Barbie has exceeded expectations. It’s been a smash at the box office and has garnered positive reviews, due to director Greta Gerwig’s unique spin on the popular Mattel property. Gerwig does thoughtful work navigating Barbie’s feminist themes and addressing Mattel’s role in the doll’s evolution over the years. The film also explores a classic coming-of-age story. Similar to the likes of Pixar’s Toy Story and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret?, Barbie is a bildungsroman that explores the pangs of growing up and dealing with change.
The film’s plot focuses on Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling) as they travel from Barbie Land to the Real World. Along the way, they learn that the sparkle and shine they embody don’t quite match up with the gritty reality they find outside the Dream House. While Robbie’s Barbie and Gosling’s Ken are the main protagonists, there are multiple Barbies and Kens portrayed throughout the narrative. Besides the characters, the film is an homage to childhood and growing up.
Actress Kate McKinnon artfully portrayed Weird Barbie. Weird Barbie is the doll many of us played with as children. Reminiscent of Cynthia from Rugrats, she has an uneven haircut, markings, and her body is distorted into a split position. McKinnon’s character represents childhood in its purest form. Adults can remember at least one toy that was worn down with love, because they took it everywhere with them and played with it day after day. These toys become an extension of our childhood selves, a proxy for adventures and imagination. The Toy Story series also did an impeccable job of showing that growing up means leaving toys like Weird Barbie behind. The line “You make them weird by playing too hard,” is both funny and deeply insightful. Aside from humor, Weird Barbie’s presence in the film was an ode to past loved childhood toys.
Barbie Land’s setting is a microcosm of childhood. Even if you never owned one of Barbie’s Dream Houses, you probably knew someone who did. Sarah Greenwood, Barbie’s production designer, worked with the film’s set decorator, Katie Spencer, to recreate Barbie Dream Houses in their architectural glory. These Dream Houses captured the splendor and opulence of the coveted toy. While Greenwood and Spencer’s attention to detail and ability to make an immersive setting is impeccable, Barbie Land also serves as a nostalgic reminder of childhood imagination. There were some nods to the dolls pretending to drink out of cups reminiscent of childhood play. The crossover scenes from Barbie Land to the Real World worked as a sentimental thematic bridge. These scenes signaled the transition from childhood to adulthood and the nostalgic desire to return to childhood. Children have a sense of wonder and awe about the world’s potential, and Barbie Land illustrations that curiosity to its fullest potential.
Barbie’s Existential Crisis
Margot Robbie’s Barbie took center stage in the film, as her existential crisis drove the narrative. Robbie delivers the line, “I never wanted anything to change,” with an earnest poignancy. However, change is an inescapable part of growing up. Barbie’s relationship with Gloria (America Ferrara) illustrates how messy that change can be. As Barbie’s experiences are channeled through Gloria’s emotions, she sees how implausible it is for anyone to feel perfectly happy and sunny at all times. Adult Gloria’s nostalgic relationship with her Barbie doll and the comfort it brings her shows how childhood toys represent a sense of safety. The film illustrates the universal truth that change necessary and happens even if we’re not ready for it. There was a day when each person played with their childhood toy for the last time before crossing over into more adult pursuits. Gerwig’s depiction of childhood toys as a proxy for returning to childhood is a powerful motif throughout the film.
Stepping Into Yourself
Barbie’s experiences in the film lead her to ponder the question, “Maybe all the things you thought made you you really aren’t you?” This is one of the bittersweet truths about growing up. Past selves molt to make way for new selves. Toys remain nostalgic reminders of past selves. Like, Barbie discovers in the film, actions are choices, and those choices add up to who you are. Even Ken’s declaration, “Ken is me!” shows a rite of passage that comes with stepping into yourself. The curiosity, wonder, and awe of childhood leads each person to the adult they become. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a reminder that our relationships with our childhood toys open us to curiosity and imagination in ways that we can take with us to the “real world.” Barbie even experiences the physical growing pains that come with adolescence, in the scene where her iconic feet change. The ending scene was a humorous nod to the physical changes of growing up. As Gerwig illustrates with her storytelling, even a beloved childhood toy can change and grow.