Rosa Parks, Frida Kahlo and Sally Ride in Barbie form, from Mattel's 'Inspiring Women Series'
Dolls from Barbie's 'Inspiring Women' range. Credit: Mattel

You never really notice how many Japanese tourists there are in central London, do you? They aren’t brutish like the Americans, and rarely go around complaining about everything like the French. They just blend into the background, quietly taking photos. But walking from Westminster to Soho in mid-July, on my way to a screening of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, they were suddenly unavoidable. The problem was that I couldn’t stop thinking about the letters splashed across my chest, written in bright pink, swirly script. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, the T-shirt screamed.

Like a dress that is too tight or heels too high, the shirt seemed like a good idea until I left the house. It was, you see, a “Barbenheimer” shirt, made to celebrate the fact that Barbie was coming out on the same day as Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, a thriller about the man who led the development of the atomic bomb. The clash of the two movies, with their incongruous combination of themes, was always bound to become a meme. Plans were hatched around the world to go see them one after the other and debates were had on which to see first – including what anyone could possibly wear to fit with both themes.

All this made me laugh a lot, which is why I headed to the Barbie press screening wearing what I did. I thought Greta Gerwig would approve; before she became the pet director of a multinational toy company, she worked on a series of witty indie movies. Every bit of marketing behind Barbie made it seem like she was winking at us from behind a bubble gum curtain, hinting that she hadn’t lost her edge. The whole thing would be odd and meta and knowingly farcical. Of course she’d love “Barbenheimer”. But walking to the cinema I suddenly became incredibly aware of the fact that I was wearing a T-shirt openly joking about the invention of a bomb that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Once in the Cineworld I experienced a different kind of unease. As journalists, we were told to sign an embargo and made to “pinky promise” not to leak anything by an upbeat woman holding her little finger in the air. Still, we were allowed – nay, encouraged! – to post any positive reactions we might have on social media. Large, pink bags of complimentary popcorn were sitting on our laps. What had we got ourselves into?

The lights went out, two hours passed, and by the end I still wasn’t sure. For the avoidance of doubt, Barbie is a fun movie. It is, at times, laugh-out-loud funny, Ryan Gosling’s Ken is hysterically compelling, and the many cameos never fail to delight.

The premise, if you must know, goes like this. Following a perfect day in Barbie Land, where Barbies are doctors and judges and journalists and Nobel Prize winners and presidents, and Kens are just Kens, one Barbie sinks into an existential funk. She sleeps poorly and cannot stop thinking about dying. The soles of her feet, once beautifully arched, are now stubbornly flat. There is cellulite on her thighs.

Following a visit to Weird Barbie, a wise old doll who was played with so much that her hips cannot help but fall into the splits, it is concluded that a tear has opened up in the fabric of reality, caused by the connection between our Barbie and the girl playing with her being too strong. In order to stop both worlds coming to ruin, the doll must go to the real world and find out what is going on.

What follows is…well, it’s a lot. At first, Mattel executives appear to be the main antagonists, wishing to put the human-sized doll back in her box. You may be shocked to hear that this doesn’t last – Mattel, after all, ordered and paid for the movie. Instead, the real twist comes when Ken, who followed Barbie on her jaunt, discovers the patriarchy.

Men run things in the real world! They have cars and horses! It isn’t like Barbie Land, where all they do is sit on the beach and yearn. He returns home before Barbie does and turns it into Kenland. By the time Protagonist Barbie comes back, all hell has got loose. What oh what can she and her human sidekicks do to restore the balance of the universe? You may be able to guess. It’s feminism. What else could it possibly be?

In fairness to Gerwig, she doesn’t go for the lowest hanging fruit of female empowerment. Barbies aren’t freed by being told that they can achieve anything a man can, if only they set their mind to it. Instead, their emancipation comes from a surprisingly irate speech from America Ferrera, playing the real-life mother of a teenage girl.

It is impossible to be a woman, she says: the female experience in a patriarchal society is so full of contradictions that no woman can go through it without going mad. We must be assertive without being bossy; we must have money but never ask for it; we must look good but not so good that we draw too much attention to ourselves; we must run things without telling anyone what to do, and so on. In Kenland, as in any other society ruled by men, women can never win. Faced with this maddening realisation, the Barbies short-circuit and return to their old selves.

Stripped of their power, the Kens begin lashing out then eventually demure. Running stuff is hard, it turns out! That’s what Gosling’s Ken tearfully tells Barbie. Because she is not in love with him, she tells him to find out who he is if he is not defined by his relationship with her. In the end, it feels worth noting that few people – or dolls – are truly happy, eschewing what would or should have been the conclusion of a more traditional storyline.

In short: the Barbie movie really isn’t as bad as it could have been, and I should know. I spent two hours chewing on my sweet, low-cal popcorn and scrutinising it. I took notes on the risqué jokes and pondered its politics on my walk home.

But then I caught myself wondering what wave of feminism Barbie felt closest to and it stopped me in my tracks. I’d gone to see a movie about a plastic doll, made by the very people who manufacture that plastic doll. What on earth was I on about?

I wondered if that is what the studio had wanted – if they’d been trying to have their cake and eat it. The Barbie movie is pink and saccharine and, yes, enjoyable enough that anyone, teenage or not, can turn it into a fun day out. Its producer and occasional madcap promotional work were intriguing enough that pretentious essayists like me can try to tear it apart and see if there really is anything going on underneath.

That doesn’t mean we should, though. What if the Barbie movie was just that, a bit of harmless entertainment? Must everything have depth? Equally, must all mainstream pop culture be treated as deserving of pointed criticism?

Mass internet culture has flattened everything and now all movies are treated the same – whether they are fantasy comedies, or heavyweights about the darkest parts of our history. I assumed I wanted to write an in-depth critique of Barbie because that is what people like me “ought” to do these days. I wore a T-shirt about a movie in which a man invents a bomb that can kill millions because I thought it was hilarious that it had become tied with a silly movie about girly girls. The meme had become so powerful that there was no meaning left.

It isn’t good for us, but it is good for business. People who probably do not care about military history got memed into going to watch a movie about it, and so did people who have no particular interest in children’s toys. As far as I’m concerned, it’s mostly made me want to have an existential crisis, which is ironic because that is what makes Barbie leave Barbie Land and join the real world. Perhaps she was the lucky one. What do you do if nothing feels real in your world, but there is nowhere else you can escape to?

This is a preview from the autumn 2023 issue of New Humanist. Subscribe now to get it delivered to your door in August.