As easily the most anticipated film of the summer, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie has hit the ground running since its blockbuster debut on July 21st. During its opening weekend, Barbie grossed over $155 million in the domestic market alone, making it the biggest box office weekend for a film directed by a woman. In the almost two-hour-long sparkly, pink trip that has revved the engine on the discussion of womanhood and gender, Barbie offered a glance into the life of every woman. It proved itself to be a feminist film and by playing around with gender roles and stereotypes in multiple contexts, from costuming to camera angles, it uses the ever-popularizing female gaze to discuss valid issues in our society and shines a light on the meaning of feminism. While this article will mostly discuss how gender is used in the Barbie movie, there will also be spoilers for the end of the movie so read at your own risk.
Before diving in, let’s briefly chat about the female gaze. Created in response to feminist scholar, Laura Mulvey, and her work on the male gaze in narrative cinema, the female gaze is not the opposite of the male gaze, but rather an exploration of what it means to be the subject of a gaze. In terms of womanhood, films with the female gaze show female characters with more agency while also providing an opportunity for the audience to see what it feels like to be under the pressure of the patriarchy. It turns the gaze around to the audience allowing them to explore their own biases in relation to the subject of a film. In the creation of Barbie, Greta Gerwig manages to fully realize and utilize every angle that the female gaze has to offer, particularly in her comparison of Barbieland and the Real World.
In Barbieland, girls rule. Barbie can do and be anything. All through this utopia, hundreds of women take care of business and live their best lives doing anything from taking out the trash to ruling over the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the men, or the ‘Kens’, only have one job, and that is to stay on the beach and try to get Barbie’s attention. From the start, this parody of society, flipping the gender roles to where women are those in power, invites the audience to laugh at the absurdity of the fake world and the goofy antics Ryan Gosling’s Ken gets up to trying to win over Margot Robbie’s Barbie. Everything is perfect and perfectly plastic. Every night is girls’ night and Barbie has a great day every day. However, things become less perfect when Barbie’s feet go flat and she develops (gasp) cellulite! These first few scenes show the perfection of this world but also the fakeness of it. Everything from Barbie’s house to her food is made of plastic, and even her car doesn’t need her to steer to continue driving itself. Even before the real comparison with our society begins, the audience can see that everything is surface level. People accept the status quo because that’s how it has always been. No one has to work for any of their achievements and everything stays perfect just the way it is, it disregards the necessity of having a voice and purpose. Change is feared and discouraged and so is standing out.
When Barbie travels to the real world she has experiences she never thought possible, men staring at and disrespecting her? The audacity! Through her arc in the real world and Ken realizing the roles are reversed, we can see through Barbie’s uninfluenced eyes what it means to be the object of the male gaze in a patriarchal society.
Through her time in the real world, Barbie is met with a number of unfamiliar experiences, including her run-in with the Mattel office. While up until this point, Barbie sees herself as a feminist icon inspiring women and girls to be everything, the office full of men forces her to confront the fact that while Barbie was made by and for women and girls, the office running the franchise and producing new Barbie dolls consists entirely of men. This feminist icon is actually still a subject of the male gaze and is created with unrealistic expectations, making women and girls feel worse about themselves, their looks, their bodies, and their achievements. The doll was made to fuel the patriarchal society and increase consumerism more than to empower women.
When Barbie returns to Barbieland with Gloria (America Ferrera) and Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) in tow, all is not how she left it. The Kens have taken over and revolted, brainwashing all the other Barbies and instating a patriarchal society in what was once a female-centered plastic utopia. Barbie thinks she ruined everything and goes into a state of depression in which she remains, moping at Weird Barbie’s (Kate McKinnon) house. Realizing they have to do something, Gloria returns to Barbieland with Sasha, and, finding her tearstained and hopeless, Gloria ‘wakes her up’ with an award-worthy monologue about what it means to be a woman in today’s society. She talks about unrealistic expectations for body image, work culture, being a mother, expressing her feelings… basically, some of the most relatable issues that women face in our world. Looking around the theater on opening night, the number of wet eyes and nodding heads put truth to her words. This speech empowers all the Barbies to create a plan to retake their world and remind the other women of their own value. This whole monologue and the following scenes reminding the Barbies of their worth are some of the most powerful moments in the film. Not only does Gloria make her way around speaking to the Barbies about simple truths and reinforcing that they should have agency over their lives, but the way that these scenes were filmed was so that America Ferrera was speaking directly into the camera. She wasn’t just talking to those Barbies, she was talking to all of us in the audience. This scene was an opportunity to wake up and realize how unjust our society has become and remind women that they are not alone and should know their worth. Only when all the women stood together were they able to retaliate.
The scenes that follow feature the Kens fighting amongst themselves and then, through a lovely choreographed number, they realize that the only way to have a just and civil society is to find their own purpose rather than defining who they are through others’ approval. While Barbie has gotten its fair amount of critique calling it ‘anti-man,’ this sequence proved that the moral is before anything, we all have to be comfortable in our own skin and recognize our own and others’ worth to be beautiful.
While waking up the Barbies and having the Kens realize their worth is all incredibly powerful, even more than that, the scene with Barbie and Ruth Handler’s (Rhea Perlman) conversation took the cake. Talking alone together, Ruth invited Barbie to close her eyes, and a string of videos flashed before the camera, transparent over Barbie’s closed eyes. All the videos featured women of different ages, races, nationalities, and cultures while Billie Eilish’s What Was I Made For played softly in the background. Once the videos ended, the camera took a wide shot showing Barbie standing on her own. This was the main message in the movie; empowered women empower women. These videos represented that we are the accumulation of every woman, even those who have never fought for gender equality, we are still the product of all their stories and part of a sisterhood that stretches generations.
Many of the movements happening right now are not for us, they are for those who follow us, and by continuing the movement, we will become part of all those future women who have more opportunities and are more empowered than we are today. What are we made for? We are made to empower the next generation and continue moving on the path of progress for equality for all. This is why it is so important to note Sasha’s presence in this whole film. Sasha is able to appreciate all her mother does and the realities of being a woman in modern society. Rather than seeing her just as a mom, Sasha sees Gloria as a woman for the first time. Moreover, it reinforces the fact that all this is for those who come next, our daughters and granddaughters, who will enjoy the fruits of what is being planted today. Ruth Handler reminded Barbie of who she was and what she could do and offered her the opportunity to become human. By leaving Barbie alone at the end of the scene, the audience can feel that she is ready to take on this next step and she has been empowered by Ruth and all the other women around her.
In the last scene, Barbie walks into the doctor and excitedly announces she’s there for her gynecologist appointment. This was a fantastic final scene choice for a number of reasons. Earlier in the film, Barbie tells someone she doesn’t even have a vagina and while the gag is funny, the deeper meaning can be found in the way Barbie has been desexualized. In our society, it is more taboo for women to talk about sex or sexuality in comparison to men. The Barbie doll has been desexualized, separating the woman and her sexuality into two separate entities to make her more easily objectified in a patriarchal society. In the final scene, Barbie has allowed herself to reclaim her femininity by checking in for her gynecologist appointment and combines her womanhood with her sexuality to make her a fuller person.
Greta Gerwig checked all the boxes with Barbie; it made us laugh, it made us cry, and it made us think. The use of the female gaze provided a masterfully crafted narrative and while Barbie can’t entirely be labeled a children’s movie, the messages it offered hit home for many and offered insight and lessons for everyone who left the theater. There is no doubt that this will be a film discussed and analyzed in many gender studies classes through the gender role reversal and comparison between Barbieland and the Real World. The women of Barbieland have an understanding of the world that is only skin deep, and by allowing the two worlds to mesh, Gloria managed to wake up the Barbies and let them experience all the trials and tribulations of gaining respect in a patriarchal society. Throughout the film, older women served as guides and mentors, paving the way for those younger and encouraging them to continue the fight for gender equality, but more importantly to know their worth. The question of identity was explored by encouraging everyone to find themselves before they defined themselves by others and the expectations society has set for them. Even throughout the gags and jokes, the grinning, tear-streaked faces of the women and girls, dressed all in pink, streaming out of the theater should speak for themselves in that this is a film not soon forgotten.