A sea of pink, “Hi Barbie!” being excitedly shouted between strangers and Aqua’s 1997 “Barbie Girl” being hummed in the back of excited minds. This was the scene on streets and thousands of movie theatres around the world on Friday July 21st, as one of the world’s most anticipated films of the year was released to global audiences.

Released within a cinematic event for the history books itself, dubbed “Barbenheimer” where Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie battled it out for the top spot at the box office, Barbie became a piece of film history and an unexpected vessel for female empowerment.

Barbie from Warner Brothers. Image courtesy of Game Revolution

Who would have thought, a film about one of the world’s most popular toys, a doll entrenched in a dichotomy of female empowerment and unrealistic beauty standards for young children, would become a rallying point for female audiences, a unifying piece of media that would unequivocally make female audiences feel genuinely seen on such a large scale. Wrapped neatly in its pink box inside its dream house and utopia “Barbie Land,” Barbie not only dominated the box office, where Gerwig scored the highest ever opening for a film directed by a woman, but also widely dispersed a message for the advocation of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Gender Equality.

Following the story of the iconic “Barbie” doll created in 1959 by Ruth Handler for Mattel, Gerwig’s Barbie takes Barbie outside the dreamscape that is “Barbie Land” and into the real world, where reality for women is much different than what the dolls experience.

The first twenty minutes of Barbie reflects much of what the infamous doll brings to mind when thought of at face value. A pretty blonde Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, living in a dreamscape, where women fill the highest and most powerful jobs and where no societal constraints are placed on women. Also a host of Kens, living in a dim-witted world where men are “just ken,” a mere afterthought in the importance of daily life, with no real attention ever paid to them.

Still from Barbie from Warner Brothers. Image courtesy of US Weekly

Although those who may have anticipated a full two hours of a silly, fun and laid-back movie where Barbie and Ken, played by Ryan Gosling, frolicked along the white sand beaches of Barbie Land, similar to that of the opening of the film, may have been disappointed, as the next hour and half of the film switches gears entirely.

As Barbie finds herself losing her “perfect” Barbie qualities, with the emergence of thoughts of death, cellulite and flat feet, Barbie is tasked with entering the real world to find the girl her doll is connected to and make her happy once more, a mission that would see Barbie’s malfunctions corrected.

Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken in Barbie. Image courtesy of Elle Magazine.

Barbie soon discovers that the real world proves much different from Barbie Land. Arriving in the real world Barbie experiences the objectification of her body, gender inequality in corporations, the existence of the patriarchy and the sheer difficulty of being a woman in a society dominated by men. This is where the film first begins to slowly take on the advocation for gender equality. Barbie herself is no longer the knight in pink armour that she believes herself to be for women across the world, instead she is humbled by teen Sasha, played by Ariana Greenblatt, who explains to Barbie that the doll has set the feminism movement back years and has destroyed self-esteem and self-image for women all over.

Taking it a step further, Gerwig seamlessly explores the patriarchy in layman’s terms, essentially providing a feminism 101 class by utilizing all the “Kens.” With Ken returning to Barbie Land and attempting to implement patriarchy in such simple manners, with the dismantling of Barbie Land’s all female government, the reduction of women into objects, the colonization of Barbie Houses and the description of what is like to be a woman in a relationship with a typical patriarchal man, Gerwig succinctly and with such comedic relief breaks down the foundations of patriarchy and the inequalities of women. The many facets of patriarchy can often be so difficult to fully break down in the real world, yet Gerwig’s use of the Kens to represent patriarchy creates an intensely simple and digestible version of what we see in the real world every day.

Ryan Gosling as Ken in Barbie from Warner Brothers. Image courtesy of The Mary Sue

Breaking the metaphorical fourth wall and becoming introspective and self-aware, Gerwig takes on the task of not only fully highlighting the inequality and hardships that women in the real-world face at the hands of men and our larger society, but also how the film’s titular character has seemingly only worsened these plights for real-life women.

Cast of Barbie from Warner Brothers. Image courtesy of People Magazine.

It’s no secret that the real-world when it comes to women’s rights or even their everyday lives. With the U.S. Supreme Court, which is dominated by male justices, overturning abortion rights in 2022, with women still making on 87 cents on the dollar in comparison to male counterparts, with lacking access to education for young girls and with a disproportionate rate of sexual and physical violence plaguing women across the world, society is far from gender equality. This is something that Gerwig’s Barbie goes to extraordinary lengths to portray, but what is even more surprising is that the film doesn’t only aim to point out these failures within society but goes a step further to use a historically problematic and unrealistic doll to push past failures and establish some semblance of equality.

Historically, Barbie, as a doll, fits in awkwardly within feminism. Occupying a space between female empowerment, where women have their own houses, money and any career they want, and unrealistic expectations for women, with 45 per cent of women stating they compare their bodies to dolls and 82 per cent stating that Barbies portray “unrealistic body expectations to girls and women,” Barbie has seemingly done more damage than good for women in the real-world.

Gerwig’s film recognizes this, experiencing an existential breakdown at the hands of her own unrealistic standards, the titular Barbie is forced to come together with human Gloria, played by America Ferrera, to transform herself from an unrealistically perfect and beautiful doll into a champion for gender equality and women’s rights in Barbie Land. Utilizing all the “Kens,” Gerwig

Ferrera’s impassioned speech shining light on the unrealistic and never-ending list of standards that women are consistently and constantly held to within society, is the turning point of the film. Going through the wildly unrealistic expectations of female body image and characteristics, while delving into the difficultly of being a mother and the difficulty of attempting to work and be independent, Ferrera’s speech nails nearly every single thing that makes it so difficult to be a woman, whether a single woman, a young woman, an older woman, a mother, a wife, a girlfriend or an employee. A point in which the film no longer acts as a depiction of the hardships of women, but instead as catalyst for gender equality. A point in which the audience sees Barbie Land freed from Ken’s short-lived patriarchy and meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Gender Equality.

Ariana Greenblatt (left) as Sasha and America Ferrera (right) as her mother Gloria in Barbie. Image courtesy of People Magazine.

Gerwig’s Barbie is much more than a colourful comedy featuring a beloved doll. It is a film that takes on one of the world’s most pressing issues, wraps it neatly in a nostalgic pink box with colourful dance numbers, sets and costumes easily digestible for the masses and goes to work on not only exposing, but also dismantling the patriarchy.

In the end, Barbie may have solved all “problems of feminism” in Barbie Land, but in the real-world it seems that as a film, Barbie will have to stand still and wait to see if its impacts will have women looking back at how far they’ve come.

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