Warning: This post contains a few mild spoilers.
Dear Young Women,
Yes, you should see the Barbie movie. And sure, go ahead and wear hot pink to the theater. It’s fun. Don’t worry about being anti-feminist or something. This summer, we’re reclaiming hot pink as a power color. Kind of. Anyway, it’s fun.
Yes, I know you’ve been bombarded by memes and TikToks about it, but Barbie lives up to the hype, at least in terms of a movie experience. It’s explosively colorful, clever, and weird. It features nonstop savvy jokes, great physical humor, an all-star cast with seriously good acting, and stunningly fabulous production design. It’s sweet at the core and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Even the songs are pretty good! And it’s directed by Greta Gerwig. So there you go.
But you, especially, young women, should go see this movie. Will it tell you everything you need to know about women’s history and feminism and the experience of being women today? No, it will not. But there are a couple moments in it where you really, really need to feel your feelings. This is entry-level stuff, but it’s important.
Also, I should note that if you are struggling with your gender or sexual identity, this movie will not help you much. It deals with cis-het realities almost exclusively, with some possible LGBTQ+ subtexts I won’t go into here. So just know that going in.
The movie begins in “Barbieland” where all the various Barbies hang out in their very pink, very plastic dreamhouses. It’s a girlie world, full of darling outfits and high heels. The Barbies spend their days doing Barbie things, like changing outfits and winning Nobel prizes. And the Kens? They’re just dopey, air-headed accessories—they live for occasional moments of attention from the Barbies. Their job is: “beach.”
I admit, Barbieland is not my idea of utopia. I appreciate the entirely pink government capitol, in which highly accomplished Barbies (Lawyer Barbie, Physicist Barbie, Judge Barbie, President Barbie, etc.) pass fair laws and keep the peace. I appreciate a world in which women are firmly at the center. I could do without the girls’ night dance parties every single night, though. That’s OK. The movie is consistently self-aware about the stereotypical and simplistic girlyness of Barbie world. This is part of the point.
Eventually, for reasons I won’t explain, Stereotypical Barbie (yes, she’s really called that, and she’s played with splendid nuance by Margot Robbie) travels to the Real World. Ken, of course, insists on coming along, like the pathetic spaniel that he is. And here’s where you need to pay attention.
When Barbie arrives in the real world, she feels immediately diminished and threatened. She’s ogled, cat-called, objectified. Men do not defer to her—they mansplain and scorn her. Billboard ads feature men’s experience and desire, with women as accessories. Roads are dominated by gigantic black pickups and SUVs with men at the wheel. Men are at the center. Men’s power, men’s wants, men, men, men. Barbie is bewildered by all this.
Feel, in this moment, a sinking recognition: Barbie has entered our world, like Eve after the fall. As you feel that recognition, realize you usually don’t even notice androcentrism (look it up) because it’s the water you swim in. You’re used to it. You’ve probably already figured out, young as you are, ways to navigate it. Be cute, be nice, be grateful. Apologize, hedge, ask permission. Sure, you can be smart and accomplished. But don’t be bossy! And never, ever be angry. You know what they’ll call you then.
Ken, on the other hand: when Ken enters the Real World, he loves it! Feel free to cringe and groan as Ken discovers—with hilarious enthusiasm—the glories of patriarchy. Of course he loves this world! And fair enough: it stank to be the afterthought accessory. (Uh-hunh. Yep. We know all about that.) Ken is only too happy to revel in a world where men strut around, enjoy their entitlement, and run everything.
Male entitlement! Feel that, too. Notice your sudden awareness that you have never felt entitled (exponentially more true if you are not White). Part of you has always felt guilty, uncertain, maybe oddly grateful to be “given the chance.” Or maybe fiercely determined to be in charge because: girls can do it, too! Honestly, though, right through college, girls and women experience more equality than they will later. Trust me. I’ve been around a while now. Out here, it’s not like it was in school. That’s why the cynical tween character, Sasha, thinks she knows everything already. But she doesn’t.
For the rest of the movie, you can just enjoy the jokes. Enjoy the ridiculous Mattel executive board room—all men of course—in matching suits engaging in groupthink. Cringe again when the Kens take over Barbieland with their aggressive but silly “dudeosity.” Cringe when they attempt to woo the Barbies by playing guitars “at” them, and listen carefully to the horrid lyrics they croon. Notice how the Kens think they’re adoring the Barbies, but really they’re just stroking their little plastic egos. Take note of that.
Enjoy the ride as the Barbies eventually wake up and outsmart the men with a harebrained plot that amounts to “distract the men long enough for us to vote.” That one may have some real-world application. Notice how Weird Barbie (played with delicious aplomb by Kate McKinnon) has a certain freedom even in Barbieland because she does not conform to any variety of Barbie beauty.
Throughout, though, pay particular attention to the Real-World character Gloria, played by America Ferrera. Yes, she has a great set-piece monologue, where she soft-raps the contradictions we face as women. It’s a good moment, but honestly, even at your age, it’s probably stuff you already know. As I say, the movie is entry-level feminism. And that’s OK. A silly movie can’t do everything.
But pay attention to America Ferrera because, despite all the fun we have making sly and affectionate fun of Barbies, at the very heart of this movie is the honoring of ordinary women’s lives. That’s what America Ferrera is there for: to stand for women who are not winning Nobel prizes (or wearing a kaleidoscope of darling outfits). They are just trying to get by in the world as best they can. They do not run the world. Instead, they do underappreciated (and underpaid) work in it, and the beauty of their lives receives very little attention. They sometimes feel depressed and discouraged and “dark and crazy.” They experience malaise and frustration. They find their strength and resourcefulness and resilience and carry on.
To me, the emotional center of the movie is actually a brief sequence toward the end, a montage of plain vanilla family-movie-type footage, just showing ordinary women of all ages in ordinary moments of life. Cherish that moment and remind yourself: ordinary women’s lives are valid and poignant and complicated and ultimately beautiful, and media usually doesn’t help us perceive that. Leave the theater carrying that part with you.
Oh, and by the way, I recommend not bringing any menfolk with you to the theater. If you do, you will probably be distracted by worrying about how they are receiving the movie. (I was, even though I brought along a couple of very woke men.) Afterwards, men are likely to remind you that not all men are like the Kens, that many men are wonderful and respectful, and the male stereotypes in the movie are not fair, that men have body issues and insecurities, too. This is all absolutely true. But do you need to be reminded of that? (My menfolk knew enough to refrain from any such reminders.) The limits of representation are precisely what’s at issue here: the movie is not about presenting a fair picture, but rather about how we all negotiate stereotypes.
Anyway, all this to say: Barbie is a huge hit this summer not just because of a massive marketing campaign. It’s a hit because it’s well-made movie fun, it makes some crucial points with a lot of hilarious humor, and because dealing every day with so many very serious and dire and wicked problems, we are all craving something silly and relatively innocent.
You want me to come along with you? Sure. I’m happy to see it again. Afterwards we can discuss the satire of corporate capitalism and the complex irony of critiquing capitalism while fully participating in it.
 Here’s an article about Catherine McKenna, former Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change. While she was in office, angry men called her “Climate Barbie.” It was meant as a sexist barb. She tried to reclaim it and use it, but she continued to receive a lot of nasty abuse. These days, she is doing others things. At the end of the article, she notes that working with women is great “because most of the women I meet just get shit done”
 Of course, if you come from a conservative church culture, you know all about male entitlement and have been taught that it’s the will of God. All the more reason to have a moment of relief in The Barbie Movie.
 Unfortunately, even some women writers will tell you the movie is “actually about Ken.” It’s not.