Unlike the bubbly animated Barbie films, the 2023 live-action Barbie starring Margot Robbie puts a millennial spin on the classic doll. While fairly family-friendly, inside jokes and cultural references aim this Barbie at adults who grew up with the toy icon. The film plays with nostalgia to draw in viewers based on childhood familiarity, an example of media theorist Henry Jenkins’ “affective economics.”
The theme of female empowerment is hammered home, portraying a dichotomy between Barbie’s perfectionistic Barbieland and the flawed real world run by men. This simplistic narrative device leans into the power fantasy of girls dominating every space, rather than depicting more complex gender dynamics. Barbie smashes the “glass ceiling” by leaning into tired tropes of girl power consumerism.
However, the humor and visual style partially compensate for the lack of nuance, at least initially. Clever musical cues like a rap remix of Aqua’s 90s hit “Barbie Girl” energize the first half. The tongue-in-cheek songs highlight the film’s playful irony, though the self-referentiality wears thin over time. Media scholar Robert Goldman would categorize this as an example of pastiche in postmodern media.
As the plot becomes increasingly didactic, the film loses steam. Barbie awkwardly transitions from laughs to life lessons, going into full corporate indoctrination mode. According to communication theorist Jean Kilbourne, Barbie acts as a vehicle for Mattel to sell not just toys but an entire “way of life” to young girls. While fun at times, the film ultimately serves as a glitzy, girl-powered ad for the Barbie brand.
The film employs some clever reversals, like portraying the Mattel CEO as an initial villain who later becomes an ally. When Barbie is first cast out of the seemingly perfect Barbieland, the CEO comes across as cold and conformist, committed to maintaining Barbie’s image at all costs. However, he eventually warms to Barbie’s real-world messiness, a heavy-handed attempt to portray Mattel as flexible and supportive of diversity. The CEO’s redemption arc sanitizes Mattel’s corporate interests, casting the company as a benevolent father figure rather than a driving force of cultural conformity.
This Simplistic portrayal extends to the brief Ken takeover of Barbieland. When the Kens copy Barbie’s world without understanding it, they create a dystopian nightmare highlighting the incompetence of male leadership. Barbieland is saved when Barbie returns and ousts the bumbling Kens. While seemingly a bold girl power statement, this plot device sets up an absurd binary where women effortlessly outshine men in every arena. Scholar Rosalind Gill argues that this postfeminist mentality promotes the myth of female superiority while ignoring real systemic barriers women face.
In contrast, Ryan Gosling adds nuance to his himbo caricature Ken. Ken’s journey toward self-acceptance, including realizing he’s “#kenough” just as he is, provides the film’s rare thoughtful moments. Gosling lends his Ken a tongue-in-cheek charisma that mildly subverts but mostly embraces the character’s vanity and vapidness. While Barbie sees personal growth, Ken’s arc resonates more as an anthem for self-love over societal ideals. For once, the film hints at introspection beyond its plastic worldview.
In the end, Barbie only subverts stereotypes within safe parameters. It critiques unrealistic beauty standards in order to sell more Barbies. The film challenges some notions of gender while reinforcing the primacy of female consumerism. Media researcher Sarai Reader would contend that the “commodity feminism” on display is more liberal than liberating. The result is a movie that comments on pop culture as much as it promotes traditional values of capitalism and materialism.
So see Barbie for the humor and charm. But leave inspired to create media that enlightens instead of merely entertains. Now that would be true girl power.