Film Review: Feminist candy pink Barbie as a marketing phenomenon

Yasser Moheb, Wednesday 6 Sep 2023

The new American fantasy comedy Barbie was released in Egyptian cinemas last month despite being banned in several other Arab countries, attracting a lot of attention and dividing audiences.



Each summer has its controversy! This time though, it was the whimsical Hollywood comedy Barbie that made people cringe. The film was banned from screens in several Arab countries such as Lebanon, Kuwait, and Algeria

These Arab countries were not the only ones who found the film troublesome. Several Asian countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines also expressed their own disappointments with Barbie.

In Egypt, rumours circulated for weeks on social networks of a possible boycott of the film. Ultimately, following several postponements, the film was screened in several cinemas with a 12+ rating.

Sudden deprogramming

A social and marketing phenomenon, Barbie is the biggest cinematic success of the summer with already more than $1.25 billion in revenue worldwide. This is a symbolic milestone that had never been reached by a film directed by a woman in the entire history of cinema. 

Directed by American Greta Gerwig and starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, the film continues to benefit from its intensive propaganda.

But has the film managed to move beyond this seductive marketing?

Inspired by this famous Mattel doll, Barbie film explores deep the feminist themes while retaining the playful essence of the “candy pink” world of Barbie. The director, known for her ability to create bold and emotionally resonant stories, brings this iconic character to life.

Barbieland, the El Dorado of dolls

The events take place in Barbieland, where the so-called “stereotypical” Barbie doll, played by Margot Robbie, leads a dream life with all the other Barbies. While everything is going well, as usual in this Barbieland, the doll begins to perceive anomalies in her perfect daily life. 

She soon discovers that a gap that has opened between her glittery world and human reality. 

With the help of the Weird Barbie character, played by Kate McKinnon, she decides to go into the real world to understand what is causing all her problems. 

In real life she meets women dominated by men, who occupy most positions of power. Meanwhile, Ken (Ryan Gosling) discovers the concept of patriarchy and tries to impose it back in Barbieland.

Without going further into the plot, the 114-minute-long film embeds many messages with feminism being the most prominent.

Prominent feminism

It must be emphasized that when a film receives promotional treatment like the one surrounding Barbie, we run the risk of raising expectations that are impossible to satisfy. 

Even before its release, Barbie was already called a “great feminist film.” The philosophical tale in which the director engages in then takes a turn that is both adventurous and surprising.

In this giant playroom, every detail is the result of real thought on the part of a director who takes Barbie as seriously as anyone. In Barbieland, different suns shine, keeping its inhabitants from ever being in shadows. Meanwhile, the rare special effects in the film reproduce the techniques of 1959, the year Barbie was invented. 

This degree of meticulousness is certainly the most poignant in this big candy world. However, this immersion in the kitsch and counterfeit world of Barbie is more sour than sweet. 

Due to its openly feminist approach, the film shows a deep desire to cover the entire spectrum of these issues. Even if this excess fits easily with the rosy world of Barbie, the fast-paced story leaves some of its best ideas on the sidelines. For instance, many secondary characters remain underdeveloped. This is the case, for example, of the promising mother-daughter duo who are supposed to help the heroine in her quest.

However, Barbie is not a simple feminist rereading of the famous doll. The two co-writers of the work, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, have created two coexisting worlds: that of the Barbies and the real world. They look at both from the perspective of a feminist Barbie, a character who comes from a matriarchal world that she constructed in her image and according to her desires.

The Kens, for their part, exist only for the gaze and consideration of the Barbies and all practice the same obscure job. They exist mainly on the beach. By suddenly placing Barbie and Ken in the real world, the film raises questions about feminism and objectification.

The war of the sexes that Barbies and Kens engage is rather Homeric. In many scenes Barbie clearly takes advantage of the vanity of Ken's rivals, creating multiple references to popular culture.

The film's poster also highlights the opposition between Barbie who "can do everything" and Ken who is content to be himself, without having any particular job. 

The French version adds an ironic critique of Ken's role as a man-object by translating the slogan associated with Ken as "He's just Ken."

Perfect casting

On the performance side, casting Margot Robbie in the main role was a great choice. The Australian actress takes the screen by storm with a performance that captures both Barbie's candid naivety and intelligence, allowing audiences to see a side of Barbie rarely explored. Above all, her take on Barbie is very charming and complex, conveying great sensitivity to her plastic character.

Ryan Gosling, who plays Ken, also brings a unique touch to the film. His character, often overlooked in the Barbie universe, is presented as a much more nuanced and interesting figure than that of a simple boytoy.

Music plays an important role in the film, often infusing Barbie with a musical comedy air.  Dua Lipa who also plays a mermaid Barbie recorded the track, Dance the Night. This mini-hit accompanies a party scene in Barbie's house. The rest of the soundtrack remains just as explosive, offering a rereading of Aqua's hit Barbie Girl (1997) with Gosling playing guitar and singing.

The film is clearly more than just a story of a simple plastic doll. It tries to present this icon in a new light, as a character struggling for the identity and autonomy of women. This is however done in a way that continues to arouse controversy and a lot of comments on social media from the users who watched the film. 

This article's extended version was originally published in Al-Ahram Hebdo (French). Translation: Ati Metwaly. Additional Editing: Ahram Online.
Photos inside the text: AFP.

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