‘Barbie’ Symbols & Themes Explained: What Stance Does Greta Gerwig’s Film Take?


As a brown girl growing up in a middle-class household in India, Barbie was, in all senses, a status symbol. It was the late 1990s–early 2000s, globalization was a fairly new phenomenon, and an American doll was the ‘it’ thing. The pink, glittery box sparkled in the aisle of a posh toy store and was meant to be cherished by eyes only. For me, Barbie was a once-a-two-year indulgence that my maternal uncle entertained. I looked forward to the month of December every alternate year when my uncle returned from the States with the pink box in his luggage. Which Barbie is it going to be this time? Will it be the rockstar one that could change her clothes in a jiffy or the elegant bridal one with intricate details in the gown? I waited with patience as he unlocked the heavy suitcase.

Unknowingly, I had started to look up to the American beauty standard, but then again, how could I possibly ever achieve the bright blue eyes of Barbie? To think of it, Barbie was already selling me a version of the American Dream. As unrelatable as the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, petite, blonde doll was, to me, she was the epitome of beauty. Later on, Mattel introduced the Indian Barbie, but that never truly caught the eye of the young consumer. Also, Barbie was never an affordable companion, and the local copies filled the void. Watching Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” was a no-brainer for me, and the fact that Noah Baumbach worked on the screenplay intrigued me all the more. I wondered how they would address the problematic mess that Barbie is and, at the same time, bring in the nostalgia factor associated with the most popular doll in the world.

Barbie Goes Rouge!

Let’s be real; if you imagined Gerwig’s Barbie to be revolutionary (maybe a punk Barbie who sets Barbie world on fire), you would be disappointed. But as a Mattel production (that comes with its own limitations), “Barbie” addresses as many issues as it can while keeping it light-hearted. In the bright pink Barbie world consisting of old and new Barbies (the canceled ones are a laugh-riot; what exactly was Mattel aiming for with Midge and Skipper?) Margot Robbie’s stereotypical Barbie goes through unimaginable changes.

A Barbie with an existential crisis is pretty much a nightmare in the plastic world, and so the stereotypical Barbie embarks on an adventure to fix the gap between the Barbie and human worlds and live her fantastic life once again. With her feet touching the ground, cellulite showing up, and thoughts of death clouding her mind, stereotypical Barbie was out of control. Remember how we all had Barbies we got a little too creative with? Well, that’s a weird Barbie in the Barbie world. But it is the weird Barbie who has seen the trauma of the real world and can give advice in situations unimaginable to the plastic dolls. In her engine-less pink car, Barbie begins her journey accompanied by her not-so-beloved Ken. Ken’s identity is intertwined with Barbie, so naturally, he could not imagine living without her. As suffocating as their relationship was, Barbie decides having a companion on an unknown journey cannot be as bad.

The real world was a bummer for Barbie, but for Ken, it was paradise (we are going to discuss Ken’s trajectory later on). Barbies believed their presence had fixed the real world. Barbies were leading their world and excelling in any field they chose. They assumed they had inspired the women in the real world to become leaders as well, but the lewd comments and inappropriate touch told a different story. Not only were men dominating the real world, but the decision-makers at Mattel were a group of men in a pink room choosing the dreams little girls are supposed to dream. Though, of course, the men at Mattel are not vicious, throughout the film, they are tactically built with a sort of gray undertone.

The world around Barbie had crushed her sparkly, bubbly spirit, and the last nail in her coffin was when she introduced herself to a bunch of teenage girls. The brutal reality check about Barbie not being relatable anymore breaks her down. Instead of being an empowered figure inspiring women through generations, Barbie realized the unrealistic beauty standard Mattel had created. When tears rolled down Barbie’s cheek, she experienced emotion for the first time. The ache in her heart and the knot in her stomach were not comforting, but they were sensations she had never experienced before. Barbie starts to question the idea of beauty. While she remained forever young and toned, she admired the wrinkles and lines on the face of the elder woman sitting beside her.

Barbie—An Idea

I loved the idea that it was the mother of the teenage girl who played with Barbie and projected complex human emotions onto her. Barbie was introduced to the world in 1959, and by the 1960s, it had taken the toy world by storm. Barbie was no longer an ordinary woman; she was a career woman who could be anything a girl could imagine. Barbie, as discussed in the film, was meant to be an aspirational figure and not a reflection of the current status of women in society. It was the second wave of the feminist movement, and for many young women who wanted to break free from gender roles, Barbie was a physical manifestation of their dreams and desires. Introducing Ruth Handler as God helping Barbie whenever she was at a crossroads is a reminder of how Barbie was, to begin with, a woman’s imagination and creation. Greta Gerwig mentions in the Times cover story on Barbie that the two times that Ruth Handler and Barbie touch hands in the film resemble the idea of “The Creation of Adam,” only here, God is a complicated woman who gives life to a plastic doll.  

As a child of immigrant parents, we can assume that Barbie played a significant role in Gloria’s life. She was a companion and a reassuring presence in the life of a young girl growing up in the United States with big dreams and expectations. For Gloria, Barbie’s defeat was personal because, at the end of the day, it was about keeping the idea of Barbie and Barbie Land alive. A place where women could unapologetically be whoever they wanted to be, and the entire journey of accompanying Barbie and helping her fix her broken world was an attempt by the child in her to hold on to her idea of perfection.

When Self-Realization Hits Ken

Learning about patriarchy was the turning point for Ken. He had spent all his life living under Barbie’s shadow, and the real world taught him he could be so much more than just Barbie’s partner. Men riding horses and wearing furry clothes became the symbol of masculinity for Ken, and he desperately aimed to become a ‘real’ man. He longed to be respected and valued, but the real world required some paperwork and qualifications, which he was too lazy to get done. So instead, he decided to educate all the Kens in Barbie Land and brainwash the Barbies into believing that they needed saving.

From being independent, Barbies turned into damsels in distress, responding to every whim and wish of their beloved Kens. Ken wanted to transform Barbie Land into Ken-dom without realizing the work that the Kens needed to do to run the entire system on their own. The battle between Kens and Kens felt a little stretched, but it ended well for all Kens. Well, wiping off a matriarchal system remained unsuccessful, but Ken aimed to achieve equality. By raising their voices against the system, Kens managed to occupy some space in Barbie Land. Most importantly, Ken finally realized how he needed to find his own calling instead of depending on Barbie to give his life meaning. Sporting a “Kenough” t-shirt, Ken realized he was all that he needed to be and all that he could become in the future. And peace was restored in Barbie Land.

Barbie Transcending

While, in the end, life goes back to normal in Barbie Land, stereotypical Barbie does not feel it is the end of her story. After going through life-changing situations and living her life with her feet on the ground, Barbie no longer wanted to be the happy-go-lucky Barbie anymore. While the real world was far from perfect, the treasure trove of emotions she experienced was irreplaceable. Barbie transcends from a plastic doll into a human being and accepts all the chaos that life has in store for her. She perhaps realized the beauty of life beyond perfection. Even though humans know that they will fade away one day, it does not take away the joy of being alive. Barbie wanted to experience every sensation and emotion that a woman experiences. As unjust, sexist, and misogynistic as the world mostly is, Barbie no longer wanted to be aspirational; she longed to be present, to take decisions and actions that would directly impact the real world. With the stereotypical Barbie becoming a woman, Mattel approves of the idea of the ordinary Barbie as proposed by Gloria. A Barbie who would be empowered enough to become whoever she wanted to be.

Final Words

Barbie is at its best on big screens; the elaborate set design would go unappreciated otherwise. The intricate details are praiseworthy. Throughout its runtime, the film self-reflects, and at times, it gets a little repetitive. Overall, it is best not to have any unrealistic expectations from the film. At the end of the day, it is a great marketing strategy to sell more plastic dolls and merchandise.

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Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni has worked as a film researcher on a government-sponsored project and is currently employed as a film studies teacher at a private institute. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies. Film History and feminist reading of cinema are her areas of interest.

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