When it opened in July, the much anticipated Greta Gerwig film Barbie had a record-breaking debut as the highest grossing movie ever directed by a woman. This is especially impressive considering many of the movies it surpassed from previous years, like Ms. Marvel and Wonder Woman, which were massive franchise films with the power of millions of comic fans behind them.
Both Barbie and its strange counterpart Oppenheimer are welcome breaks in the cycle of franchise blockbusters dominating the movie scene over the past few years. To many critics and moviegoers, the reason behind the success is simple: a star-studded cast ranging from Academy Award winners to SNL alums; an incredible soundtrack by the likes of Lizzo, Ice Spice, and Dua Lipa; and stunningly beautiful sets and costume design. All these factors obviously contributed to the film’s massive opening weekend and the overwhelmingly positive reviews it has since received. But, more than all that, the sociocultural impact of Barbie among young people, especially young women, shows the more profound meaning behind the movie’s success.
Barbie, in every way, is hyper-feminine. The elaborate, over-the-top pink set; the sparkly costumes; and the big, bold hair and makeup all lean into the Barbie doll aesthetic whole-heartedly. And yet, almost all the Barbies (save the titular Margot Robbie) have high-powered, academic careers: Barbies have occupations ranging from a doctor to a physicist to, most notably, Issa Rae’s President Barbie, whose democratic office is recognized by a glittery sash. The immediate reaction to this is comedic— of course it would be ludicrous for politicians or scientists to wear sparkles or pink or big, floofly dresses. But why? It’s not as though this attire isn’t professional or formal enough; it’s simply a hyper-feminine version of what would be considered “appropriate” attire. And it is this initial reaction that demonstrates how we, as a society, view femininity as inherently opposed to qualities like intelligence, capability, professionalism, and strength.
It’s a theme that has been written into women in media for generations— a sort of modern advancement on the Madonna-Whore complex. Take the wildly popular Big Bang Theory: a woman can be feminine, but incapable (Kaley Cuoco’s Penny) or an intellectual who feels incapable of exhibiting stereotypical femininity (Mayim Bialik’s Amy.)
As ridiculous as it seems, these one-dimensional female characters really do have profound effects on how women view themselves, especially young girls. Personally, for most of elementary and middle school, I hated anything and anyone “girly girl.” In my mind, there were smart girls and there were girly girls, and never the twain shall meet. I begged for the pink walls in my room to be painted over; I dressed pretty much exclusively in Star Wars t-shirts from the boys section, and shunned any mention of makeup or romcoms or whatever else I thought would make me look stupid. I wanted to be taken seriously by my teachers, my similarly nerdy friends, and, most importantly, nerdy boys who would obviously never take my opinion on the prequels seriously if I wore mascara.
I can’t imagine what my ten-year-old self would think if she saw me, almost a decade later, dressed entirely in pink from my outfit to my sparkly eyeshadow to my nails, excitedly going to the Barbie movie on opening night. It’s because it wasn’t really until high school that I realized there is absolutely no correlation between femininity and intelligence, or any other quality a young woman should strive to have. I like the color pink! I like doing my makeup, and wearing feminine clothes, and watching romantic movies and going shopping with my friends. And none of that, in any way, diminishes my intelligence or how hard I work at school, or my opinions about international affairs or literature or the prequels.
Looking back, all these things are pain-stakingly obvious. But, to a literal child who has only ever seen herself in media as Hermione Granger or Regina George, it makes a lot of sense. This, to me, is one of the things that makes the Barbie movie so profound. Not only are the women multi-dimensional, as has thankfully become more and more common in modern media, but they show femininity hand in hand with power, intelligence, and professionalism in a way that is almost never seen in film, let alone the real world.
Additionally, the reception of this film, and how seriously it has been taken by critics, shows a lot of progress for this type of movie. Barbie tackles themes of perfectionism, consumerism, and authenticity that are relevant to everyone, not just women. It offers a reinterpretation of the inherently masculine “break out of the Matrix” dogma that has been appropriated by self-proclaimed “Alpha male” commentators online. And yet, despite it’s over-the-top femininity, Barbie has by and large been taken seriously as an intelligent commentary on modern womanhood.
Obviously, there are valid critiques of the film: despite its diverse cast, it doesn’t tackle any kind of intersectionality, and the greater struggles of women of color and queer women; and the messaging is, at times, a bit preachy and over-the-top. But overall, Barbie tackles important issues with a unique perspective, and has been taken as such.
In every industry, from music to television and movies, art produced with women, specifically young women in mind as the audience, has always been disregarded as critics. One prominent example of this is The Beatles. When they first broke into America, their fans were almost exclusively young women, and so The Beatles were seen as a boy band of little artistic relevance. As time went on, and adult men became interested in their music, The Beatles were suddenly taken far more seriously and are now, years later, heralded as the greatest rock band of all time. For this reason, the fact that a film like Barbie, so actively marketed towards young women, is being taken seriously by the men controlling the entertainment industry, is truly a step forward for inclusivity in spaces for “intelligent” or “profound” media.
In short, I believe the Barbie movie is truly culturally relevant, especially to young women, in a way that will influence future art with a female audience. The fervor around this film, dressing up, the energy and cheering and excitement I felt attending a showing on opening night, gives me hope for a new era of how women will feel seeing themselves represented in media.
Obviously, most women probably don’t want to dress like Barbies or decorate their homes in a way that causes an international shortage of pink paint. But the fact that this exaggerated version of femininity is being taken seriously paves the way for equally respected representations of all the different ways to be a woman, and to be a person.
Zoe Thomas is a student at the University of Michigan, and is a Hoppin and Andrews Elementary alum. Zoe is passionate about political science and journalism.
Any views or opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.