So, there’s this film. You feel entirely uncertain what to do about it. The noise, the hype, and the clanging dissonance of Greta Gerwig (creator of Ladybird and Little Women) choosing to centre Barbie (perpetuator of distorted beauty standards and profound self-doubt in women). Here are twelve bespoke steps written just for you, a helpful guide as you explore: how to watch Barbie.
This might seem to be a straightforward step, but actually it’s a genuine dilemma. Your mother in her emergent feminism chose not to buy Barbies. This meant you only ever played with them at one friend’s house where the two of you would use Barbie and Ken as props to debate whether people had sex standing up in the living room (her theory) or lying down in the bedroom (yours). While it was certainly thought-provoking, you felt no great loss as you walked home to your playmobile and soft toys. Later, as an adult, you slipped into second-generation Barbie refusal with your own daughters as an unconscious reflex. Surely, you think, this film will be just a feature-length advertisement for Mattel, and an endorsement of a woeful brand of femininity.
But there’s Gerwig though, the feminist fly in the corporate-doll ointment. You are intrigued by what she’ll do with the big-boobed, cinch-waisted icon who’s existed on the periphery of your life —until now.
Step one is allow yourself to be swayed by the prospect of water cooler conversations about the cultural zeitgeist. Join the crowds flocking to touch the hot pink hem. Secretly, you can hope for something searing and great and brilliant.
- Watch it with an audience
It’ll be hard to avoid this if you go in the first couple of months, but do watch the film at a sold-out show. Don’t feel the need to dress up—you’re too ambivalent for that—but relish the joyful outfits of others marking the occasion with their varying shades of pink, big hair, sparkles, and blonde dolls clutched in hand.
Let yourself enjoy the celebratory, festive, slightly raucous atmosphere as the film starts. I mean, here you all are, 10,752 kilometres from Malibu.
- Bring your knowledge of what it’s like to be a girl
As you watch the gloriously pink opening minutes, you’ll see Barbies waking to beautiful mornings, greeting each other from their semi-walled houses with “Hi Barbie”, and living another in a never-ending cycle of best-days-ever. You’ll realise something for the first time that others must find glaringly obvious: Barbie can be used to play-act the wonder of all that growing up into a woman might allow.
This step will make the film strangely moving. You’ll be taken aback by how it evokes the childish hope that womanhood will mean independence, constant slumber-party fun, a bunch of fabulous friends, and the ability to be bluntly honest with your boyfriend without fear of any sort of reprisal (Imagine just saying, “I don’t want you here”). All of it while living in a communist utopia where women can be whatever they want.
- Think about the women you’ve met or known who looked most like Barbie
You’ve been doing this since you knew about the film. Since you had daughters. Since you were a teenager. Since your dawning awareness as a child of what ‘good looking’ means in a western-centric culture—and your own outsider status. About thirty minutes into the film, when Barbie travels to the ‘real’ world, your experiences with actual Barbie-adjacent women will swim into focus.
First, a vivid memory from long ago. You were waiting at a lift in a Santa Monica hotel with your sister when four women arrived, rolling a luggage trolley precariously balanced with many suitcases. Each one was a version of thin, white (but tanned), blonde, heavily made-up, and almost certainly surgically enhanced given the ratio of breast to torso. The glow of these strange-familiar bodies made you feel like a pasty, flat-footed alien. When the lift arrived after a lengthy wait, the doors opened and two women of colour were inside but didn’t move because they were cleaners at the hotel who had their own trolley stacked high with linen trying to get to a different floor. You watched in horror as the four versions of Barbie-women yelled “Get out” in a chorus of cruelty and felt (still feel) profoundly ashamed because you were too shocked and too young and too ‘politely’ Kiwi to say a word.
As you sit in a darkened theatre watching Barbie, the three friends you’ve had who looked most like her will occur to you one by one. At university, there was the friend who shared many of Barbie’s traits, though her hair was a darker blonde. She would be approached by a constant stream of men as you tried to have coffee or study in the library or mooch down Cuba Street. The worst were those who’d just silently hand her a phone number without saying a word, an effacement of all the aspects of her that weren’t visible on the outside, the pieces you treasured. A second Barbie-ish woman you met at work once drunkenly told you she’d never said “No” to sex because it was just easier. Men were so persistent, and a few minutes is all it took to get rid of them. Remember that both these brilliant women suffered from eating disorders. A third friend from Teachers’ College echoed stereotypical Barbie too, but didn’t starve herself or purge. Instead, she spent her twenties dying her flaxen hair black, like a shield.
These experiences are how you know that there is a tyranny at the heart of Barbie-fied beauty—a privilege for those who have it which can be abused. At the same time, there’s also a terrifying, destructive visibility for the women closest to our cultural ideals of beauty: it makes them targets of a predatory version of masculinity, and breaks them a little—even as it offers a specific type of curtailed power.
Bring all this to the film. Feel it in your gut when Barbie names “an undertone of violence” in the patriarchal world; when she is verbally abused and laughed at before being assaulted by a man on the street; when she is the one who’s arrested for this assault after defending herself and the police officers openly objectify her while they book her; when a group of Mattel corporates try to capture her and tie her up, like an animal; when Ken, who claims to love her, abandons her in the real world and returns to Barbie Land where he steals her house and brainwashes the other Barbies to believe in patriarchy; when, later, Ken cries about it—without apologising.
Recognise that Gerwig is putting Ken at the centre for a reason. That’s what patriarchy does, after all.
Enjoy Ryan Gosling’s musical numbers knowing that he is taking the focus away from Barbie and her story. And that’s the point.
In Barbie Land there’s a black woman President—surely a political comment in itself—but feel cynical about the wider ‘diversity’ of the film, and the profit motive driving it. The fact the protagonist is called ‘stereotypical’ Barbie just reinforces that she’s the OG. All the others are variations in relation to her.
Remember how Tayi Tibble wrote, “Barbie was always white”. Hold onto this idea while at the same time admiring @maori_mermaid’s Barbie fan art on Instagram: “THESE BARBIES WANT LANDBACK”.
The word itself is used! Both ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’! Several times! So is ‘patriarchy’: you count five, including once when it’s compared to smallpox, and another time when a man in a suit tells Ken, “We’re actually doing patriarchy very well, we’re just better at hiding it”. The experience of being a woman and all its contradictions and tensions is openly talked about. As Gloria says: “It is literally impossible to be a woman”. After watching it, you’ll rack your brains for other popular films where any of this is in the script…
Appreciate deeply that Barbie does not settle down with Ken at the end of the movie, or find a man to fall in love with in the ‘real’ world. Instead when Barbie’s inventor Ruth Handler shows her what it means to be human, Gerwig will use actual footage of her cast and crew members as girls—with their mothers.
Especially during the final scene, which captures the tragedy at the heart of this film: Margot Robbie as Barbie, hair tied back, white top, blue jeans, refined, restrained, visiting her gynaecologist. It might seem triumphant—Barbie has had her Pinocchio moment and chosen the real world—but you’ll feel deeply, quietly sad. The power and promise of towering Barbie when she arrived on the toy scene that is evoked so dramatically in the 2001-inspired opening sequence is entirely drained from the closing moments. Now, she’s just ordinary, Gerwig’s reminder that in one way or another becoming an adult woman means putting on the beige blazer and the pastel (not hot) pink Birkenstocks, and accepting that fundamentally, you are now defined by your gender a.k.a. it’s time to tone it the hell down.
Walk out with a knot in your stomach. For days after seeing the film, wear black. Hold onto the quiet misery underneath the shiny surfaces of Barbie and turn it over and over.
Wish that Barbie had done more.
Wish it could have destroyed itself—like Todd Haynes’ art school film Superstar, where he used actual Barbie dolls to make his visceral biography of Karen Carpenter, literally whittling them down between scenes to evoke her battle with anorexia.
Wish Barbie had shattered the insidious ideal of plastic femininity that emboldened four women who’d waited for a lift in a Santa Monica hotel to viciously belittle two other women just going about their working day.
Wish that a doll inspired by Bild Lilli wasn’t the focus for an intelligent and moving film about the cognitive dissonance of being a woman, though feel relieved that unlike Thelma and Louise, Barbie doesn’t have to drive off a cliff at the end.
Wish feminism had solved more and Naomi Wolf wasn’t a regular on Steve Bannon’s War Room.
Wish Margot Robbie had turned up to at least one Barbie premiere with a shaved head and smudged black eyeliner.
- Rage about Mattel—and global corporate capitalism
Why do some important and beautiful things have to be corrupted by profits? When did corporations get to be fireproof by being meta?
- Feel strangely protective
Notice that people expect so much from Barbie—including you. Then, think constantly of the line Doireann Ní Ghríofa chants through her book Ghost in the Throat: “This is a female text”. Ask yourself, isn’t Barbie a female text too with its female director and star? Isn’t it about the lives of women—even if a single film can never capture the kaleidoscopic complexity of that experience? Weren’t the audience you watched it with sharing something real—a version of solidarity?
Here is when you’ll rail against writing the film off—as ‘just’ a silly Barbie movie, or, at the other end of the all-its-flaws spectrum, as a film that’s inadequately feminist—because doing so demeans some aspect of female reality. It’s true we need to think critically about female texts too, but they’re so easily crushed with accusations of not being enough. Perhaps at least to begin with we should cradle the femininity of this text gently. Treasure it. Hold it up to the light and see its flaws, but protect it, even if just for a few moments, to validate the feelings of those who are seeing this film and finding it means so much to them. Remember Janice Radway’s interviews with romance readers and how for those women, the very act of reading a romance novel when they were supposed to be doing housework or looking after the children was radical—and how Radway didn’t conclude they were just mistaken victims of patriarchal coercion, but instead that texts can be political in all sorts of ways.
- Talk and talk and talk about it
Start many conversations with “Have you seen the Barbie movie?”
Laugh with other women about their guitar stories. Share your one about the guy that night on your moonlit walk. He told you he wished more people could go to the moon because if they could only look back at the earth, they’d see its vulnerability and become Green party voters. You pointed out that going up in aeroplanes didn’t seem to have changed anything, nor did photos of the earth taken by the astronauts who’d been there, not to mention the carbon footprint of space travel, and he became resentful because you’d punctured his attempts at being profound, but you just couldn’t leave his bullshit logic alone.
Keep teaching your daughters that men have no right to comment on their bodies.
Remind your son to apologise when he’s done wrong, and not to cry for sympathy, like Ken—a reference he understands because he’s seen the film.
Think about how those women at the lift have probably watched the Barbie movie. And your three dear friends who suffered in different ways because of their proximity to the cultural construct of beauty personified by stereotypical Barbie. You only keep in touch with one of them now, but hope the other two are happy and feel loved.
Go and watch it again—alone—in a less crowded cinema to finish writing this and help yourself make sense of your tangled thoughts. Find some kind of ending.