Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in Barbie, a film with a message, but one that’s largely redundant, writes Alan Charlton. (OSV News photo/Warner Bros.)

Barbie’s feminism is nothing new, but entertainingly delivered

I suppose many of my gender and age have little awareness of Barbie dolls – except perhaps a shared feeling of outrage at how expensive they are when one is buying one as a gift for a little girl. That being said, I approached the movie Barbie convinced that I would be able to comprehend little of its import – and probably find it lacking in entertainment value. In fact, I found the movie to be not only entertaining, but also thought-provoking.

The plot is considerably more complex than I anticipated. One follows Barbie from the pink artifice of Barbieland to the real world (or at least as real as Venice Beach and a satirical view of the Mattel Boardroom allow) and back again to Barbieland, except that it has become Kenland. It’s a journey that is at once diverting and frequently comical – a thoroughly entertaining invention.

However, this is a film with a message – and here perhaps its clearly good intentions lead to some degree of bewilderment, for its message is largely redundant.

For example, in the opening sequence one watches Barbie and Ken cavort in the unreal plastic and make-believe realm of waterless showers, cardboard waves, and extravagant artifice. The implication is that this is all bad for the little girls (and one suspects, not a few boys) who play with the dolls, in that it is creating false expectations.

But children are far more intelligent and realistic than the film seems to give them credit for. They know when they are engaging in make-believe. I don’t think my brother and I were exceptional when as children we played with our wooden blocks – some of the few toys available to us in war-time Britain. They became trains or castles or cities to be defended against the Nazis. We knew they were wooden blocks, but our imaginations made of them a fantasy world into which we could temporarily escape and build our own dreams.

Such, I suspect, is exactly what children do as they play with their Barbie dolls. Of course, Barbie and Ken are unreal and unattainable versions of “humans” – physically, financially and in their purported daily lives. The kids know it. One only hopes that the film doesn’t make its young viewers feel embarrassed that they have engaged in Barbie’s make-believe fantasies.

Makebelieve or not, that didn’t stop Mattel from seeing a wonderful and profitable opportunity in claiming that it wanted to make sure that little girls would get better role models than that of a “dumb blonde.” Thus, the toy stores have seen a parade of Barbies that offer them the opportunity to become anything from astronauts to lawyers, doctors, or flight attendants.

Personally, I think the kids would have got that message on their own as they become more and more aware of successful career women, in their own lives and in the media. But the financial gains were undeniable for Mattel, and the company can always claim that it helped little girls fulfill their potential, whether that’s a valid claim or not. 

When Barbie and Ken go to the “real world,” their challenges are hardly a surprise to most kids today. They know that clothes really cost money. They soon learn that not everyone is good and kind. They probably recognize that the manufacturers of Barbie and Ken want to make sure that the dolls belong in boxes and are sold for great profit. They also know that not every mother-daughter relationship is always without conflict. They can already see why Barbie wants to return to Barbieland – though one can only hope that they can also see a future that is not all bad and strive towards it.

So it is that the final section of the film shows Barbie dealing with a male-dominated Kendom which has been established in her absence. This part of the story has a valid message that somehow men must accept the fact that women should play a meaningful role in society – and that men and women must respect each other and allow everyone to contribute to making things better for everyone. The film almost implies that the world should be controlled by women – which is perhaps a bridge too far.

Although this so-called “feminist” and praiseworthy movement toward sexual equality has already been made clear to young women, it’s a message that is certainly worthy of emphasis.

In the end, Barbie, entertaining as it is, is largely redundant in many of its valid messages. I realize that some children have unreal expectations, that women are still struggling for equality in a man’s world, and that children will find the transition to adult reality challenging. But Barbie doesn’t do much more than point out the obvious. 

Its saving grace is that it does it with comic invention, a talented cast (particularly in the case of Ryan Gosling as Ken), and unrelenting gusto. And who really goes to see Barbie for its message? It’s really all about the fun.

On the other hand, after hearing the loaded last line of the movie, parents had better be prepared to explain what a gynecologist is.


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