The world according to Barbie (beware of spoilers)

Gender roles, patriarchy and more food for thought about the box office hit, the 'Barbie' movie
Come on Barbie, let's go party!
Come on Barbie, let's go party!Gomantak Times


I had no intention of seeing the Barbie movie in theatres until a particularly tough week put me in mind of seeing something light and entertaining. It promised to be even more fun when three of my girlfriends were available at the same time and we all agreed to wear something pink for the show.

I realised that this is not a movie for children when, two minutes in, a larger-than-life Barbie appeared to a group of young girls, the iconic soundtrack of Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey playing in the background. By the end of the movie, I realised that one could regard the entire thing as a superficial take on the roles of men and women in society, enjoying the costume designs, product placements and cameos of discontinued Mattel dolls with glee. Or one could pay attention to the dense layer of detail woven into every scene, and colour it with meaning.

Come on Barbie, let's go party!
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There’s a reason that this movie is a box office hit earning over 1 billion USD in just over 3 weeks since its release, and it’s not just because it’s a ninety-five minute, blindingly pink, toy commercial intended to make us buy more things.

Critics, reviewers and even fans of the Barbie doll franchise focus on one or two particular threads of the movie to talk about, from an anti-men take on the movie to focusing on the Chanel necklace placement that is now seeing a resurrection in sales.  Here’s what stood out about the movie to me.

The introduction to Barbieland at the start of the movie, while sickeningly sweet and adoringly familiar, shows that all the Barbies are in charge. There is a woman president, a few Nobel Prize laureates and a Supreme court led entirely by women.

I felt relief, ease and safety course through my body when I realised I was witnessing a world where women hold all the power. Barbies have homes of their own, financial independence and run everything. They lack self-doubt, have very high self-esteem and unreservedly support each other.

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They control money flows, meting out of justice and decide when they will pay attention to the Kens, who all live as homeless beings on the beach. In contrast, Ken is presented as a secondary, boy-toy character to Barbie, and declares that there is no him without her, thus cementing his co-dependence on her.

Conflict arises when Barbie has an existential crisis and starts to wonder about death. This triggers an imbalance in Barbieland and Barbie sets off into The Real World to put things aright. Ken stows away in Barbie’s car and when they get to Los Angeles, Barbie realises she’s not the inspiring icon of female empowerment to girls that she thought she was.

Come on Barbie, let's go party!
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Ken, on the other hand, discovers a world of respect and entitlement given to him purely because he is male. He takes what he has learned about the patriarchy back to Barbieland and brainwashes the Kens and other Barbies into submission.

When Barbie returns to Barbieland with a mother and daughter from the Real World, she feels out of place in this partiarchy until the mother from the Real World voices a monologue of impossible expectations dumped on women to be more than who they already are, stripping them from the reality that they are already more than enough.

This clarion call to the Barbies snaps them out of their oblivion and re-empowers them to reclaim their world from the Kens after manipulating them into warring with each other.

What this movie highlighted to me was that there is a huge gap between female empowerment and the traditional role of males in a world that they continue to dominate.

If I think about this in the context of binary gender roles in India, we are in a huge, challenging space of transition where neither sex has come to terms with what is required of them in this new space, or how to fully occupy it with a sense of agency.

Come on Barbie, let's go party!
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I find my male friends floundering in a space where at some level, they wonder what value they are able to add to the lives of women who are financially stable, leading self-fulfilling lives and are procreating and raising children without them. I tell these male friends that they are doing well to ask themselves this very question instead of trying to reverse something that is on an irreversible trajectory.

Women are fed up of being underpaid, overworked and made invisible. They are acknowledging that the emotional labour that has been demanded of them over decades has led to them feeling depleted at a soul level.

Come on Barbie, let's go party!
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Their bodies, sexuality and desires have been weaponised against them to the point where they’re exhausted. They are tired of cutting themselves up into pieces to conform to fixed ways of being and living in order to strive to gain something that society has told them is invaluable to them.

Now, as they enter a space of trying to heal from these things, which being truly empowered allows them to do, men are finding themselves struggling to deal with the consequences. It’s the patriarchal roles that make them suffer silently, but they have to go through their own journey of self-actualisation and empowerment to realise that, instead of blaming their intense discomfort on women.

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