and patriarchy doesn’t work, and Ken remains as lost as ever. For me, the most wonderful part of this is when he says that “To be honest, when I found out that the patriarchy wasn’t about horses, I lost interest anyway.” For many men, it’s some version of “horses” that they seek and never find.
Ken’s climactic song, “I’m Just Ken”, has layers that eluded me the first time I saw it. At first, I thought it was just about Ken trying to figure himself out. But more broadly, it’s a celebration of individuality and liberation from gender stereotypes and co-dependency. He’s just Ken, not a man defined by his fractious relationship with women, which is just as important a journey for many men as is the emancipation of women in general.
The climax of the song, I think, is the moment in which Ken giggles after being kissed by two men. He’s comfortably accepting affection from men, and owning his own masculinity.
Some of the humour sprinkled throughout the movie that pokes at patriarchy is really clever. I admit I didn’t get all of them at first, like the gag about Kens not having yet learned how to build walls horizontally, only vertically. Such a casual line. But I love it!
A recurring theme, from beginning to end, is about how it’s OK to have emotions. An early Barbie character says “I have no difficulty holding both logic and feeling at the same time”. Later Ken sings (during his amazing montage) “And is my moment finally here, or am I dreaming/Am I not hot, when I’m in my feelings?”
However, not everything about the Barbie movie was seamless. It started out with a strong “show, don’t tell” philosophy. Seeing the real world through Ken and Barbie’s eyes was very visceral. I understand that it’s uncomfortable for women to watch the way Barbie is treated, and it’s awkward watching Ken learn a lesson we don’t want him to learn — that the real world is run by men.
But the film quickly undercut it, with Ken saying out loud that people were looking at him “without any undertones of violence!” This is an odd thing to say out loud, as true as it may have been. The show eventually started leaning away from “show, don’t tell”, with the ending scenes being entirely descriptive dialogue.
Still, it didn’t overshadow the significant effort the movie made to portray the underbelly of a patriarchal world and its effects on individuals.
And before I wrap up, let’s address the elephant in the room. There are some people out there who think the Barbie movie is a personal attack. It’s typically from the kind of person who think that feminism is about women being in charge and enslaving men, or some other ludicrous claim (feminism is about equality).
From where I stand, Barbie is an invitation to introspection, an encouragement to shed insecurities and question the assumptions about how our society is structured. If this movie stirs discomfort, it might just be doing its job right — urging us to reflect and perhaps alter the lens through which we perceive the world.
So, if you haven’t yet, I’d say give the Barbie movie a shot. It’s not just entertainment; it’s a conversation starter. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it too, and to have a talk.
But if you don’t “get it”, and think it’s an attack on you and on men, then we probably aren’t going to be friends.