KuelLife Logo home 1000

What Did The Blockbuster Barbie Movie Say To You?

The barbie movie

Positive Aging Thought Leader: Maria Leonard Olsen

The summer blockbuster movie Barbie was a satire disguised in sugar.

It was more than a fun musical aimed at the millions of young pink-clad fans who filled theaters across the globe. The vividly-hued, witty display of fabulous women and lackluster men scored points across age groups, and sparked dialogue about feminism, gender relations, men’s lingering antiquated notions about women, and capitalism. It promoted girl power. Even the movie’s promotional posters declared, “She’s everything. He’s just Ken.”

The Barbie Movie:

The first Barbie doll debuted in 1959. When Barbie came to life on the big screen in 2023, the movie surpassed $1 billion in global ticket sales in just weeks. 

The Barbie movie, starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as the famous doll couple Barbie and Ken, is generating Oscar buzz. Director Greta Gerwig assembled a dream team of A-list actors to populate “Barbieworld”. And pop stars to perform the movie’s songs. The soundtrack’s songs are topping UK song charts and garnering Grammy nominations. The marketing juggernaut was encompassing, fueled by Mattel, the toy company behind the famous doll. The movie spawned a sort of cultural moment.

Barbie may be the world’s most famous doll. Every girl I knew in the Washington, D.C. suburb of my youth had Barbie dolls. And playing with Barbies was a common playdate activity. It was a common activity for my 20-something daughter during her girlhood, as well. The pure childhood nostalgia the film’s marketing elicited made me want to see the film. 

I watched the movie on a flight across the U.S. and burst out laughing several times, jarring my seatmate. The millennial leaned over and said, “Oh, yeah, my mom laughed at that part, too.” The dialogue was funny and sometimes sharper than younger viewers appreciated.

“The pure childhood nostalgia the film’s marketing elicited made me want to see the film.” 

Plastic Body Proportions:

Gosling displayed his comedic chops as a self-deprecating man desperate for Barbie’s attention. When Ken asked Barbie if he could spend the night at her house, neither character could figure out why he would want to do that or what they would do. Some of the humor was designed to go over the heads of the younger set.

I remember the rollerblades and garish neon thongs over tights look that populated gyms in the 80s. It was a bad look then, and an amusing look to see on screen.

Yes, Barbie dolls’ plastic body proportions and arched feet were anatomically impossible for humans.. But as feminism became more popular, I delighted in Mattel’s versions that featured Barbie in multiple careers and with multihued skin tones. The movie highlighted the occupations Mattel created for its evolving dolls, as the public’s demands and tastes changed.

Playing with Barbie dolls spans generations. Thus, the movie attracted pink clad mother-daughter duos, gaggles of teens, women in midlife who played with the popular dolls as young girls, and even millennials.

The Barbie Movie’s Plot:

“Barbie, dolls and what toys we choose to give children today are as relevant now as ever,” observes Clinical Psychologist and Success Coach, Dr. Nicole Cutts. “We know that representation matters. And the movie highlighted how Barbie sought to be as representative as possible.

On a personal level, I related to and was very amused by the Weird Barbie [hilariously portrayed in the movie by comedian Kate McKinnon]. I had a Barbie doll who ended up with cut hair and naked. She was also a stand-in for Jane in  my Tarzan-play. Forever diving off the edge of my tub and swimming in the buff!, rather than feeling like I had to be like Barbie, I made her more like me. And I see from this movie, that I was not the only little girl who did this.

The Barbie movie’s plot initially presented viewers with an idealized, plastic world, devoid of real world problems. When the characters left Barbieland, though and interacted with humans in the Real World, I found Gerwig’s sometimes biting humor and social commentary to be packaged in a visually appealing way. It was fun for women and girls to watch, and likely for different reasons. The girls seemed attracted by seeing their beloved dolls on the big screen. Women gleaned additional meaning from the film.

Emily Baumgartner, a millennial from New York City said she loved the conversations the Barbie movie brought up in her circles. “It’s about the patriarchal society that women continue to have to navigate. The Barbie movie is a shining example of what having female leads in a movie can do,” Baumgartner opines. “We want to be seen and heard and have our stories be told too,” even if the stories portray persisting challenges.

“The Barbie movie’s plot initially presented viewers with an idealized, plastic world, devoid of real world problems.”

Pop Culture Moment:

Mallika Dattatreya, 38, a New York marketing director, thinks Barbie is an important movie in that it brings to light issues women have been grappling with for generations. “The fact that there is an open dialogue about the tightrope that modern women have to walk on a daily basis within such a pop culture moment, is a step in the right direction,” Dattatreya says. “The message itself was not groundbreaking or eye opening in any way for women of my generation. But I would rather we as a society be discussing these issues than sweeping them under the rug.”

Some older women were drawn into Barbie’s orbit by the big name director, Greta Gerwig. Linda Mason, 64, a Seattle lawyer and mother of three young men, thought Gerwig’s deft crafting of the movie’s themes was brilliant. She recalls that her pioneering physician mother would not allow her to have a Barbie doll when she was a young girl, because her mother deemed them sexist.

“My mother criticized the curvy sex appeal of a doll marketed to young girls,” Mason says. “Instead, [her mother] approved of the flat-chested Skipper doll” that also was offered at the time by Mattel. The Skipper doll was introduced in 1964 as Barbie’s younger sister, and redesigned in 2009 as a tech-savvy aspiring innovator, with a purple or blue streak in her hair. Some of Barbie’s fictitious family members made cameos in the film.

Sexist Issues:

Of course, not everyone thought highly of the movie or its messaging. Elise Stigliano, 66, a Silver Spring, Maryland mother and garden coach who teaches mindfulness through gardening, thought the movie attempted to make sexist issues entertaining. “Since we continue to force sexist behavior on women and men, I would rather see a Barbie movie that displays no sexism on my watch, a place where women would not feel the need to apply makeup before they could leave their homes, obtain a high powered job or attract a man.”

“The movie was undoubtedly a box office success.”

Jennifer Aniskovich, 58, a Branford, Connecticut nonprofit consultant, attorney, and mother of two grown daughters, also was not a fan. “Barbie gave people who want to keep loving pink, but still feel woke, permission to feel good about themselves,” Aniskovich believes. “I had the impression throughout that Greta Gerwig’s big swings must have been pulled back over and over again in the process of keeping Mattel and Warner Bros. happy. So that what emerged was a piece of center-left fluff that offended no one and said nothing new.”

A Box Office Success:

Most viewers found something to like in the Barbie movie, whether it was the fun of wearing pink to the theaters, discussing the meaning of the movie for feminism today, or simply reminiscing about playing with dolls whose plastic body proportions and arched feet were anatomically impossible for humans, while dreaming of the opportunities that feminism promised us.

The movie was undoubtedly a box office success. Perhaps it can continue to teach us something about how much more work there is to do to make Real World a better place for our daughters and generations to come.

Did you enjoy this article? Become a Kuel Life Member today to support our Community. Sign-up for our Sunday newsletter and get your content delivered straight to your inbox.

Maria Olsen

About the Author:

Maria Leonard Olsen is an attorney, author, radio show and podcast host in the Washington, D.C., area. For more information about her work, see www.MariaLeonardOlsen.com and follow her on social media at @fiftyafter50. Her latest book, 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life, which has served as a vehicle for helping thousands of women reinvigorate their lives, is offered for sale on this website.