Unpacking Barbie

I went to see the Barbie Movie on Friday with a friend. I have been looking to see other people's reactions, because I'll be honest... when I left I had a feeling like, "Well wasn't that avant garde?" I couldn't say if I liked it or not (I did), because I needed to marinate in it a bit. I needed to process. (See Mali at No Kidding in NZ's take on it here.)

First, my own Barbie experience -- I was not allowed to have Barbies for a long time (well, kid years long time). My mom did NOT want Barbie in the house with her tiny waist and big boobs and unrealistic body image. So, she got us a Darci doll. Which I looked up as an adult, because my recollection was that Darci was Barbie's flat-footed, bigger-boned cousin, a sort of hippie reimagining. So call me surprised when I looked her up and unlike Barbie, who had all the crazy jobs (although I remember the controversy over "math is hard!" Barbie), Darci was one thing -- a model. HER ONLY JOB WAS TO LOOK PRETTY. So, um, who cares if her proportions were a bit more realistic and she wasn't on tiptoe, that's kind of worse! Watch a real (but fuzzy) advertisement for the doll on YouTube here. Not exactly screaming Woman Power.

But, anyway, my Barbie-free childhood was disrupted when our Episcopalian priest dropped off his daughter's Barbie treasure trove that they'd outgrown. Literally treasure -- Malibu Barbies, Kens, a Barbie Dream House, a pool, all kinds of clothing and accessories... and my mom couldn't say no! It was a man of god giving us those Barbies! I'd played with my friends' Barbies, but now my sister and I could play at home. It opened the door to Barbie convertibles, Sweet Roses PJ, and my common misconception that sex was Barbie and Ken literally smashing into each other. 

It was interesting to me that the movie has Barbie as a positive role model, that Barbieland is all woman power and the Kens are just...ancillary Beach Bods. I loved when the angsty middle school girls tear her apart and the dissonance of Barbie's thinking that she's a feminist hero and the girls' assertions that OH NO, YOU ARE THE PROBLEM, PINK PLASTIC LADY. 

The movie is definitely more for adults than kids. It felt very nostalgic to me, and I thought it was so much more about the roles women are squished into and the layers of expectations that are just impossible to "win" at. I liked that it was very much about finding out who you are and realizing that these expectations are ridiculous but you can shed them (sort of). 

I loved America Ferrera's speech. But, I felt a little like a footnote in it. I thought that the inclusion of "not mothers" got put in as an afterthought and so much of the rest of the speech was about womanhood and motherhood's intertwining. Which I guess is true, as not being a part of motherhood can sometimes make me feel left out of what society has deemed an essential part of womanhood. And really, the movie is so much about mothers and daughters, which makes sense because who's playing with Barbies? 

I loved all the weirdness. I loved the American In Paris style Ken dance number. I saw an article in The Guardian that criticized the movie for being so body inclusive with the Barbies, but then all the Kens are perfect beach bodies. Which goes with the whole "Ken is one-dimensional" thing about Ken, but interesting point. 

While Barbie was darker than I thought, it was also way funnier -- I laughed out loud and literally flailed in my seat like a beached sea turtle. There were nostalgic laughs, and "oh my god I FEEL THAT" laughs. 

After marinating, I really really really liked the movie. I think I have to see it again to catch more things and marinate further. Then I might be able to say I loved it. 

What did you think about the movie? 


  1. Not a reaction comment, because I haven't seen the movie. I read the America Ferrara speech you linked to. I don't agree that it's "impossible to be a woman," (I see lots of people doing it every day) but probably it's impossible to keep up with all the expectations if you pay them a lot of attention and add them up and you actually care. I don't mean to sound dismissive there, but I think there are ways to embody one's self without being pulled in every direction. (Some tension is inevitable).

    I liked Barbies as a child, though the way I played with them didn't have much to do with the marketing. AJ and Dani show zero interest in Barbies. They have a box of dolls they sometimes play with but they show no particular preference to a type of doll.

    AJ is currently obsessed with Halloween and we have agreed to her wish to create a haunted house in the basement. I have started with costuming so currently crocheting lace collars and gloves with skulls and spiderwebs in them. It's the Summer of Goth over here, no pink in sight hahahaha.

    1. Oh this is awesome. The Summer of Goth. I love it.

      I never really played with Barbies. I just liked to build houses for her out of cardboard boxes and make dresses for her out of old socks.

  2. Love your review. And I loved the teenage girls' take on it - because that's why I first resisted the idea of going. I agree - there's a lot more to think about. And the whole Ken thing really reflected our position too - not just as women, but also as women without children, "superfluous" as Barbie said. (And years ago I wrote a post, because a fellow infertile but now with kids wrote about the No Kidding as being superfluous!) I guess that's why I found the whole thing more inclusive. And I think the Guardian was being a bit disingenuous - because wasn't the idea of all the Ken's being the same a metaphor for how women are seen /expected to be? Interesting though to think about. I tried not to read reviews because I wanted to be surprised - so now I'm going to read some of the analysis. And I agree - I'm going to have to watch it again. Lots more to think about. And I think I can already say I loved it!

    PS. The Darci doll didn't look that much different from a Barbie to me - still blond with big hair! lol And Cover Girl Darci - yes, all about the looks!

  3. I grew up Barbie-less, and had no man of god bringing me a treasure trove. So I wasn't inclined to see the film, but with your review and what I'm hearing from others, I do want to see it. I do like Greta Gerwig and Closer to Fine, so I'm pretty sure it will be worth my time. I saw somewhere some first generation feminists were saying that everything old is new again.

  4. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I've read tons about it. My sister & I had Barbies, but (as I commented to Mali on her post about the movie), it was in the early 1960s, when Barbie looked a lot different and there was far less pink and far less "stuff" to buy! (We used our Barbie suitcases -- which were red & black -- to make "houses" for our dolls!) My mom's cousin, who is 6-7 years older than me, passed along her Barbies & clothes to us and oh wow, she had some amazing clothes, including a red velvet coat & matching hat that looked like something Jackie Kennedy would have worn (and I understand that one of her favourite designers, Oleg Cassini, actually did design some Barbie doll outfits of the era!).