Barbie Week: The Unexpected Dysphoria of Barbie!

Journeying into the heart of self-realization, identity and societal expectations through Barbie (2023)

Gab Hernandez · September 26, 2023

6 min read

I went to watch Barbie because I didn’t want to go through uncomfortable questions about the state of humanity by watching Oppenheimer. Little did I know I’d be walking out of Barbie doing just that.

Fool that I was, I expected  Greta Gerwig to take a more chill approach to the filming of Barbie. I could not have expected the surprising depth it explores the inherent and painful silliness of society’s standards for gender.

The unexpected dysphoria that Barbie put me through was nothing short of masterful. Despite the silly premise and over-the-top characters, Barbie beautifully captures how I felt fighting against the role society set out for me.

Nothing is more frustrating for me than being judged for how I presented myself. Everything from the way I dressed, the interests I had, and the people I hung out with, all were passively judged as some sort of reflection of my entire being. Barbie takes those insecurities and shows how society twists them.

Barbie directly confronts how setting these expectations is actively harmful to our growth as individuals. Men are in a constant war to dominate each other, while women are being held to extreme standards while being provided little to no rewards for meeting said standards. 

For the incel crowd, the hilarious sequence of Ken being red-pilled is a callout of that exact kind of “alpha male” culture. It gets dismantled the moment someone starts questioning its effectiveness, showcasing how flimsy “alpha male” ideology is in practice.

That said, don’t think that knee-jerk feminists are worshiped either. For the crime of existing, Barbie is verbally ganged up on by a bunch of angry children. These kids project all of the societal ills that befell women on a dress-up doll, highlighting how ridiculous those kinds of claims are. Barbie is just a doll meant to inspire kids, and yet on her tiny shoulders, she carries the responsibility for portraying women as a whole. Even so, it’s important to note that Ken and the teenage girls are victims.

They have been pushed around by society for who they are, and so the moment they face an ideology that proudly gives them easy answers to complex problems they have, they embrace it. As a young adult barraged on all sides by the media telling me what I should be, it’s an overwhelming feeling. At the core of it, these ideologies weren’t based on a foundation of truth.

Ken doesn’t even care about the patriarchy, but because it’s the only thing that’s validated Ken for being who he is, he falls for it. The teenage girls have noble goals, but their anger is misplaced. They don’t actually hate Barbie, so much as they hate what she represents. These girls are not comfortable in their own skin, and Barbie, not looking like any of the little girls, suddenly comes up and says she “saved the world.” If Barbie saved the world, then why is everything still so awful? It’s that sort of naive cynicism that I can relate to all too well.

Barbieland and the real world are vastly different in complexity, and yet they suffer the same fundamental problems of inequality. All are based on perception and expectations. Kens just did “beach” while the Babries did just about everything else, much in the same way women are expected to be submissive while men do all the work. Obviously, the Kens have the benefit of being in a childlike wonderland with no real consequences. The real world is not so kind, and Gloria’s monologue about how hard it is to be a woman exemplifies that. Even though I knew these issues existed, hearing it said with so much pain and anguish by a woman was still uncomfortable.

Although not as intense, Ken’s monologue at the end about his own worth also hit close to home. Men, despite all the power they have, are still subject to the whims of a society bigger than they are. Expectations of who they should be, start to replace who they actually are. To not rock the boat, they just keep doing what they’ve always done because they don’t know how to do anything else. It’s Barbie and Ken. He is secondary only to a partner more successful, established, and beloved than he could ever be.

When I watched Barbie with my girlfriend, it was honestly the first time I even considered dressing up in colors that I didn’t perceive as “masculine”. I wore light gray track pants and a light pink shirt, and white shoes that were meant for ladies, but it was the best size for my dainty feet.

I jokingly told my girlfriend to wear pink too as a “couples” thing, but to be perfectly honest, I wanted someone in solidarity with me. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of standing out with what I wore unless I had a person I could point to as a “reason” for wearing pink.

I know I was being ridiculous. Queer as I may act online, those ideas of what “looks good on me” are so rooted in what I saw as boyish back in my teen years. In the “real world”, I still dress how I always have because it’s easier. All those worries were dashed when I went to the screening and saw so many other people garbed in various shades of pink.

Men, women, and everyone in between came by the dozens to watch this silly Barbie movie. None of us really expected anything more than that, and yet Barbie still hit deeper than I thought it would. A deep nostalgia hit me as I watched these naïve characters try to fix problems that are bigger than they could  ever imagine.

The end has perhaps one of the best “be yourself” lessons ever — because both Barbie and Ken realize they’re more than the roles set out for them. They manage to find purpose and agency where before they were just acting out a play they had no part in writing. 

Being yourself matters more than whatever society thinks of you.

When Barbie realized she couldn’t be “Barbie” anymore and decided to become human, it really struck close to how I realized my own dysphoria. Stripped of everything superficial I believed was “me”, I had no choice but to confront my own experiences and memories. It was then that I realized it was never as simple as being a “man” or “woman.”

It was realizing I was just me.

Gab Hernandez is a writer who spends way too much time talking about movies instead of watching more of them. Naturally, they decided to make a career out of it. With works published in esteemed art magazines such as DocumentJournal and mainstream publications such as ScreenRant, Gab is certainly justifying all that time spent with eyes glued to the screen. You can find their latest works and nifty portfolio on Twitter @HardlyWorkinGab

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