The Barbie Movie: From Paper to Plastic

The Barbie Movie: From Paper to Plastic

Zara Sharma

Student writer


Barbie Unboxed: Feminism and Mental Health in the Dollhouse

In a world where dolls and literature intersect, the Barbie movie of 2023 brings forth a reflection of contemporary society. “Do you guys ever think about dying?” Barbie asks a party of friends while dancing in her rose-tinted dream-house (despite possessing the supposedly perfect life). She then embarks on a journey to come to terms with who she is and why she feels the way she does. The Barbie movie not only tackles female empowerment, it also confronts how we feel in our own skin. The script’s tussle with identity and mental health has roots in ‘confessional writing’; and Sylvia Plath, a key advocate of this style, experienced depressive and solitary feelings towards her life and motherhood, much like Barbie herself. Director Greta Gerwig claims that Barbie is “certainly a feminist film”, and this is compounded with the film’s attention to mental health, from Ken to Gloria, to Barbie. Throughout time, a myriad of feminist writers have opened doors in favour of equality for women. From Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, to Margaret Atwood, a shiny, pink feminist world has been unleashed. By examining the movie’s representation of gender dynamics and emotional struggles, a greater insight into the enduring relevance of feminism and the human experience is learned.


Margaret Atwood: Philosophy of Genders

The Barbie movie acknowledges the experiences of all women around the world, past and present. From Barbie entering the real world and being sexualised by men, to Ken starting a patriarchy where the Barbies are submissive to the Kens. Throughout various points the film, the Barbies are objectified and manipulated, this subjugation of women has been previously commented on by Margaret Atwood in her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, highlighting that in a male-dominated society, the way in which men see women is in itself an act of controlling them. A common theme throughout The Handmaid’s Tale is the way Offred, the protagonist, feels she is seen by men and the violent connotations the male gaze has. In the novel Aunt Lydia states “'Modesty is invisibility, …. To be seen, to be seen, is to be … Penetrated”. Barbie’s uneasiness and need to change clothes when being leered at by men suggests that within modern day society there still are classic issues of inequality against women. In both pieces, the depiction of the male gaze is a form of oppression and social control.


The Barbie movie expresses this feminist stance and conveys a message of equality for everyone, Barbie and Ken, men and women. However conservative commentator, Ben Shapiro disagreed and went on a 43 minute tirade mocking the film for being anti-men. Admittedly the Barbie movie’s slogan is ‘She’s everything. He’s just Ken”, yet this encapsulates the essence of challenging gender norms and acknowledges the struggles of both genders. Towards the end of Barbie, Ken confesses he is nothing without Barbie and his insecurities that structured this patriarchy unfold; an expression of self which predicts a future of new masculinity. This also resonates with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as the commander feels the need to seek personal relationships with his Handmaids. The allegorical world of ‘Barbieland’ sees gender roles inverted and the Kens acting as second-class citizens, in many ways prompting the viewer to feel empathy for Ken. Ken’s journey from patriarchal norms to emotional liberation mirrors our ongoing battle against toxic masculinity. Additionally, Ken’s quest for identity is separate from Barbie’s and shows a possible world for men not as seconds or patriarchal leaders, but where they are equals to the Barbies and are valued for their emotions. Overall, the Barbie movie is neither a defamation on men nor women, but rather explores the complexities of humanity and human emotion, in a fresh land of plasticity and dolls. 


Sylvia Plath: Mental Frameworks  

The Barbie movie is an expression of humanity with each stomach-churning twist conveying the realities of life, plus a twinge of make-believe. Sylvia Plath wrote during ‘The Confessional Movement’ of poetry in America in the 1950s and 1960s, which addressed the taboo of mental illnesses, and featured contemporaries such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. Similar to the thread running through the Barbie movie that every emotion is valid, Plath’s work explores the intricate feeling of being human, and the intense experiences and psychological states that come with it. A famously riveting poem by Plath entitled ‘Ariel’ uses both a metaphor for female empowerment and mental instability. As the speaker rides her horse Ariel, they go through a near death experience. The cyclical structure of the journey acts as a wake-up call, from the beginning “Stasis in darkness” to the juxtaposed “red// Eye, the cauldron of morning” in the final stages. Plath also explains this change in her life as being fiercely forced onto her by “Something else”. Comparably, in the Barbie movie, Barbie has been pushed headfirst into the real world and this alters her life to the point where she decides to turn human. The Barbie movie not only addresses feminism but also feelings of inadequacy in Gloria’s (played by America Ferrera) career and personal life as a mother. Plath similarly comments on the difficulties and adjustments of motherhood in her renowned poem ‘Morning song’ presenting a blossoming of instincts. In the poem the baby is initially like a “New statue”, unfamiliar and vernacular, but later described as a “cat”, suggesting animation and more maternal feelings. Though Plath comparatively is a new mother, both women experience this new affliction, which in many ways also shows life and motherhood as mystifying and ever-changing. 


Barbie’s Legacy: Empowering Narratives

As literature and film converge, so does their ability to question, define and redefine the world we live in. The Barbie movie stands as testament to how storytelling can reflect societal narratives past, present and future.  Through its modern-day lens, feminist approach, and focus on mental health, it bridges the gap between paper and plastic. Feminist icons like Sylvia Plath and Margaret Atwood have paved the progress to equality, and the Barbie movie has created an indelible pink mark. Barbieis partially a light-hearted comedy and a reason to dress in pink and buy a cowboy hat; nevertheless, it’s also a whimsical message of benevolence to yourself, your community and for the ever-evolving journey of identity. 

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