Last weekend, I took my kids to see the Barbie Movie. We were so excited about this blockbuster event. Before attending, my 11-year-old daughter insisted on wearing all pink and adding some makeup. My teenage son was also excited to see it, as he had heard the good reviews.
I felt a sense of nostalgia as the opening scene displayed the original Barbie that my mother had as a child. The scenes of the popular themes brought back fond memories of playing with my Barbies as a lonely only child. I would spend hours in the corner of my room, combing their hair and dressing them, and to my shock, looking back now, I replicated the same toxic relationships I witnessed and thought were normal.
As the movie went on, it became clear how brilliantly written this movie was. A perfect balance of comical clich’e and a healthy dose of eye-opening matrix-level truth serum. “Mom, are you actually crying?” The kids looked over at me halfway through the movie. I was embarrassed about it then, but after taking a week to process it all, I had every right to cry and didn’t need to apologize for any of my tears. What I saw was so clear to me because I lived it. It may not be clear to the average person, or even worse; it may be considered what I thought as a child, normal.
It starts with Barbie’s perfect life at her Malibu Beach house. Barbie was what all of us young girls aspired to be; an unrealistically beautiful, self-sufficient woman who cares for herself without relying on her parents or a husband and has infinite fun with her strong, smart, emotionally supportive friends. To us, this life was a symbol of freedom. But was it really that perfect?
Even in Barbie's perfect Malibu Dreamhouse World, Ken was envious of her perfect life and jealous of the time that Barbie spent with her girlfriends. He wanted to shack up with her. Ken asks if he could spend the night. Barbie’s answer is, “Tonight is Girl’s Night!”
“Every night is Girl’s Night.” Ken points out as if there was something wrong with every night being Girl’s Night. It’s as if Barbie owes him more attention than he already got from her. She clearly wasn't interested, even if it were “just one night” of physical contact! What Ken really wanted was an infinite amount of attention which would lead to an infinite amount of nights with just him. Certainly not with any of her fun, emotionally supportive girlfriends hanging around!
This was the start of a downward spiral for Barbie. The guilt Ken planted in her head messed with her sleep, leading to an out-of-sorts day. She had no idea why she was feeling this way. She confided with her smart, strong, and emotionally supportive friends, and they advised her to go up to the top of the hill and consult with the outcasted shamanesque “Wierd Barbie.”
In the movie, Wierd Barbie represented the old, worn-out Barbie that we all were guilty of playing too hard with. Some of us lit her hair on fire, put markers all over her face, and even pulled her extremities from her joints. Weird Barbie was a woman society threw to the sidelines because her “ugliness” reflected their own flaws and reminded them of what society had done to her. She, to them, was a downer. I didn’t see her as ugly at all. She had a unique, almost funky wisdom about her, making her more beautiful than any of the other Barbies who resided on the Malibu Beach below.
Like in The Matrix, Wierd Barbie gave her a choice: the pink stiletto or the ugly yet hippie wisdom evoking Birkenstock. Barbie, of course, chose the Pink Stiletto, duh! Rather than just telling her the reason this was all happening was simply due to Ken’s infinite need for Barbie’s attention. She should just blow him off because she doesn’t owe him anything. Weird Barbie knew that just telling her wouldn’t be enough. Barbie had to live it. Weird Barbie forced her into choosing the harsh toke of reality that one only gets when old age forces you to surrender to the comfortably functional footbed of a Birkenstock. Weird Barbie explains that the girl playing with her in the Real World is sad and taking her feelings out on her. She must find her and make things right.
Barbie bravely sets out on her journey, using all of her nostalgic modes of transportation. Her convertible, spaceship, snowmobile, and even her rollerblades, which I had as a kid that actually made sparks! I used to catch little pieces of paper on fire with them. Barbie specifically tells Ken that he can’t come with her. She needs to take this soul-searching journey herself. Ken stalks her and, against her wishes, stows away in her convertible, only making himself known when Barbie is too far along her journey to turn back. On the way, Ken convinces Barbie to let him stay by making her feel powerless like he needs to come with her to protect her from some unknown threat.
Integration into reality was tough for both of them. The first thing that happens to Barbie is a man slaps her on the ass. Most women from my generation have experienced and can relate to this. Out of shock and in an act of self-defense, Barbie punches him. Barbie is the one who ends up getting arrested, not the man who originally assaulted her unprovoked.
Ken is amazed at the greatness of being a man in the Real World. Instead of doing the real work to achieve your goals and dreams, you can just strong-arm your way into it, using every woman's deeply ingrained vulnerability, knowing that men are physically stronger than them. All you have to do is give them a reason to feel unsafe, convince them that you will be their protector, and gain their trust; when your true motive is to take them for everything they have, then once you’ve completely sucked them dry, discard them to live out the rest of their lonely life completely isolated from society on top of some secluded hill like a hermit.
The movie goes on, and Barbie finds the young girl who is now an angsty teenager, going through the same humanity described above and observing the horrors that every young girl succumbs to while growing up in the Real World. She had given up on her Barbie dreams long ago. It turns out her mother had been the one playing with Barbie. Living in the Real World as a woman had been so hard for her; playing with Barbie again had become a wanted distraction just to make it through the miserable days.
Then Mattel, the maker of Barbie, gets portrayed as an evil empire responsible for making young girls have an unhealthy body image of themselves. They can’t have Barbie and Ken running loose in the Real World. They must capture them. They even tried to put Barbie back in her box “where she belonged,” with the twist ties resembling a disturbing bondage scene.
After vowing to protect her, Ken abandons Barbie in the Real World and heads back to Barbie World, eager to tell all the other Kens about what he learned in the Real World. Meanwhile, Barbie convinces the Real World Teen and her mother to come to Barbie World, a place where they will be free from all of their Real World problems. On the way there, Barbie sets them up for high expectations as she describes how great her Malibu Beach House is and how brilliant and emotionally supportive all her girlfriends are.
Barbie returns to Barbie World to find that Ken has taken over her Malibu Beach house and turned it into a Man Cave! By then, the other Kens had brainwashed all the other Barbies to be their sex slaves, delivering them beer and taking on the role of their servants. Ken even had Barbie almost convinced that she deserved all of this because it was wrong of her to neglect him emotionally, claiming the Kens don’t have any rights. They should now be able to have the right to vote in Barbie World, thus excusing his actions for literally stealing Barbie’s home and perfect life when Ken really had the power in him all along to create his own life and not steal hers.
Feeling helpless and no longer having the emotional support of her girlfriends, Barbie goes back up the mountain again to seek guidance from Weird Barbie. Weird Barbie laid out a plan to de-program the other Barbies brainwashed by the Ken’s as if they were victims of some messed up cult. Once they had a united front, the Barbies pretended they were not reprogrammed and distracted the Ken’s to regain their homes and perfect lives.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I sobbed. I credit the writers for taking such a stance and pointing out these issues to raise awareness. When talking to others about the movie, it pains me that what was so obvious to me throughout the movie with so many deeper meanings was missed.
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