Barbie Week: Life Can Still Be Fantastic!
Reconciling between girlhood and womanhood with Barbie (2023)
Kassandra Phung · September 25, 2023
6 min read
I can’t recall when Barbie stopped being my friend, and started being my competition.
Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is quick to point this out to Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) at their first encounter. Asserting that Barbie has pushed feminism back 50 years due to her unrealistic beauty standards, Barbie is faced with the harsh truth of the real world, a juxtaposition to the world of Barbieland where women are not only capable of anything, but are also in charge of everything. Kens on the other hand…well, they don’t really matter, as exemplified by Ken’s (Ryan Gosling) job title: beach.
The movie’s premise revolves around Barbie’s sudden “defects.” From thoughts of death, to flat feet, Barbie encounters real world “imperfections” and is determined to find her owner in the real world to “fix it.” Ken tags along of course, only to feel empowered by the patriarchy of our reality. In fact, as Barbie returns to Barbieland with Sasha and her mother, Gloria (America Ferrera), Barbie finds that Ken has turned Barbieland to Kendom Land. Here, the power of Barbies have not only been subverted, but Barbies have become subject to the Kens— something the Kens were never put through in Barbieland, because even in a world where women ruled, men still had agency. And whilst there’s a lot more to state about the portrayal of patriarchy in the movie, I don’t think that that is where Barbie shined brightest.
I think Barbie defined itself as a classic in its perfect portrayal of girlhood, and more importantly, the pains of leaving girlhood. Barbie’s turbulent journey is a reflection of every girl’s lived (or to-be-lived) reality. Defined by our sudden self-awareness and disappointment in our place in society, leaving girlhood is akin to Barbie leaving Barbieland. Barbie grapples with reality the same way girls do as they grow up. I remember a time when I was, and maybe I still am, Sasha— resentful of the fantasy we were sold. We wake up one morning, just as Barbie did, to discover our socially engineered flaws and the ways we should fix them. A perpetual house of mirrors, with every turn bringing a new distortion to our sense of self, our mere existence became synonymous with damnation; a damned if we do, damned if we don’t world.
So do we remain complacent to societal pressures, or do we attempt to rebel against them? Perhaps many of us chose to walk the fine line that separated the two. I remember recognizing the rejection of femininity within our society as a young girl, and as such, within myself as a young woman. Subconsciously or not, I’ve carefully tiptoed along some imaginary tightrope of an “acceptable” femininity, hyper aware of the ways I allowed myself to be perceived. And I’m sure I’m not alone in all of this. Between terms like “pick me girls,” and “bimbos,” misogyny remains culturally entrenched in the ways in which we perceive femininity, or the rejection of it. Sasha was right in saying that men hate women, women hate women, and it’s the one thing we can all agree on— because womanhood ultimately feels like a never-ending uphill battle to hate ourselves a little less. Gloria’s poignant monologue addresses this issue, and the extent as to which these distortions have permeated into everything a woman is, or could be.
But something truly special survives in Barbie, despite all of reality’s confounding chaos. A sort of resilience, or perhaps clarity, Barbie chooses to be a woman instead of returning to a restored Barbieland. Though, in order for Barbie to truly make this decision, the creator of Barbie, Ruth Handler (Rhea Pearlman), gives Barbie a glimpse into what being human is really like. In what I can best describe to be the feeling of girlhood turned womanhood, set to the music of Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For,” the most beautiful montage of girls and women plays. It was like the salty breeze from a warm summer’s past, or a wafting scent of my mother’s old perfume. An unexpected warmth, it was like coming home, except I didn’t know I had been searching for the door. This for me, was the highlight of Barbie.
What was I made for? What were we made for?
What did it mean to be a woman in our reality? The montage felt like a homage to our lost innocence because somewhere between then, and now, I think many women, like myself, stopped living and started running. I let myself slip through my fingers and get lost in the passages of time—frozen in melancholic nostalgia because womanhood isn’t what we had dreamed of. But how many days will I spend running to a past I cannot return to? I stared at the screen and felt both myself, and the little girl I lost somewhere along the way, reconcile amongst the rubble of childhood fantasy. A time when I had dreamed of everything I could be, not everything I should be, which became apparent very quickly that it was everything and nothing all at once. And just like that, girlhood turned womanhood is like watching all the stars in the night sky burn out so quickly, we can’t remember what it was like to have once seen them shine.
Criticisms of Barbie often center Gerwig’s oversimplification of the very complex and nuanced discussion of patriarchy and feminism, but I beg to differ. The ivory towers of academia often gatekeep these discussions with jargon and theories unpalatable for a mainstream audience, let alone the obvious audience for Barbie: young girls. By no means did Gerwig reinvent feminism, but I highly doubt she ever intended to. The beauty of Barbie, and film in general, is its ability to transform complicated issues into something we can feel—the same way Gerwig’s montage profoundly impacted me without having any dialogue at all. I think Barbie provided the stepping stone for women, of all ages and all backgrounds, to better understand ourselves, because ironically, in all its plastic and all its fantasy, Barbie managed to reconcile in me the intrinsic human condition of growing up. I can only hope that those who were left confused about Barbie’s message find it in themselves to truly feel what the movie has to offer.
Barbie evoked in me all the hope I had as a girl, and as a young woman with a lot more to learn, I look forward to picking up the pieces of myself I once tried so hard to destroy. I think it’s time to reclaim that night sky of fizzled out dreams, because if Barbie is everything, so am I.
Kassandra Phung is a cinephile from Malaysia who is currently a junior from Brandeis University, MA. If she isn’t busy slaving over her chemistry homework, she’s probably in her dorm reviewing another movie on Letterboxd. Find her @kassandraphung on Instagram.
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