Greta Gerwig's Barbie Redefines Sisterhood, Feminism, and Authentic Womanhood

By Sera | Aug 4, 2023

Nothing prepared the world for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie—a cinematic wonder just as whimsical as is empowering. A delightful adventure that brings to life the iconic doll we all know and love, as her journey teaches us hard lessons about the society we have created for ourselves.

The magnitude of sisterhood forged in its name is precisely the kind of energy the world needs right now-post overturning Roe vs Wade, abortion bans, increasing rates of femicide, etc, Gerwig and her team created something big enough for all to be a part of, an impact so contagious it had women all over the world wearing pink outfits to see the movie at theatres, throwing pink themed watch parties for the movie, curating Barbie themed trends across social media platforms, greeting each other with an excited wave and a  “Hey Barbie!” even to complete strangers. 

Its sweep is bringing women across the globe together to celebrate all that the movie represents for us individually and as a diverse collective.

The movie’s stunning visuals were its number one captivating element, a selling point even within its exceptional marketing, it truly kept us viewers immersed in that world, Gerwig is truly a visionary!

Her approach to the subject of Barbie and what a Barbie movie could stand for was thrilling, unlike Disney princesses or Marvel superheroes, Mattel’s Barbie does not come with a pre-perceived central narrative to her character, hence all the excitement in the anticipation of what approach Gerwig was going to take in telling Barbie’s story. 

Rose Bonaime wrote in Collider, “Barbie could have been little more than a toy ad but it instead became an existential look at the difficulties of being a woman, the terrifying nature of life in general, the understanding  that trying to be perfect is absurd, while also encapsulating everything that Barbie has meant to people - both good and bad.”

Gerwig’s use of Barbie as a contemporary feminist tool was a noteworthy decision in the right direction, a tool that held up a mirror to our society in charming comedy and dialogue immersed in feminism 101. Of course, many critics of the movie found this appalling, while some accused it of being a buzzword-off, some warned about Gerwig’s talent being used to wash Mattel’s image. 

While Barbie has been “celebrated as a font of girlhood” and everything in between, the Mattel brand, has been criticised for its unrealistic representations of women’s bodies and in more recent years, a lack of diversity in its collection, it is almost understandable why one would think it a “branded material” especially as these elements are what the movie tackles precisely. 

However, I think it an insult to Gerwig's artistry that she would launder the brand image, as the acclaimed director of “Little Women” and “Lady Bird,” which celebrate girlhood, womanhood, and sisterhood. It is Gerwig's MO to use her films as a tool that highlights women's place in society. 

I like to think Gerwig and her team feel just as lucky to witness Margot Robbie’s interpretation of their vision for Barbie, as much as we the viewers feel lucky to have witnessed this history-making—Margot Robbie starring as Barbie. 

Margot, whose two most critically acclaimed acting roles are direct opposites of her role as Barbie, in “Babylon” and “Birds of Prey,” shines just as bright, cliche but Margot was made for Barbie.

As Barbie, we see Margot coming to terms with the inequalities of the real world, her performance on the vulnerability of it all opens the movie to new depths. The performance goes even beyond the screens, her styling, clothes, hair,  grace, poise, and presence in the weeks of media appearances and regional premieres leading up to the movie’s release, posed an interesting build-up to what we witnessed with her role in the movie. 

Ryan Gosling’s Ken was just as delightful to witness, who would have thought that his role in “La La Land” was preparing him for this? His delivery as the comic relief of the movie was another thing I did not expect from the movie. His predicament after coming in contact with the patriarchy, rendered to me a perfect mockumentary on how the phenomenon looks like in our society.

I found Twitter hot topics in dialogue hilarious, rather than pretentious and pandering as I’ve read in some reviews on Gerwig's use of those elements of pop-culture in her attempt to place Barbie in today's world. 

In the weeks after Barbie’s release, Kens' character sparked interesting discourse and think pieces on how his character was yet another tool in Western media that seeks to emasculate men, decrying Barbie as “peddling the woke agenda.” The New York Post  describes the Kens as “predictably morons” and accuses the entire movie of being a “corporate cash grab.” The Movie web newsletter records quotes on comments from unverified Rotten Tomatoes audience that “negative review bombed” the movie during its second week, most of which accused Gerwig’s plot of being “anti men” and pushing negative stereotypes of gender.

Ken, however,  seemed to me like a reflection of how the patriarchy is also harmful to men, suddenly Ryan Gosling’s Ken is in a heated competition with all the other Kens, suddenly he becomes hostile towards Barbie as she turns down his advances, we watch the once fantastic Barbie Land become a shadow of itself as Ken brings home the patriarchy with him, a foreshadowing of our world and how this social system ruins everything for everyone. 

When Gosling’s Ken leads the Ken-pack in an entertaining musical number of the now hit song “I’m Just Ken” it renders a theatrical acknowledgement of a place in our world that most men need to arrive at; for its many benefits to them, it equally strips them of their individuality and requires high expectations of masculine performance and participation that are many times harmful to themselves and others within our society.

My favourite takeaway was Gerwig’s take on motherhood and the wholesome way in which she wove it into the movie's narrative. Not only did Gerwig play this into paying homage to the renowned Barbie creator, Ruth Handler, whose inspiration for the doll was her daughter Barbra, whom the doll is named after, she also wove a really great story around the fictitious mother and daughter who join in Barbie’s journey as the movie progresses. 

We all seem to forget our mothers came from somewhere and were once girls like us who made sacrifices to have us here, Gerwig reminds us of this, and of the importance of sacrifice but not losing one's self.

America Ferrara performs one of the film's signature moments as her character Gloria, rendering a monologue that changes the course of the movie. Gloria, in the movie, is the only female employee at Mattel.

"It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don't think you're good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we're always doing it wrong.

You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can't ask for money because that's crass. You have to be a boss, but you can't be mean. You have to lead, but you can't squash other people's ideas. 

You're supposed to love being a mother, but don't talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for men's bad behaviour, which is insane, but if you point that out, you're accused of complaining. 

You're supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you're supposed to be a part of the sisterhood."

The sublime message fleshed out the contradictions and disparities in the world’s expectations of women and what our experiences of womanhood should look like, and finally lands on a reality that the Barbies and the audience must open our eyes to; there’s a middle ground to womanhood where we are neither an accessory to a man or a flawless embodiment of divine femininity, a middle ground that accepts us for who we are, however we decide to present ourselves to the world.

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