Arts and Entertainment

Barbie: Deconstructing the Dreamhouse

An analysis of the hit film Barbie, featuring a doll-changing journey and eccentric Ken-ergy.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Karina Huang

Barbie, the classic blonde doll that lined the shelves of toy stores and decorated countless childhood bedrooms, has been reimagined as a figurehead of modern feminism inGreta Gerwig’s latest film. Barbie (2023), starring Margot Robbie as the titular character, tackles important topics like sexism, mother-daughter relationships, and diversity with humor, class, and lots of pink. 

The Barbie doll has aspired to empower young girls to be independent and ambitious since its inception. Created in 1959 by Ruth Handler, who drew inspiration from her daughter’s paper dolls, this doll aimed to represent a woman rather than a traditional baby doll. This allowed girls to act out their adult lives and career ambitions rather than be confined to a maternal role. However, despite its feminist intentions, the Barbie doll has contributed to unrealistic beauty standards for women, perpetuating the notion of an ideal woman. Her long legs, slim figure, and blue eyes silently convey the message that girls should also strive to mirror these traits in addition to their career goals. While it is undeniable that Barbie perpetuated unrealistic beauty standards for young girls, the film Barbie does a remarkable job in opening up the once exclusive image of a successful woman. 

The highlights of Barbie are the messages and themes that the film brings to the table. Spoiler alert: this film is about more than just girly dolls and pretty pink dream-houses. When Barbieland is converted into a patriarchal Kendom and the Barbies are brainwashed into becoming subservient maids, it is up to human Gloria (America Ferrera) to empower and restore the original state of the Barbies. She expresses her pent-up frustrations towards the unrealistic standards real world women are expected to live up to, reaching the emotions of both the Barbies and viewers. This scene also makes it clear that all the Barbies are united under their common identity as women, despite their varying appearances. Though the original, stereotypical Barbie was white, blonde, and thin, casting directors Lucy Bevan and Allison Jones sought to incorporate actresses of different ethnic groups, gender identities, and body types to play Barbies. For instance, African-American actress Issa Rae played the role of President Barbie, indicating a step towards supporting women of color in politics and positions of power.

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling play the perfect pair as Stereotypical Barbie (modeled after the original doll) and Ken, respectively. Robbie fits perfectly into this traditional mold, even impeccably executing the movements of a plastic doll. At first glance, leading man Gosling exists to provide comedic relief, but through his lyrical melancholy in “I’m Just Ken,” it becomes undeniable that his character possesses an emotional fragility that makes him shine almost as bright as Barbie.

Barbie does not only focus on feminism, but on toxic masculinity too. Gosling gets the laughs as his surprisingly nuanced Ken navigates inner conflict regarding masculinity and a complicated relationship with Barbie. Throughout the film, Ken explores and redefines his traditional role as an accessory and mere companion to Barbie; after all, the original Ken doll was invented because the Barbie doll received backlash for being single. 

The film’s costuming takes a journey through iconic fashion styles in history. In the opening scene in Barbieland, Stereotypical Barbie dons a ‘60s-inspired light pink gingham A-line dress, showcasing the original Barbie outfit. Throughout the film, Barbie sports outfits symbolizing different iconic eras in the doll’s history. She wears a royal blue jumpsuit with white triangle collars in a nod to ‘70s fashion icon Twiggy, and in a dance scene, a sparkly, disco-influenced jumpsuit from the ‘80s. Barbie also creates symbolism through its mindful costuming, as upon entering the real world, Barbie wears an outfit more catered to the male gaze: a neon colored, skin-tight leotard with leggings. However, at the end, Barbie wears a pale yellow, flowy dress, symbolizing her newfound inner confidence.

The setting of Barbieland is a surreal, picture-perfect pink paradise, drawing inspiration from the vintage Palm Springs 1960 neighborhood aesthetic. The houses embody the theme of life-sized, perfect dollhouses, and feature whimsical set elements like an oversized toothbrush and flat cartoon decals inside the refrigerator. To complete the childhood dream, the dollhouse includes a pool slide that replaces stairs to replicate how Barbie moves from one floor to the next like an actual doll. Barbieland juggles two-dimensional and three-dimensional sets, omitting natural elements. For example, on the beach, Ken comically attempts to ride two-dimensional waves, and when Barbie showers, there is no visible water. The dollhouses also do not have a fourth wall, allowing all of the Barbies to see each other from inside their houses. These scenes playfully poke fun at the real life dollhouse concept. In essence, Barbieland’s imaginative and creative use of sets brings the toy aspect of the Barbie dolls to life.

Ranging from vibrant tunes like Lizzo’s “Pink” to heart-shattering ballads like Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?,” Barbie’s soundtrack is absolutely iconic. Moreover, the choreography accompanied by songs like Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night” and Gosling’s “I’m Just Ken” paints Barbieland as a high-spirited dream world. Gerwig revealed that all the background actors were actual dancers in order to step away from the two-dimensional feeling of a “sketch.” In the scene when war breaks out between the Kens and the song “I’m Just Ken” plays, the audience is transported to another domain of cerulean frost and muted magenta where the Kens have a buffoonish yet powerful dance-off. To express the resolution that the dolls finally overcome their masculine limitations, the choreography unites the Kens as they sing out: “My name’s Ken.” “And so am I!”

Barbie has reached unforeseen success, grossing over a billion dollars from box office sales and making Gerwig the first female director to achieve this feat. However, the film’s popularity has also led to extreme controversy. Vietnam banned the movie before its release because of a scene that includes a childlike world map with an offensive depiction of the nine-dash line. Other countries, such as Algeria and Lebanon, banned the movie due to its promotion of gender identity and other progressive ideas that contradict the country’s overarching cultural and religious values. In the United States, Barbie has received backlash from conservatives and right-wing pundits, with comments criticizing the gender roles portrayed and condemning Hari Nef, a transgender actress who plays Doctor Barbie. 

Despite the film’s controversy, Barbie not only brings childhood dolls to life, but also serves as a testament to the doll’s enduring legacy, pushing boundaries in entertainment and society in a fun and brilliant way. Whether or not you are a lifelong Barbie doll fan or a movie newcomer, this movie presents a whirlwind of fun, fashion, and feminism that will leave you with a renewed sense of the doll’s profound impact on our ever-evolving cultural landscape.