The Barbenheimer Phenomenon: A Global Cinematic Spectacle
The Barbenheimer phenomenon that unfolded globally on 21st July, 2023, was marketed to be a great time at the cinemas, especially after the pandemic. On one hand, we were being served a spectacle of filmmaking by five times Academy Award-nominated director, Christopher Nolan, about a historical figure, who built a bomb to fight fascism. On the other hand, our childhood symbol of “fascism” (yeah, that’s a word used in the film to describe Barbie) was finally being redeemed and given her own feminist retelling by two times Academy Award-nominated director, Greta Gerwig and her partner, Noah Baumbach.
The brilliant marketing that propelled Barbie into a cultural phenomenon has undeniably yielded impressive results. The global box office data, just a week after the release of the two films, leaves no doubt that Barbie emerged victorious in this highly influential gendered battle right from the start. The response has been overwhelming, with people from all corners of the world showing up in theatres by donning various shades of pink and fashionable outfits. It was a heartwarming sight as individuals proudly reclaimed their childhood memories and celebrated the unapologetic representation of femininity that the colour pink symbolises.
Barbieland: A Revolutionary Toyland Empowering Girls to Embrace Femininity
With an ode to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Barbie” (2023) begins with a powerful shot showcasing Barbie as a revolutionary toy, empowering young girls to embrace their femininity. The scene slowly pans into a full Barbieland setup where we see Barbies (inclusive in their representation of femininity across borders, sexuality, and body shapes) doing everything. Everything, quite literally. They venture into space, win Nobel Prizes, excel as doctors, and rule as DJs. Meanwhile, Kens are portrayed as mere accessories in Barbieland, spending their time idly on the beach, beaching. Patriarchy as a concept doesn’t exist here, and President Barbie is ruling the land, showing signs of a matriarchal setup, where no one is treated violently.
Gerwig, in one of her interviews, is known to have said that the Barbie Dreamhouse Production Design (headed by Sarah Greenwood) was meant to attract everyone in such a way that they are compelled to grab one of those toys off the screen, and have it in their closet. No wonder the Barbie Dreamhouse shots really want to make you want to own everything presented on the screen.
That is, until, the perfect high heels and arched feet of stereotypical Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) fall flat on the ground, and she starts having thoughts about death. This prompts her to embark on a journey of self-discovery in the Real World, followed by Ken (played by Ryan Gosling).
Feminist Retelling or Missed Opportunity? Examining the Storytelling Twist
The storytelling twist occurs when Barbie becomes a victim of the male gaze in the real world, while Ken realises that patriarchy is the order of the day and is about horses. In their reversed roles, both Barbie and Ken navigate the real world for a while, before coming back to Barbieland. What follows is Ken’s owning of patriarchal attitudes, narrowly defined by a men-rule-the-world half-baked storyline and Barbie’s existential crisis amidst Kens’ patriarchal chaos where she feels she is not good enough.
Oh, and if the very meaning of feminist retelling was not clear to the makers of the film, the barbie dolls were objectified in their own story to clarify the meaning of mansplaining, being inspired by a feminism-for-beginners speech by stereotypical Barbie’s human from the real world—Gloria (played by America Ferrera), a full-time working woman (at Mattel), who has a daughter, Sasha, (played by Ariana Greenblatt) who dislikes Barbie. Barbie, terrified of cellulite and Birkenstocks, choosing to become a Real Woman™ was supposed to pack a punch, but Ruth Handler’s speech on existence and humanity seems to have been whipped up from the teenage angst of a sixteen-year-old’s journal, and it failed to do so.
The Illusion of Inclusivity
The idea that the film is for everyone, irrespective of age, gender, or race, falls short on various levels of inclusivity, beginning from, let’s say, class distinctions. If Greta Gerwig’s previous two films [Lady Bird and Little Women] weren’t enough to give you an idea of the broad themes working in her filmography, Barbie becomes the third film to concentrate on feminism that deals with the idea of motherhood—a mother’s need to be recognised as a woman who is enough. Even so, within the purview of age, gender, race, or sexuality, the lack of sufficient character development hinders the exploration of meaningful depth in portraying truly inclusive feminism, because a woman, at the end of the day, it seems, is all about her reproductive organs—evident in the last scene of the film where the first thing that Barbie does, after taking the human form, is visit a gynaecologist.
For a film that couldn’t stop raving about feminism and womanhood (and girlhood) (and motherhood), Barbie had a very hollow view of it all. Every plot point was teased, never to be explored. Gloria and Sasha’s relationship could have been the emotional crux of the film, but Sasha’s semi-reconciliation with her mother feels unearned in the light of not knowing where their core differences stem from. Is it teenage rebellion, is it generational trauma or are Sasha and Gloria inherently different people unable to grasp their individuality where the world expects them to just be daughter and mother; I do not know, and, neither does the film.
Barbieland vs. Kendom: Subtle Commentary on Gender Ideologies
There is a very un-subtle commentary on how Barbieland was pink and clean and nice and not dismissive of the Kens, who were just there, while Kendom was a raging mess of unorganised ideas and messy ideologies. I could imagine wet towels on the floor, an eerie dampness clinging to the air, and a smell resembling the room of a young boy who has stepped out for the first time in life, and doesn’t know what to do with this newfound independence or raging hormones. It wouldn’t take too much for anyone to believe that Kendom smelled of stale beer and cheap weed. Kendom did not leave women to just be there, doing their own thing, that’s not what the patriarchy is. It turned them into maidservants for these boys, all these different women with different expressions and presentations dressed alike, submitting to the male gaze, dumbing themselves down for them, cleaning after them, deferential to them; demure, docile, obedient. Subservient, subservient, subservient.
However, in their bid to make feminism sound all-inclusive, the filmmakers spent too much time rescuing a man from toxic masculinity instead of giving a fair share to women in their very own fight against patriarchy. The fact that Barbie is actually made to apologise to Ken is an irony that no one bothered to take out from the story, because hey, even men are victims of patriarchy. So, after watching Barbie, if you find yourself leaving the theatre, humming “I’m Just Ken,” then congratulations, you’ve experienced the unexpected charm of Ken’s character—Kennergy—overshadowing Barbie in a movie that was primarily intended to focus on her (quite literally, given the title). Ken’s identity crisis deserved to be a separate film, not because it felt tonally different from the film we expected Barbie to be, but also because the film is called Barbie, full stop. Men’s egos are coddled and their issues highlighted all the time in the real world, the last place that needed to emulate that was Barbieland.
Shruti is a blahcksheep who can be found reading fiction sometimes, romanticising Dilli most of the time, and bashing trash men [read All Men] all the time. She writes about women in history, and her words have been published in Frontline, Feminism in India, and Writing Women. She also runs a book club. You can follow her on Instagram @bookishruti.