credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Barbie (2023) ***

I try to give movies a pass on how enfranchised they are within a system because, well, when I say “a system” I mean “more or less reality,” which is just our society and government and etcetera. Movies are expensive and big-budget flicks only get made when they please the people with the money. People with money like the system, you see, because the system has made sure they have money. That’s just how the whole thing works!

I will try to give movies a pass on failures of inclusion too. Generally, if a movie isn’t inclusive, you don’t *want* it to be. Not all writers are cut out for writing inclusivity. See: The Proposal including characters of Tlingit descent via Ryan Reynolds and Betty White.

But when a story directly engages with The System the way Barbie (2023) does, you really have to judge it on that level. You gotta have a paranoid reading about the way that The System influenced its creation, creator, marketing, and the audience.

If we don’t talk about late-stage capitalism in regards to Barbie, you might as well try to talk about Orange is the New Black without talking about lesbians, or Mona Lisa Smile without talking about lesbians, or U-Haul without talking about lesbians. You’re just missing the whole point. And usually lesbians!


Actually let’s talk lesbians for a second.

Have you ever seen a more sublime portrayal of fated mates on the screen as when Barbie and America Ferrera’s eyes met for the first time?

Those two are *connected*. Whole ass red thread of fate. Their souls recognize one another.

Ferrera’s character is also married to a man who is essentially a Ken, but I guess the queerest thing about this movie (besides a mouth-frothingly attractive Ncuti Gatwa) is the acknowledgment that Straight Business Women are allowed to acquire men for sperm reasons and then just kind of let them beach around the house or whatever.

I’m 100% convinced Barbie and Ferrera’s character end up together, coparenting their daughter, and I’m not interested in any other readings.


Since Barbie was one of the most popular movies of the year, I won’t try to sum it up. The plot is not exactly important. Plot here is a scaffold that interconnects thematic vignettes about Barbie, Ken, patriarchy, and/or admittedly great Barbie product jokes. Plot is how we get Barbie on a bench with a beautiful old woman while Ken is trying to perform surgery; the movie is about the beautiful old woman and the surgery more than how the characters arrived in those positions.

I guess you could say, on a meta level, Plot is the Ken and “vibes about gender from a wealthy white American woman” is the real Barbie.

Ultimately, we spend a lot of time working on a fairly simple thesis statement.

This is the thrust of Barbie: Being a woman in a patriarchy is difficult, and if we acknowledge it, it’s way easier to function intelligently.

Most of the movie sticks to the beginning part of the thesis.

“Being a woman in a patriarchy is difficult.”

That’s hard to disagree with, and the stylized story is confident you will agree. Most everyone can sympathize with it.

The movie falters reaching its conclusion about how this should be handled. Women are brought back into the fold of sisterhood and anti-patriarchy by recognizing the conflict inherent in womanity.

But like, that’s it?

My brain started shouting “opiate of the masses” when I realized that the not-so-revolutionary conclusion of this was for basically nothing to change or improve. We’re just supposed to see the problem. And now it’s not better, but I guess it’s good enough?

Given that Mattel makes plenty of money in The System, there’s no way that it could have been more subversive, which really highlights the conflict at the core of Barbie. The thing is, Barbie also tries to frame this conflict as a feature rather than a bug. Trying to tell a revolutionary story about patriarchy in the constraints of the patriarchy is deeply uncomfortable, so you’re supposed to revel in that, I guess.

Someone like Greta Gerwig has surely made way more compromises than we’ve seen in Barbie to reach her accomplishments, and of course she wants The System to persist. It’s rewarding her. She just wishes being a woman in America’s high caste wasn’t so annoying sometimes.

“I see you,” Greta Gerwig says into the mirror. “You’re having a really hard time succeeding in this patriarchy, Greta. You are succeeding, though.” Hashtag girlboss.


I wouldn’t even talk about it if Mattel hadn’t already given us Barbie material I prefer.

The gonzo, almost dadaist humor of Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse is my personal favorite. It’s definitely designed for the YouTube iPad generation of kids. Go check it out on YouTube, sincerely; the jokes flash by at the speed of memes in a show formatted somewhat like an especially silly reality show.

Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse gave me an outstanding Ken who I just adored. As the only mechanic who seems even willing to engage with the whole shlonpoofa issue, he’s engineered everything cool the Dreamhouse has, and he’s amazing at enabling Barbie.

Thanks to this Ken, and my own army of gay Kens when I was a kid, Ken was *never* “just Ken” to me, which made me really bounce off of the characterization of Ken by Ryan Gosling. I found his performance near-unwatchable, which I assume is entirely personal preference, possibly because I’m so offended by making Ken a brainless slimeball when we know he’s so good with cars and Barbie’s robot closet.

Anyway, there wasn’t a page of Barbie (2023) that was half as revolutionary as Barbie as The Princess and the Pauper, which took Mattel’s permission to use Barbie’s likeness and dived head-first into a plot that wasn’t joking around about caste. Literally, Princess Barbie realizes the caste issues in her kingdom and starts changing it by the end. Realistic? Nah. But it’s so much more subversive than anything I spent my time squinting discontentedly at for the last couple hours.


The feminism Barbie features is one mostly concerning to a caste of American high enough to actually *buck* traditional gender roles. Binary gender is enforced by violence. If you’re outside that binary, like being a male fashion doll, we already know this isn’t a story about people economically vulnerable to such violence. The idealized men paralleling Barbie are allowed to have feminine qualities, but remain wealthy. That’s the lack of inclusivity in Barbie: a lack of money.

If you have enough money to buy a Barbie doll, but especially if you have enough money to care about historic Barbie dolls and their clothes, you can be included in this movie too.

Again, pointing back to earlier in my review, I wouldn’t even mention it if the movie were not about The System (it’s a toy! brand! movie!), and American capitalism predominantly divides its castes by wealth at this point. The problems of the ruling class are not the problems of everyone else. The concerns of Mattel executives are extremely obvious in this toy movie, but they would really prefer if you think it’s about gender, actually. Do you see how revolutionary they are about gender?

Gender stuff is not radical here. An excessive amount of time is spent on Ken’s personal arc, and my sibling argues that the Kens in general have a far more interesting and more concrete plotline than Barbie herself does. I got a real feeling of “feminism is also worrying about the men <3” and it’s like. You guys. We are *not* far enough in A Feminism where we need to worry about men being marginalized. Not even in a metaphoric sense.

Ultimately, as we all know, this is a movie meant to sell toys, and here Barbie has done a whole lot of work and spent a lot of money and monologued a lot of words in order to make it look thoughtful enough to sell toys to people who weren’t buying them enough.


It kinda raises the question: Why in the world bother engaging with The System if you’re not going to have anything real to say about fixing the pinch points? Why wouldn’t you have the most glancing thought about how gender disparity is always about wealth and who is allowed to have it? What kind of opiate of the masses nonsense is “seeing you”?

That’s not a rhetorical question meant to make a point! I have an answer.

There’s nothing capitalism won’t monetize, and that includes criticism of itself. In fact, the media environment means there are more people engaging with media *intelligently* than ever, and folks can’t be assuaged as easily by the same ol, same ol. You gotta get to the next level. If the people love meta material analyzing capitalism, then they will surely love to buy meta material criticizing capitalism. It’s just not allowed to have any real teeth.

Barbie really had critics *frothing* over its level of self-aware meta, which means Mattel and Gerwig hit the sweet spot perfectly.

As my sibling said, the snake eats its tail.


The conclusion that I arrived at is that Barbie is deeply nihilistic.

There is nothing better than this, you see. You can live in the toy land and pretend everything is fine, or you can grow old and die. Either way, we see you! We see your struggles. We see you, and that is it. Beginning, middle, end.

Ideas and brands live forever.

Barbie’s got blinders on, and it loves it that way. Don’t you? Gosh, I should really pull my old Totally Hair Barbie out of the attic. I’d love to buy a Weird Barbie. I’ll grab one on my way home from the gyno.


You’ll note I still gave the movie three stars, even though I’ve written *cough cough* number of words criticizing it. Three stars is pretty warm tbh, considering that the movie is in opposition with my personal values in many ways and I found its pacing uneven.

It’s got some really funny moments. Ken’s song is genuinely good. I would never complain about the art direction. There are so many performances I adore, like President Barbie. I am smitten with the transition between worlds forever. Can I do it a few times?

Plus, Alan is my favorite queer inclusion in the movie. A male doll wearing the pink jumpsuit and conspiring with the Barbies?

There’s real heart to this, even if the heart exists in a bleak wasteland, and that’s kinda relatable.

Gerwig has stated (to paraphrase her) that she really fully plans on succeeding in The Man’s World, and Barbie not only furthers that goal for her, but also serves as another stepping stone in the Margot Robbie Girlboss Turns Big IP Feminist Journey. Which is…interesting? Deeply unappealing to me but kind of compelling? I guess what I’m saying is, I’d still rather have another Greta Gerwig movie to chew over, frowny-faced, than a Zack Snyder movie. Hashtag girlboss.

But I find the limitations of Barbie so bleak, it was actively unpleasant to watch sometimes. Like I think they would have made this movie on Ferenginar without feeling bad about anything, you know? (If you don’t know what I mean, it’s a Star Trek reference. I’m sorry.) Realizing that the misery wasn’t really going to go anywhere just made it feel grim. It felt self-conscious more than self-aware. They didn’t even show Barbie and America Ferrera kissing, and there were *so* many opportunities.

There’s a lotta cheap representation, but at least this one was well-made cheap representation that actually paid marginalized actors to depict their own representation.

There’s a lot of value in being a movie worth discussing.

So as a movie-lover, it’s not a movie I want (my takeaway was unpleasant), but I think it holds an interesting place as a mirror reflecting the time-and-place of America in 2023, and it’s interesting to me as a reviewer (I love analyzing!). I appreciate seeing something made with effort and intent. I’m probably never going to watch it again.

(image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

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