In late July, throngs of men, women and kids outfitted in shades of pink—many rocking cat eye sunglasses, with sweaters tied nattily around their necks and sparkly accent pieces—eagerly made their way to the Warner Brothers “Barbie” movie premiere. Some posed in photo booths to take Barbie and Ken themed photo strips; other theaters had life-sized Barbie doll boxes to step inside. For all the eagerness, no one knew what to expect of the film, which clocks in at just under two hours. Actress America Ferrera teased, “Whatever you think it is, it’s not that.”
Produced by star Margot Robbie with her LuckyChap Entertainment company and directed by Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with her partner, filmmaker Noah Baumbach, “Barbie” is many things all at once, most of them surprising. Those involved in the movie are still amazed that Mattel, the toy giant that owns the rights to Barbie, allowed the trailblazing movie to happen.
Robbie is no stranger to creative and bold performances—as a child, the Australian actor performed skits at home, even once terrifying an unwanted babysitter by dousing herself with ketchup and lying on the bathroom floor motionless next to a large kitchen knife. Robbie attended circus school and studied drama, working at bars, cleaning homes and making sandwiches at Subway while she landed parts in low-budget thrillers, soap operas and, eventually, bigger movies.
Known for her dialed-in accents, versatility and physicality, the award-winning actor starred in “The Wolf of Wall Street” with Leonardo DiCaprio and “Suicide Squad,” where she played anti-hero Harley Quinn with an ensemble all-star cast and performed her own stunts, including holding her breath underwater for five minutes. In “I, Tonya,” based on the tragic and violent real-life story of ice skater Tonya Harding, Robbie trained to figure skate and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. She shared the screen with Brad Pitt in “Babylon” in 2022, where she says she kissed Pitt in an unscripted impulse.
After “Barbie” opened to $162 million in box office sales just in its first weekend in North America—a record-breaking event for a movie directed by a woman—it became evident that Robbie is the perfect match for Gerwig’s direction, which encouraged actor improvisation and paired her with Ryan Gosling’s Ken, who steals nearly every scene. The backdrops are eye-poppingly bright, with hand-painted details that make it both charming and nostalgic for anyone who has ever witnessed a Barbie doll and her dream house. Elaborate costumes, choreographed dance numbers, Gosling’s compelling singing voice, and a scene of the Kens playing guitar “at” the Barbies while singing Matchbox Twenty’s “Push” are unexpectedly captivating.
The Ken messaging is equally hilarious as it is complicated: Gosling and his fellow Kens are billed as merely accessories to the Barbies, who run the government and hold every profession imaginable, when they aren’t throwing epic dance parties with bespoke tracks (the movie’s soundtrack is performed by A-list artists, but it’s Gosling’s inspired “I’m Just Ken” that is pivotal to the plot development).
So, while Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie” embarks on a journey down the pink brick road from Barbieland to “The Real World” in her pink Corvette, hoping to discover why she’s become flat footed, having intrusive thoughts of dying, and even developing cellulite, stowaway Gosling is just beginning his own awakening as well.
Upon arrival in Southern California, Robbie’s Barbie is horrified by the way women are treated, while Gosling’s Ken is simultaneously thrilled to discover the power of the patriarchy, which he muddles into a meaning that results in decorating with horse-themed everything and wearing two pairs of sunglasses, triple watches on his wrists, and a floor-length faux fur coat. With Barbie distracted and Ken mesmerized by images of macho men, Barbieland is ripe for overthrowing. Ken hustles back to Barbieland, where he and the other Kens brainwash most of the Barbies into being their servants.
Meanwhile, Robbie’s Barbie embarks on a journey through the Real World which results in an existential meltdown.
After two trips to jail, being dissed by teen girls who accuse her of ruining women’s self-esteem, evading being trapped back in her box at the Mattel headquarters, an epic car chase, and meeting the ghost of her maker, Barbie makes it back to Barbieland. With the help of a human woman, Gloria, played by America Ferrera, her daughter, Sasha, played by Ariana Greenblatt, and some of the other dolls, they restore the equilibrium to Barbieland with some concessions made for the Kens, who eventually become more self-aware. The slightly jarring final act results in Barbie making the life-changing decision to become human; Billie Eilish’s haunting track “What Was I Made For?” reflects the bittersweet nature of her choice.
For some local women, the themes of the movie seeped into the liminal space between the ticket line and the film.
While Monterey native Katee Weiss, 21, was walking into the “Barbie” premiere in a pink track suit with her sister Cassidy, 26, who was wearing a pink T-shirt and pink shorts, she says they exchanged smiles with other women wearing pink. But while waiting in line, the young women were catcalled by men.
“I was quickly reminded that no matter what I wear, I will be subjected to men’s comments and gazes,” says Katee Weiss. “I felt empowered in my pink clothes but being sexualized took me right out of Barbieland and right into the Real World.”
Ferrera performs a monologue in the film as the character Gloria about the predicament of being a woman that hit so hard that many women were left with tears rolling down their cheeks. Some men, including Weiss’ boyfriend, sat wide-eyed while digesting the message.
“It is literally impossible to be a woman,” Ferrera says to Robbie’s Barbie in the scene that director Gerwig said left her sobbing during filming. “You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we always have to be extraordinary, but somehow, we’re always doing it wrong…You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining…”
Weiss, whose favorite doll as a child was a Mermaid Barbie with pink hair and a pink tail, says women’s reactions on social media have been nonstop since the film’s release, with many sharing that they feel seen after Ferrera’s speech (much longer than excerpted above).
“There were women in the theater cheering,” Weiss says. “Our whole life we’ve been told to make space for men and to be as small as we can be. Barbie took back her space.”
Criticism of the film accuses the movie of having a gay agenda and being dangerous and perverse, among other things. Weiss responds that those making such claims are benefiting from the patriarchy.
“Barbie gave a lot of kids the idea that you could be anything. She isn’t just a doll. She’s a doctor, a scientist, an equestrienne…All we want as women is to be left alone by men or supported by them. In the movie, Barbie apologizes to Ken, but the Kens invaded the Barbies’ space instead of finding their own. This is sparking a lot of conversation about the patriarchy and women’s roles that we have been forced into since the beginning of history.”
In response to the film’s success and controversy, Gerwig told the New York Times she did not expect backlash to “Barbie” and her hope is for the movie to give people some “relief.”
“I wanted to make something anarchic and wild and funny and cathartic, and the idea that it’s actually being received that way, it’s sort of extraordinary…Certainly there’s a lot of passion. My hope for the movie is that it’s an invitation for everybody to be part of the party and let go of the things that aren’t necessarily serving us as either women or men…”
If the huge numbers rolling into the theaters and the splashy excitement about the movie is any indication, there’s a whole lot of love for the film, in no small part due to Robbie’s portrayal. She manages to convey a Barbie converting into a human with sweetness, depth, humor, kindness, forgiveness and power—and ultimately joy.
At press time, “Barbie” had surpassed the billion-dollar mark in ticket sales, setting box office records.