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Barbie: Exploring Existentialism via Pink Hues and Plastic Dreams

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 13th September, 2023

NB: This review contains spoilers

“My heels are on the ground…”

The marketing team behind Greta Gerwig’s Barbie deserve an award because I have never seen the general public fawn over feet as much as they did for Margot Robbie’s in the trailer. Endless discussions about whether they were her feet or CGI? In an interview, the producer and lead actor who plays the blonde-haired protagonist confirmed they were, indeed, her feet and ballet training as a young child helped her to achieve a flawless tiptoe pose as she steps out of her pink heels. The only time I have experienced a somewhat related but slightly subdued reaction was getting caught with my foot in the sink whilst attempting to do wudu in a public restroom.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I owned a Barbie doll when I was younger. She was a special ‘Magic Moves Barbie’ which meant she had moving arms! She wore a turquoise dress layered with a beautiful evening gown, had hair accessories and, of course, high heels. When you gently pressed down on her plastic hands, her arms would move slowly up and brush back her plasticky blonde hair. My Barbie was super cool but she was also the epitome of euro-centric beauty ideals.

I was not quite sure, therefore, how to react to the teaser trailer released at the start of the year which was inspired by ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.  In the trailer, young girls smash their baby dolls to smithereens having discovered a monolithic Barbie wearing a black & white striped bathing suit (replicating Mattel’s first doll in 1959, after which it acquired the rights to the German adult novelty toy, Bild Lilli). Was the trailer encouraging young girls to reject expectations of motherhood or was it showing the middle finger to patriarchy… only time would tell.

The official movie release in July coincided with the first weekend of the UK summer holidays, and the sudden burst of pink on our timelines seemed to be a welcome departure from the increasingly bland & beige aesthetics lauded by a multitude of social media influencers. Muslim women across the globe also readily embraced the hype around the movie and if the viral Insta Reel about an online order for 40 pink hijabs is anything to go by, many visible Muslim women transformed into ‘Hijarbies’ (how the Muslim world hadn’t adopted this term sooner is a mystery, especially since Nigerian artist Haneefah Adam, started @hijarbie to showcase dolls styled in ‘modest fashion’ back in 2015). 

It was fun seeing different generations of Muslim women flock to the cinema wearing a whole spectrum of pink shades. Academic, Fatima Rajina, thinks the big marketing budget “helped tap into people’s memories – using nostalgia as a way to market itself played a part in the hype, as well as a ‘post-Covid’ desire for a collective cultural experience.”

Dream Glow Barbie from 1985

But this seemed to rile up some corners of ‘Muslim Twitter’. The online social media platform 5 Pillars posted a video of Muslim women in New York, seemingly without their consent, taking photographs of themselves in the ‘Barbie box’, along with the caption “Muslim women in New York dress up in pink and take pictures before going to watch the western feminist Barbie movie.” I wonder if by being offended by some fuchsia-induced serotonin, they did a spectacular job of marketing the movie on behalf of Mattel? Probably. I also wonder if they will share a video of groups of Muslim men dressed down in trackies going to see Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer despite an extended scene with nudity. Probably not.

20-year-old biomedical sciences student, Sumayyah, said she especially went shopping for a hot-pink top to wear on a friends’ night out to watch the movie. She wanted to feel part of the excitement around the Barbenheimer opening weekend. Although she found Barbie fun to watch, she felt the “feminist message was a bit overexaggerated and, even though it was satire, it came across as too self-deprecating.” Perhaps this is why Sofia Rehman, author of ‘A Treasury of A’ishah’, was underwhelmed at the idea of Barbie being lauded as a feminist film.

“If the speech by America Fererra (who plays Gloria, the only female employee at Mattel in the movie) were to be taken out, would it have as strong a feminist overtone? I’m not sure.”

Gloria’s monologue about all the ways “it is literally impossible to be a woman” does an exceptional job of summing up the double standards women are expected to live by, but there is nothing necessarily revolutionary about what she shares. It is worth noting here the obvious point that discourse around feminism has existed long before this moment, for example, the ‘controversial’ book Sultana’s Dream was written in 1905 by Rokeya Sahkawat Hossian, who was a Muslim feminist, writer and social reformer from Bengal.

So, while the movie succeeds in reminding us of the challenges of female empowerment and the pain of wearing high heels, it struggles to deliver an intersectional viewpoint apart from the superficial acknowledgement of “white saviour Barbie” by Gloria’s daughter, Sacha.

In fact, there is a risk of perpetuating the stereotype that women of colour need to comfort and educate white women about their lived experiences. Nonetheless, America Fererra delivers some truths about womanhood in a way that is both evocative and engaging. It definitely shapes Barbie’s existential ruminations – to the extent of the movie’s reference to ‘Depression Barbie’ who likes “to watch the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice for the seventh time, until she falls asleep.” What an iconic movie moment and my deepest sympathies to all those who felt exposed by this statement.

The author of ‘Dear Mother’, Suma Din, is currently exploring narratives of Muslim women who are mothers or have guardian roles. “I’m asking: what do we think collectively and individually about womanhood and motherhood? Where are the messages coming from? When it comes to the Barbie film, I’m not for or against, I’m just saying ‘think critically’.” Suma also thought long and hard about her girls having Barbie dolls when they were little because of all the usual reasons. “In the end they had a couple – family felt sorry for their deprivation, and I subsequently felt sorry for the dolls who had their hair absolutely decimated by my elder daughter with a pair of scissors!”.  

Enter “Weird Barbie” played by Kate McKinnon in the movie who experienced some traumatic playtimes in the real world. Sofia Rehman suggests there is stigma attached to this character for being different to the other Barbies and thus is treated as an outcast but the reasons for this are never addressed. While the movie makers attempt to subvert the narrative around this ‘othering’, there is so much emphasis on her ‘weirdness’ that it is not very effective. Having said that, Weird Barbie is an integral part of the movie and perhaps this is a reminder to centre ‘unconventional’ characters?

The start of the film depicts a perfect Barbieland where the Barbies rule and the Kens are “just Ken.” The set design is visually stunning and immersive, and the music is on point with the opening track by Dua Lipa for Barbie’s “giant blowout party with all the Barbies, and planned choreography, and a bespoke song.” We learn that the Barbies have helped resolve all problems of feminism in the ‘real world’. However, after an existential awakening transcending her perfectly manicured nails, Barbie ventures to the real world to meet Gloria, playing with her doll counterpart, in order to rectify the rift in the portal between their two realities. Stereotypical Barbie meets Weird Barbie who, in a nod to the infamous Matrix red pill–blue pill scene, gives her a choice of a pair of high heels (“her regular life”) or a pair of Birkenstocks (“the truth about the universe”). I loved this scene because it nailed the nostalgia once again! True to her persona, Barbie chooses the pink stilettos, but she is gently railroaded into picking the latter. 

Thus begins Barbie’s journey in her pink Corvette where she  discovers that Ken has invited himself along – it is “Barbie AND Ken” after all. The best bit of the road trip has to be all the different ‘worlds’ they travel through, as well as Barbie seeing a couple of astronaut barbies and excitedly yelling “Yay, space!”. Anyone who wanted to be an astronaut growing up (yes, me) will understand the childish yet dreamy ambitions manifesting themselves through imagination and role-play with something as simple as a toy.

Despite some cute and quirky one-liners delivered with audacious wit, especially by Ryan Gosling who plays Ken, the Barbie movie was labelled as “an assault on men” by TV host Piers Morgan. Some people have also criticised the movie’s attempt to rehabilitate the image of Barbie dolls. In a blog titled ‘How The Barbie Movie Sexualises Young Girls’, Farhat Amin, author of Smart Teenage Muslimah, suggests that “Barbie’s most conspicuous feature is her warped physique—a grotesque caricature of the female form. With elongated legs, make-up clad face, a minuscule waist, and an exaggerated bust, Barbie presents young girls with an unattainable and unhealthy sexualised beauty ideal.” Some Muslim mothers have shared similar reasons for not buying their daughters Barbie dolls and for not taking them to watch the movie.

Radio presenter & mother-of-six, Neelum Mughal thought “it was more relatable to older girls and women due to some mature references.” She felt the movie was somewhat successful in conveying a message of “women having a purpose” but concluded “it is entertainment at the end of the day with no valuable lesson to take away from it.” 

On the other hand, Mrs. Rahman, a Pupil Support Assistant, had negative preconceptions about the movie until she saw it with her sisters and 17-year-old daughter. She was pleasantly surprised.

“It was about empowering women to be whatever they want to be and showing that misogyny happens almost without people being aware. I thought it was a great thought-provoking film that lots of men should watch too.”

Now, I am not sure how many Muslim men went to see the movie, however, I did stumble across an online comment by a Muslim man questioning “Why is there a hijabi in Barbie Land? Where is her Wali?” 

Asma Hussain, a Fundraising & Development Consultant in the arts sector, thinks the movie is “essentially a corporate vehicle for selling stuff that nobody needs… it’s best taken for what it is – frivolous fun that’s not that deep.” However, she feels there is pressure for ‘girl’ movies to be exceptional in order to even come close to the kind of hype that similar movies based on toys marketed to young boys get, such as Transformers and the MCU. As someone who loves Bumblebee from the Transformers and also considers it a love language to watch MCU movies together, I strongly agree with this point. Yet, Asma goes on to question,, “why anyone would even want a seat at the table when the table is, to quote bell hooks, the ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.’”

Most would agree that Barbie has both a problematic backstory as well as a conflicting narrative around what it means to be an ‘empowered’ woman. Despite this, Mattel has attempted to change its image over the years by becoming more inclusive. The Barbie slogan of ‘You Can Be Anything!’ is executed in the movie with the various archetypes including a Doctor, Journalist, Writer, a President (many played by women of colour) and there is even a ‘Hijabi Barbie’ but dare to blink and you’ll miss her! 

In her piece for the Radio Times, journalist Shaheena Uddin shared that “representation goes beyond mere categories or checkboxes. What really stood out to me more was not these token minorities, but instead how the heart and messages of the film were quite universal and relatable.”

Asma Hussain suggests “there’s a younger generation of girls who are better aware of gender inequality, and for whom I imagine a Barbie doll is, at best, a little more than a forgotten relic from the dark ages. Thus, it was a stroke of marketing genius to leverage the influence of celebrated women creatives to reposition the product as a ‘feminist icon’ and have the product appeal to a new generation of young people.” 

The divisive impact of the movie marketing is undeniable. I know individuals who have never been enthusiastic about Barbie dolls, yet went to watch the movie. On the other hand, I know others who chose not to watch it because they were sick of all the pink-ish hype they were being bombarded with. Regardless, artist and mother, Moriam Grillo believes “the younger generation has greater awareness of the politics at play than older generations who were absorbed by spin or influenced by the agendas of the day. So, in the film, Sacha is the forerunner in understanding what is at play while her mother has to journey to this discovery.” This is a really interesting point because many first generation immigrants were more likely to try and assimilate as a form of survival, whereas the younger diaspora is navigating their sense of identity and belonging in an unapologetic manner.

Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie were also remarkably unapologetic when they persuaded Mattel to incorporate the more controversial aspects of their capitalist endeavours. The duo assured Mattel they would “honour the brand” but they were not going to shy away from confronting the problematic parts of it. For example, they challenged unrealistic body standards by depicting the Barbies’ visceral reactions to flat feet, bad morning breath and cellulite. On the other hand, Sofia Rehman felt there was too much “flip-flopping and double standards around beauty ideals… the film fails to address the fact that things like ageing and cellulite are normal – the message around beauty standards was not consistent enough.” On the flipside, one of the main things which was consistent in the movie was Ken’s references to “beach”. 

Now, it would be remiss of me, of course, not to give more focus to Ken, despite him being  treated as a non-entity whose sole purpose is to be noticed by Barbie. This continues until he discovers the power of patriarchy and horses. Whilst Mattel’s ‘manel’ board of directors, with Will Ferrell playing the CEO, attempt to put Barbie back inside her box, Ken travels back to Barbieland to share his newly acquired knowledge of power dynamics to put the Kens on top (and to finally get Barbie to pay attention). The transformation of Barbie’s Dreamhouse into the “Mojo Dojo Casa House” is a laugh out loud moment: chic pink decor is replaced by dull brown leather, old-school style saloon doors are constructed in the open doorways, large TV screens have montages of horses playing in the background, and there is a mini fridge. The stereotypical Kendom is born. It becomes evident that the world viewed through the lens of Barbies and Kens are at extremes and their subsequent methods to gain dominance are ultimately harmful for both groups.

Despite all its charismatic chaos and conflicting narratives, Barbie is a movie doing its utmost to explore existentialism via pink hues. The movie entices the audience to harness their “Kenergy” and question what we are made for – summed up in the track by Billie Eilish. Beyond the plastic paradise of Barbieland, both Barbie and Ken are on a quest of self-discovery. Ken, whose only endeavour is to be Barbie’s plus-one, grapples with the realisation that he can have a purpose outside of his programmed persona and allow space for vulnerability. For Barbie, she no longer wants to be the thing that is made but wants to be with those that make meaning. As beautiful as this intention is, Ruth Handler’s character, the founder of Barbie, says “we mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come.” Many women felt this hit deep and, even though this may be true in some cases, Sofia Rehman questions “why are we celebrating the idea that in order for our daughters to go far we have to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of patriarchy?”

Asma Hussain feels the main takeaway of the movie was “the futility of trying to be exceptional or perfect – instead of trying to reach these impossible standards, why not expend that energy on being yourself and figuring out who ‘yourself’ is?” Programme Manager, Husna, expands on this as “Barbie has the choice of having a fun and perfect dream life in Barbieland but she chooses to be human, despite all its hardship. The joy of being human, even with the pain that can bring, there is something in that which outweighs anything else.”

All these points beautifully sum up the complexity of living our lives in the most authentic way possible. There will always be external pressures to conform to some sort of social conditioning, and maybe the key is to look deep within ourselves to ensure our soul is receiving the spiritual nourishment it needs. 

It is possible, therefore, that beyond all the hype and vibes of the movie, there is some meaning to be taken from Barbie after all. Or maybe I am projecting too much wishful thinking on a movie about a doll, in which case maybe it’s perfectly fine to watch a movie, as Fatima Rajina puts it, with a “no-discourse brain.” Ultimately, the movie is a product of a corporate capitalist machine – one report suggests that Mattel’s shares soared 33% in the run up to Barbie’s release, and Gerwig has become the first solo female director with a film to gross over $1 billion at the box office. Love it or loathe it, Barbie has managed to make space in our psyche. I think this movie will spark discussions and disagreements for many years to come, for no reason other than a plastic doll woke up one morning thinking about death and realised that perfection isn’t real and the world is flawed. So, maybe our opinions about Barbie (both the doll and the movie) are more a reflection of our own selves? 

Considering this, you may be wondering if I fell for the hype and wore pink when I went to the cinema to watch the movie? Yes, I did. You may also be wondering whether I will watch the movie with my t(w)een daughters? No, I won’t. This is mainly because if I wanted them to learn about intersectional feminism, I would not use Barbie as a starting point, and also because there are other sources from which they can learn about the world around them. They also already have amazing non-plastic-human-role-models in real life: the Muslim women quoted in this article being perfect examples who are brilliant and more than inspiring “Kenough”.

Imrana Mahmood

Imrana Mahmood

Imrana Mahmood is a Creative Producer committed to redefining the arts scene and passionate about working with communities at a grassroots level, with a particular focus on global majority voices. She is the founder of Dar Aminah Book Club and also hosts The Book Club Show on Inspire FM. Her previous projects include Beyond Borders and Echoes of the Diaspora, and she is currently working within the cultural education sector to improve access to the arts for young people. Imrana is a mother of two and in her spare time enjoys reading, watching movies and eating chocolate.