Every possible question you could have about Barbieland is answerable with an enthusiastic “yes!”. Barbieland is a feminine utopia where women occupy all jobs from construction worker to president, everyone is aggressively positive and supportive, and everything is violently pink. Barbie—all Barbie, every Barbie, everyone is Barbie, you are Barbie—lives every day in a never-ending loop of success and self-satisfaction.


…Except for Ken—not all Ken, just the one Ken—who does “just beach” and pines after one specific Barbie, who takes no more notice of him than she does of any Ken, the ultimate prop in her idealized life, a perfect boyfriend who never belittles her, always supports her, and goes away when she commands it. Ken is there and gone whenever she wants him to be, which pushes this one Ken to the absolute brink. Eventually, he does a whole song about the hellish nature of his existence. In some ways, Barbie is the movie Cats tried to be.

It's important to denote the difference between feminine and feminist in Barbie. Barbie is a proudly feminine film, drowning in pretty clothes (courtesy costume designer Jacqueline Durran), apocalyptically pink and girlie spaces (from production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer), and endless, women-loving-women support (due to the unrelentingly bubbly performances of the whole Barbie cast) that embraces an intersectional image of womanhood. But it is only a mildly feminist film, containing more theory than you’d expect from a mainstream Hollywood film, but probably not enough to satisfy actual theorists. Barbie is, after all, a Corporate Brand Movie Starring Product, there is only so political it can be. (Still, I imagine that pointing even the mildest finger at the impossible double standards society thrusts upon women will be Too Political for some.)


Directed by Greta Gerwig and co-written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, Barbie presents a fantasy world where every day is the best day, every night is girls’ night, and Barbie believes she has solved inequality for women. Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) is happy with this existence and secure in her belief in herself as a savior of all girls, everywhere. Ken (Ryan Gosling), meanwhile, pines for Barbie—this one specific Barbie, in a way no other Ken pines for any other Barbie, implying something is going with THIS Ken that isn’t happening to any other Ken, but whatever it is, we never find out. Ken is superfluous to Barbie’s needs, he exists merely to admire her, show off for her, and provide positive reinforcement for her own self-satisfaction.

Does this sound kind of horrible? Does Barbie—all Barbie, every Barbie—sound like a low-key monster? Well, she kind of is! Barbieland is a funhouse mirror representation of reality, the inequality and iniquities are so deeply baked into society that the protected in-group of Barbieland has no idea of herself as an oppressor. And Ken, who has never known any different, has no sense of his—their—oppression. Except for that one Ken, Pining Ken, who loves a Barbie who does not love him back, and thus feels in the inequity keenly. Ken-ly? Yes! 


The only people—dolls? Yes!—who seem to have any sense of the problems within Barbieland are Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who Barbie calls weird “behind her back and also to her face”, and Allan (Michael Cera, absolute scene-stealer), Ken’s discontinued BFF. “There’s only one Allan,” the Narrator (Helen Mirren) intones. “Yeah,” Allan responds, “I’m confused about that.” Weird Barbie understands the connection between Barbieland and the Real World because she is the result of a child who played “too hard” with her in the Real World, leaving her what passes for disfigured in Barbieland. Allan, meanwhile, is not part of the Barbieland binary, he is outside it, observing it, and unsure of his place in it. He does not desire to be Ken, but he would like to be included, yet has no way of inserting himself into the Barbieland power structure. 

Stereotypical Barbie gets a rude awakening—literally—when she begins experiencing negative things, such as cold (waterless) showers, burnt (plastic) waffles, flat feet, and a creeping sense of existential dread. Weird Barbie says a child is playing with her in such a way to reveal these feelings and foibles—cellulite! Oh no!—and Barbie must go to the Real World and find the child, thus healing the rift between their realities. Ken tags along because Ken.


In the real world, Barbie quickly learns embarrassment, self-consciousness, and shame, as well as the “undercurrent of violence” that haunts women’s experiences in the world. Ken, meanwhile, is exposed to patriarchy, which is about “men and horses controlling the world”. (Ken is a horse boy: confirmed.) His total lack of skill, talent, and education bars Ken from virtually every job, but it only takes a few mass media and marketing messages to convince him that he should be in charge anyway, that he is powerful and important. 

When Barbie learns it is not a sad child playing with her sadly, but a sad adult named Gloria (America Ferrera), she heads back to Barbieland with Gloria and her daughter, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), to heal the rift between their worlds not from the reality side but from the Barbie side. Unfortunately, Ken got back first and has turned Barbieland into a horse-proud patriarchal paradise, where Barbie—all Barbie, every Barbie—has been reduced to a bimbo version of herself. The messaging of Barbie borders on ham-fisted at times, but this Kendom Land rebranding of Barbieland is a slick, sly encapsulation of how patriarchy works against women.

The final act of Barbie is so goofy, so silly, it defies explanation. It’s absurd like Monty Python, there is a Gene Kelly-esque dream dance sequence, and there is a surprisingly anti-consumerist, “you are not your stuff” moral for a movie produced, in part, by a global toy brand, starring a toy defined, in part, by her stuff. A lot of Barbie feels like a pie in the face of corporate entertainment, even though it is, ultimately, corporate entertainment. As daffy as it gets, it cannot run as free and wild as, say, Sorry To Bother You, but Barbie still manages to unload a few pies in the direction of Mattel, Warner Bros. Discovery, and corporate entertainment itself. 


It’s amazing what Gerwig & Co. get away with in the bounds of a Barbie movie, though Gerwig wisely refrains from solving every problem. The point of Barbie is not to solve the iniquities of patriarchy but to demonstrate the importance of trying. Nothing will change if you don’t try to change it, and Barbie, with her ever-shifting personae and ever-widening definition of diversity, is an agent of change. Barbie is surreal, a stunning visual experience chock full of jokes ranging from dumb to brilliant. It’s also a lunatic fable about girlhood, good vibes, and going for it that proposes self-acceptance as the most radical act of self-love, told by a doll—person? Yes!—that is positive and problematic at the same time. Life in plastic, it’s not always fantastic, and that’s okay.

This review was published during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers and actors. Barbie is exclusively in theaters from July 21, 2023.


Attached - Margot, Ryan, and America at the Barbie photo call in Mexico city earlier this month.