‘Barbie’ review: A sharp comedy that takes aim at the patriarchy and consumerism
Margot Robbie in 'Barbie.'

This review was published during the historic SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes. People’s World acknowledges that film and television would not be possible without the workers who make it happen. We stand in solidarity with the strike and the workers.

The new film Barbie isn’t a takedown or an exact subversion of the doll that is its namesake. Rather, it uses the role and influence the toy has had over the decades to take on the oppression of women, the patriarchal system that enables it, and the commodification of ideas. It’s a lot to try and pack into the nearly two-hour film—which is also a comedy—and still manage to keep the laughs coming while effectively getting its messaging across. For the most part, though, Barbie achieves this feat. It doesn’t completely stick every landing, but the fun ride of the film is adventurous enough that most viewers won’t mind some of the minor shortcomings.

The fantasy-comedy film directed by Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), from a screenplay she wrote with Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), tells the story of a universe where there is the “real world” in addition to a dimension called “Barbie Land.” The land of Barbie is very different from the real world. In this alternative dimension, Barbies—women—are fully in charge. They hold the important roles in government, media, medicine, and other careers often dominated by men in the real world.

They’re not bogged down by marriage or children, and they’re allowed to come in all shapes, sizes, and races, without prejudice or oppression. The Barbies never grow old, and every day is a great day. Kens—the men—understand that their role is simply to support the Barbies, yet they play no actual important parts in any of the fields that the Barbies dominate. They are there to be handsome, good friends, and loyal boyfriends.

The main plot of the film arises when stereotypical Barbie (played wonderfully by Margot Robbie) starts having thoughts of death and other ideas not usually experienced by Barbies in Barbie Land. She now must embark on a quest in the real world to figure out why she’s having these thoughts and feelings. Yet, unbeknownst to those in Barbie Land, the real world is nothing like their dimension. Cue the clash of ideas and ideologies.

The film is at its strongest when challenging patriarchy, women’s oppression, and consumerism head on. The comedy is very self-aware, as shots are fired against the ridiculous notions of a male-dominated society where women are constantly oppressed even though they make up half of the population. Robbie’s Barbie being completely confused as to why the men are the ones running things in the real world serves as a sharp contrast to how normalized the subjugation of women has become. Viewers will laugh at her reactions, but hopefully they, too, may wonder why there isn’t enough repulsion in our own world at just how much women are treated as second-class citizens.

Mind you, all of this is done with the overarching tone of comedy. Fortunately, that doesn’t dull the sharpness of the commentary. It all still packs a nice punch that may ruffle some feathers in the audience. The film as a whole is self-aware, and therefore subtlety is pretty much thrown out the window. Some may consider many of the speeches and dialogue to be “preachy” at moments, but this critic believes the dialogue is well-placed enough to not feel unnecessarily heavy-handed.

Consumerism is also critiqued, perhaps not as much as patriarchy, but it is definitely in there. The idea that everything can be commodified under capitalism —including so-called feminist empowerment—is addressed. This is perhaps where the role of Barbie as a toy is tackled a bit, although not as harshly. It’s not as cut and dry, because there is a nuance to how Barbie—the female doll allowed to be whoever she wants to be—can be empowering, yet also oppressive when it comes to enforcing idealized notions of beauty and body image.

What brings the big laughs in the film is the Ken sub-plot that Ryan Gosling leads with great comedic timing and vulnerability. It can be easy to dismiss the pink-saturated Barbie as a film solely geared towards women. Often, too many subscribe to the idea that dealing with the oppression of women is something only women can be interested in. Barbie thankfully doesn’t go that route. Although highly hilarious, Ken’s subplot isn’t just comic relief. It masterfully takes on toxic masculinity and spotlights the positive role men can play in resisting propaganda praising the patriarchy.

The film has a fun Hollywood larger-than-life flair, but it also, at key moments, maintains the intimacy that is usually the domain of smaller independent films. This probably has much to do with director Gerwig’s style, as many of her previous films do well with giving the characters introspective moments and space to explore their emotions.

With all that said, the film’s only main shortcoming is the uneven development of its character arcs. There are some characters for whom we get clear development and earned transformations. Others don’t seem to get the same treatment, and unfortunately, some of their later choices feel rushed and unearned with a lack of buildup. A few plot points somehow get tied up with a nice neat bow when the film spent so much time making it clear that nothing in this world is ever so easy and polished. Seems like a contradiction, but life is full of them in general, so we can forgive Barbie for it.

Overall, Barbie is a fun film that engages with themes extremely relevant to our current time. It does so with fun and biting commentary combined with big Broadway-like energy. Viewers will laugh, cry, and perhaps even revisit their Barbie collections if they have any.

Pay no attention to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s claim that the film is “Chinese communist propaganda.” The propaganda this film takes on (and, in a way, takes down) is the idea that a world filled with inequality, oppression, and exploitation benefits anyone but the people at the very top. That alone makes it worth the watch.

Barbie opens in theaters July 21, 2023.

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Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.