“Barbie” has simultaneously been the target of a right-wing hissy fit and the film with the biggest opening weekend box office of 2023, with $337 million in worldwide receipts. Watching Fox News and Ben Shapiro and the rest of the right-wing media wage a campaign against a cultural product and fail so resoundingly has been a true joy over the past week. But what about the movie itself? I went to see it for myself and find out.
It’s hard to strip out the political from the entertainment side of the movie’s experience, but I’ll start with the latter. How does “Barbie” work as a pure entertainment experience? Well, it’s a hit for a reason. It is legitimately funny—many of its jokes didn’t just land, but came from far enough out of left field that the laughter in the theater was audibly surprised. The movie is also consistently witty, and visually so, with its opening section in Barbie Land simultaneously referring to how children play with dolls (they don’t walk down the stairs or open the car door, they just sort of descend from the house or enter the convertible from above) and how women are supposed to float through life without ever showing the effort of the demands society puts on them.
It is also touching at times, with America Ferrera’s wistfulness and yearning for a better relationship with her moody tween daughter, along with her generally unfulfilling life, giving the movie a heart that Barbie’s journey of self-discovery could not. You’ll hear references to Ferrera’s big monologue on being a woman in our culture, and it’s good, but what’s remarkable about it is that Ferrera makes it work. The words in the monologue are things even the most casual feminists have been saying for decades, but in the context of the movie and the character, and with Ferrera’s stellar delivery, it feels revelatory.
But surprisingly, many of the movie’s most startling scenes are about men.
We’ve all been exposed to slickly packaged feminism-lite over the years. Mocking and critiquing masculinity, though, is much less expected and accepted. We see that in the angry responses of far-right figures like Jack Posobiec (“man-hating Woke propaganda fest”) and Ben Shapiro (“all the Kens are gay,” Ryan Gosling’s Ken is “annoying and ridiculous,” the movie is “angry feminist claptrap that alienates men from women”). But it’s not expected from a movie like this. The scenes in which Ken discovers patriarchy, tries to wrap his mind around it, and tries to import it to Barbie Land (or “Kendom,” as he wants to call it), are some of the funniest and freshest parts of “Barbie.”
The sheer right-wing rage over the depiction of Ken—a character none of these people had given any thought to in years, if ever—highlights how unacceptable it is to make masculinity look really, really stupid. Gosling’s Ken doesn’t even understand how the patriarchy works—he thinks it involves horses somehow—but he likes what he sees nonetheless. Ben Shapiro, a man who proved with his criticisms of “Glass Onion” that he doesn’t understand how mysteries work and who really told on himself with his reaction to “WAP,” probably should take that personally.
So “Barbie” is fun, funny, touching, and explicitly critical of gender ideology. All that said, we have to remember that this remains a capitalist product intended to boost the Barbie brand. There’s no joke in here Mattel wasn’t willing to have made about itself and its product. What’s interesting is that they could have taken a safer route by doing a more traditional kids’ movie—something lower-budget with lower ambitions. This was the bigger risk that is paying off with the bigger reward. But it is fascinating that the company decided to boost its brand with a movie substantially geared to adults, helmed by a prestige director, and with a subversive gloss. Barbie dolls and accessories remain big business, but brands come and go. Mattel has ensured Barbie’s continued cultural relevancy by updating and rebranding from time to time. This movie is the latest installment in that effort, a shift from the very mildly feminist flavor of “Barbie can have any career she wants!” to assuring audiences that they can be feminists (or at least certain types of feminist) and still like Barbie.
Everything about “Barbie” is defined by its origin: the product of major corporations seeking to make money on movie tickets while boosting the product it’s based on. Its feminist critique is delivered by people who are conspicuously beautiful in the absolute most mass-culture way. It’s hard not to see the parallels between America Ferrera’s big monologue in “Barbie” and the climactic scene in her first onscreen role, in 2002’s “Real Women Have Curves”—but thinking about that is a reminder of how much thinner Ferrera is now than she was 20 years ago, and how that weight loss is virtually a requirement of having the career she has had.
Similarly, we have to remember that the people attacking “Barbie” are doing so to boost their own careers. That was something of a miscalculation, maybe, since they’ve ultimately betrayed how powerless and out of step with the broader culture they are. But people are talking about Ben Shapiro, which is always one of his major goals in life.
At the same time, getting so angry about this movie also shows how fragile and scared and angry at the world these people are. It must feel terrible to always be looking for the next reason to claim you are oppressed by other people having fun or merely existing. Being so terrified of men not being on top of everything that you’re enraged by Ken—Ken, an afterthought of a children’s doll—being depicted as vapid and ridiculous is pathetic. (And the Ken plot kind of takes aim at that, which is clearly hitting home. It’s a kind of amusing loop.)
The rage about trans actress Hari Nef playing a doctor Barbie, too, lays bare the far right’s abject fear and insistence on claiming victim status, because this is not a particularly major character or one that the script makes a big statement about. And that’s exactly what bothers them: the thought that a trans woman could be just another Barbie, that, as Shapiro said, it’s, “Totally normal, as if this is a female Barbie.” The offense is simply in casting Nef to play a not-huge role, because the goal is driving trans people out of public life.
Should you see “Barbie”? The movie is such a big hit that it doesn’t need you to help ensure that the right-wing freakout fails to tank it. But it’s genuinely fun, and beyond that, it’s at least a little surprising. It’s worth a look even if you never, ever expected to say the words, “I’m going to the ‘Barbie’ movie today.”