Barbie: An Out-Of-The-Box Coming-Of-Age Story

The film asks a question: Do we want our toys to represent us or forever be aspirational?
Barbie: An Out-Of-The-Box Coming-Of-Age Story

Barbie Land is initially presented as an idealised feminist fantasy, where the power dynamics between genders are reversed; a subversive Adam and Eve. But in fact, as the story progresses we realize that it is rather a world of pre-adolescent girls and boys, imaginative and imbued with a sense of belief that kids, especially girls, can be anything they want to be. Therefore, this world was always meant to be aspirational. Intentionally so, because the Barbies represented what the girls in the real world thought of them. They were literally put in a box of what defined their identity (Author, Nobel prize winner, President) but once the ties that bind them were removed, the girls playing with them could release them into their own world. In a sense, the world of Barbie Land could never be perfect because it was still an idea defined by the real world, which will always be imperfect.

The presence of Allan and Weird Barbie is all the more purposeful because they represent all the kids who don't fit in, who were always Other-ed even in the fanciful world of imagination. It's for all the kids who despite having imagination at their disposal are forced to come to terms with the fact that they're different, much earlier than others. Neither of them fit in with either the Barbies or the Kens. It is especially telling that when the Kens instil the conventions of patriarchy in Barbie Land, it is those two who are the most familiar with a world of power imbalance.

Barbie: An Out-Of-The-Box Coming-Of-Age Story
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One of the most poignant scenes in the movie comes early on when Barbie, going through a crisis of looking imperfect, comes across an old woman sitting beside her at the bus stop. She's a stranger but for the first time since entering the human world, Barbie finds a sense of kinship with this old woman who embodies all the things she believed to be imperfect about being a woman. And yet, she looks beautiful and also confident in her beauty. It's the first time Barbie realizes that imperfections don't mean inadequacy. And that real beauty comes from experiencing life and the marks it leaves on you.

One cannot talk about the movie without also mentioning the media frenzy and the pop culture event this truly became. A part of it was obviously corporate machinery but it was genuine excitement for a pink renaissance. Thus, to watch in the theatres, with a sea of women and men wearing pink was indeed a fever dream. But director, Greta Gerwig had an impossible task at hand, to tow the fine line between consumerism versus creativity which ultimately does prove to have its limitations in any genre.

The idea of Barbie was conceptualised as a doll that is empowered, one who has an established career, a multitude of friends, swanky clothes, and a supportive boyfriend, all things aspirational for young girls playing with her. But she was still framed within the patriarchal and heteronormative worldview. So while she became a Nobel prize-winning physicist who also looks like she can walk the runway, this figure became more unattainable rather than aspirational. With the ordinary Barbie, it asks a question: Do we want our toys to represent us or forever be aspirational?

Barbie: An Out-Of-The-Box Coming-Of-Age Story
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Ultimately, Barbie isn't about girl power. It's not about how women can do everything they set their minds to. It's about how sometimes women are tired and average and that has to be okay too, because you don't have to do everything to be worth anything. And that this is also true of men. The arc of Ken shows that patriarchy cages men as much as it does women. The Kens never actually find happiness in the power imbalance on either side. Much like young boys who are told to believe that patriarchy means men get to be cool and manly and have this power but with that comes extremely rigid commands of what they can be as a man and a cycle of self-hatred for never matching those gender roles perfectly. The movie then shows how both matriarchy and patriarchy are damaging to people and that no one will be happy as long as people feel unequal.

In its true essence, Barbie is a coming-of-age story that marks the end of innocence. For young girls, the world before puberty is much more rosy and pink because there aren't as many limitations set by society. As Taylor Swift, in her song seven writes, 'Before I learned civility, I used to scream ferociously any time I wanted'. When we are children, we can truly scream at any time we want, in the movie theatre, at the grocery store, at a restaurant, anywhere. But at some point, we stopped and learnt to hide our emotions and in doing so, lose that unabashed and unfiltered confidence we did as kids. But where does that anger go? As represented by Gloria, a mother who, while playing with Barbie rekindles that spark that she felt during her years spent in Barbie Land but now it was informed by her current sensibilities of what it means to be a woman. And so she gave her Barbie the same existential dread and insecurities that she is going through as an adult. Therefore, the emotions never go away, only our self-expression changes.

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