I admit, I was a little slow to get on the Barbie Movie train. Yeah, I used to play with Barbies when I was a kid. Sure, I probably played longer than I was “supposed” to as other kids around me transitioned into more grownup activities. And absolutely, I had the obligatory “weird” Barbie whose hair had been chopped off and dyed with nail polish. But that all felt like something that was very much in my past, and I didn’t feel the same nostalgia for it that everyone else in the world seemed to be feeling as anticipation built for the film’s release.
As the frenzy only continued to build and Barbenheimer became a thing, I felt my ambivalence shifting into curiosity. I decided I would have to go see this movie, more so to participate in whatever weird cultural event was happening than because I felt especially compelled to relive my childhood.
Because we couldn’t find a babysitter, my husband and I participated in Barbenheimer in our own unique way — he went and saw the Nolan flick on opening night while I stayed home with the kiddo, and we traded so I could see Barbie on Sunday night.
Going to the theatre to see Barbie was one of the more surreal events in my life. The theatre was absolutely packed, which was weird enough in and of itself because a) I so rarely go to movies these days (young kid, post-Pandemic, etc.) and b) because everyone was dressed in pink. Everyone. Groups of 20-something women. Groups of teenage boys. Moms with their kids. Couples. It felt like decades ago when I’d gone to midnight showings of Harry Potter in costume, which you kind of expect at a midnight premier, but not so much for a regular screening. I felt distinctly out of place in my green and blue, clearly not having gotten the memo.
Like others have written before me, I didn’t quite know what to expect from the film itself, but even so, it wasn’t what I expected. It felt like a weird, abstract, funny, absurd, surprisingly emotional journey back into some forgotten part of myself — a glimpse at a bright-pink, sparkly inner little girl who hasn’t poked her head out in a very long time.
And for good reason. The immediate backlash to Barbie by conservative spokespeople and, just generally, men, reminded me why my inner pink-sparkly-unicorn-princess-doll girl has been in hiding for so long. The world loves to remind girls that the things we love are stupid. Superficial. Inconsequential. And now, apparently, “harmful” — or, at least, that seems to be the latest rhetorical trick to try to squelch the support of this film.
This messaging to girls began from the time we were young. When little boys cried or became overly emotional or showed physical weakness, they were called “girly,” which clearly had a negative connotation: Being a girl, and anything associated with girliness, was bad and inferior. Barbies and other dolls were fine to play with when you were a little girl, but at a certain age it became clear that you were childish and girly if you wanted to keep participating in this kind of imaginary play. Then girls were meant to transition into being interested in clothes and makeup and boys, but not TOO interested, because those things were vapid and superficial and not SERIOUS or IMPORTANT. And the other things we loved, like Sweet Valley High, The Babysitters Club, Twilight, rom coms, boy bands, Britney Spears, Taylor Swift (or insert any other woman pop singer here), Gilmore Girls, pumpkin spice lattes, romance novels — anything that was made specifically for us as the audience in mind was systematically pulled apart and deconstructed and shown to be FRIVOLOUS.
The Barbie Movie seems to have anticipated this pushback, and it has embraced it in a way that is bold and breathtaking. It is a silly, pretty, shiny, important, emotional, smart thing. It juxtaposes over-the-top dance sequences and costume changes with existential dread about the loss of childhood and the suppression of femininity and how this damages everyone, not just women. It doesn’t try to cater to a masculine audience to prove its worth. It dramatically flaunts that it is not made for a traditionally masculine audience, full stop, deal with it.
Stereotypical Barbie’s journey from the perfect pink confidence of youth to the self-awareness and insecurity of metaphorical adolescence into the daunting but empowering enlightenment of adulthood traces my journey of growing up as a woman in a way that is both abstract and absurd and absolutely accurate. I don’t know that I’ve ever quite experienced that same emotional journey while sitting through one film.
If you didn’t like this movie, that’s fine. No piece of art is made for everyone. But — and this is a big BUT— maybe consider that this film wasn’t made for you. And that it wasn’t supposed to be. Not everything is, after all, and there is plenty of art out there that might cater to your particular taste. There’s no need to diminish or detract from someone else’s experience just because you didn’t personally like or relate to something — as the old saying goes, one person’s yuck is someone else’s yum. Someone’s puke is someone else’s pink. And sometimes, that’s just Kenough.
Elizabeth Gilliland earned her PhD in 19th-Century British Literature and Adaptations. She is a teacher and the author of the Austen University Mysteries (What Happened on Box Hill and The Portraits of Pemberley) and Come One, Come All (writing as E. Gilliland). She is also the co-founder of Bayou Wolf Press. You can find her on Twitter (@egilliland7) or TikTok (@egilliland_writer)