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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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.”[6] 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.[7]

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.


[1] Here’s a good treatment of that theme.

[2] 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”

[3] 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.

[4] Mattel’s executive inner circle are not really all men, but note the roles.

[5] There might be a subtext to the song worth considering.

[6] Quoted phrases are taken from Linda Holmes on Pop Culture Happy Hour.

[7] Unfortunately, even some women writers will tell you the movie is “actually about Ken.” It’s not.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for The Twelve as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

23 Comments

  • Thanks! Even more eager to see it now!!

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    Thank you, Professor Rienstra, for this RJ course on Barbie 101. My Reformed tradition spine feels stronger from reading your review, my smile is wider; my gratitude flows forth for the wonder of your feminist light embracing wholeness that is deeply educational & fun. In other words, Closer to Fine. Saluting your smarts with joy. And all the women & men who brought the artistry of this film into being. As Paul Schraeder wrote on his FB page, “We all live in GRETALAND, it’s her world now.” May further goodness flow from this marvelous curriculum contribution. I saw it first in Montana with my two grandsons, ages nine & eleven, and their parents. Onward with cross-generational conversation!

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Thanks for this article. I wish I had read it before I saw the movie. I haven’t laughed that much in a long time. I agree with you. Go see it!

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Thank you Debra, You have whetted my desire to see the movie. I am grateful I have at least one hot pink blouse to wear as pink is not on my “feminine color wheel” and neither are ruffles. It is not only in society and the employment world that Kennyness is active. Living nearly four score years with multiple brothers and being on councils in the CRC also qualifies. Long live All women.

  • Rosalyn Marie De Koster says:

    Absolutely a delightful recap of the film. Thank you, Debra!

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Stay strong, sisters. And thank you.

  • Judie says:

    Thank you! Thank you! I appreciate your writing this. Barbie is a plastic romp with huge messages. Another message for me was that it is hard to be “human”. There is death, and separation, and failed expectations but it’s worth it to be Human! The ending song: “What are we Made For?” summed it up for me. I thought the movie was genius!

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    As usual from Debra Rienstra, this essay is deft and perceptive and wise and funny. Wow. What a joy to read this!

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    But did you see Oppenheimer before or after Barbie? I’m wondering if the viewing order makes a difference.
    :?)
    Thanks for the great review.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Ha! Nope, haven’t seen Oppenheimer yet. Would have had to change from hot pink to black for that one…

  • Anthony J. Diekema says:

    Hey, Deb……….this is absolutely delightful! And shame on my white, male, arrogant, Frisian self! Your insightful review may just get me back into a moviehouse, despite my hearing impairment. 🙂 Maybe I’ll need a “Kenie”? Is there one in production?

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Hmmm, doesn’t seem like a Dutch Barbie and Ken would be much of a stretch for Mattel. They should get right on it!

  • Hilda says:

    I wasn’t going to click on the link to read this because when I recommend this movie to fellow Christians they roll their eyes or say the Christian websites don’t recommend seeing it. I am glad I did click! What a wonderful review. My daughter and I really enjoyed this movie. I liked the part where they gave one of the Barbies a compliment and she accepted it. Yes I did that and thank you. Plan on seeing it again.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Yes, well, those Christian websites are threatened by anything that calls out patriarchy. All the more reason to unmask what they’re protecting. Barbie is a tiny start.

  • Jeanne Clemo says:

    Always love your astute observations with that perfect pinch of humor that embodies your writing, Deb. Bravo on this Barbie 101 review!

  • Jack says:

    In America I have never once said I am a poet or told anyone I was a poet.
    I needed to see Barbie 65 years ago.
    When our daughter, her mother, and I were talking this morning, I said that now I can’t look at anything without wondering if it’s there because of men. What would it all have been like if Adam had been made from Eve’s rib?
    You write with welcome. Your insights never declare how sparkling your intelligence is, but help us find our own. Your courage never struts; it emboldens. Your musical phrasings, well, sing.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Once again, many thanks for the generous and kind comments. (Accepting the compliments, there, eh?)

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks for this. As you are probably aware, not all of our sisters and brothers are so enamored with the movie. Here’s a sample of the opposite take. I’m not endorsing this view, but it’s good to know how the movie impacts other believers.

    For my birthday, I thought it would be fun to take my older teen daughters to see #BarbieTheMovie . We wore pink and thought we were in for lots of laughs, a bit of nostalgia and maybe a nice message. [Spoiler alert] But right away, little girls are depicted as oppressed by having to play with baby dolls, unhappy having to push strollers, all wearing drab prairie dresses. Then life-size 50s Barbie appears and they celebrate by brutally and angrily smashing their baby dolls’ heads in. I immediately thought, “Uh oh.”
    But then I was amused to see what I’d hoped for: the life-size re-creation of Malibu Barbie world, which was very nostalgic for me.
    However, I immediately thought it was odd that Barbie blew off Ken – like Ken and Barbie were never a thing. But I still anticipated that she’d realize how rude she’s been, how “her Ken” and all the other Kens are homeless, car-less, jobless, etc, and that maybe there would be a positive message there with balance being achieved in the end.
    But no, it took another dark turn where she suddenly blurts out asking if anyone else thinks about death. Well, for me, it’s been every day since losing my 2 sons. I came to see the Barbie movie as a respice from that. The woman playing with Barbie in “the real world” has been thinking about death. The movie makes the express point that for women, life is very complicated and can be painful at times. Yes, so true, but I suspect most women going to see Barbie were thinking it’d be fun, with a nice message – entertaining, an escape from the reality of what’s painful in life. But no, the filmmakers went dark. If I am in a good space and mindset to go see a dark, contemplative movie talking about the struggle of thinking about death, it’s not going to be the Barbie movie! And it just got darker from there…
    The Barbie movie went over the top, 100% made men look stupid (even the Alann doll who was trying to help them) and if left unchecked, the men become patriarchal, rude, obnoxious and subvert women. It got uncomfortable…
    There was no love represented between a man and a woman. The character from the real world had a husband, but was depicted as a buffoon. The whole film was 100% women’s independence from men.
    Back in Barbieland, the women who had become tainted by the men all got “deprogrammed” through a well-reasoned plea about womanhood (which was actually really great), but a reasoned plea wasn’t even tried on the men. No, they had to be tricked by having the women act stupid and helpless – like that’s what it takes to please a man or to get his attention. The men pout once “the party’s over” for them. There never ends up being a real reconciliation between the Kens and the Barbies. Kens are all still homeless, jobless and are told by the female President that they may get a chance to play more of a role in their society, but then she laughs along with all the other Barbies side glancing when a Ken asks if he can serve on the Supreme Court. In today’s culture, I think it’s clear why, and it’s obvious what the message being delivered by the filmmakers is – we have to rule so they can have abortions.
    The film repeatedly mocked Midge – the pregnant Barbie “ew, creepy. Who wants to see THAT?” It made the point that she was discontinued because sales weren’t good. Well, what about the transgender Barbie who was one of “stereotypical Barbie’s” inner circle friends (who had plenty of lines in the movie)? Has Mattel ever in fact tried selling transgender Barbie? I’d love to see how those sales go. Nobody wants to play with Ken in a bikini with Barbie’s bust. But they’re being 100% woke. And the movie ends anti-climactic, not with Barbie going for a job interview, discovering what important things she will do with her life, but going to a gynecologist because she’s finally a “real woman” with a vagina. Well, which is it woke Hollywood? Does having a vagina make you a real woman or can those with a penis be a real woman too?
    I highly recommend against going to see Barbie.

    https://www.facebook.com/RebeccaKiesslingProLifeSpeaker/posts/pfbid02iJq7ju1BDKFinuuCZEfjjL6CGQCjAdK6fGkcdgSKn68hsNPgYrSWaaC8r2MzFwcPl

  • Pam Adams says:

    Deb, I saw the movie yesterday and I laughed. It had a real message to our society about oppressing women, I also enjoyed the Indigo Girls song that runs a few times. It was “Closer to Fine.” I put the CD in when I got home and got in touch with them again. Thanks for motivating me to go to a movie that I originally would not have gone to. I did see Oppenheimer a few weeks ago and I loved it at a deeper level. Oppenheimer shows someone who created the bomb and afterwards rejected it..

  • Absolutely loved this review! It perfectly captures the colorful and clever essence of the Barbie movie while highlighting its meaningful moments. The way it delves into the societal dynamics portrayed in the film is spot-on, and I completely agree with the idea of cherishing the montage of ordinary women’s lives. It’s a movie that balances humor and thought-provoking elements beautifully. Can’t wait to watch it again and dissect its layers of satire and irony.

  • Clara Holtrop says:

    so…the response to injustice to women-degrading, denying, dismissing-
    is to degrade, deny, dismiss men?

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