‘This Barbie Is a Feminist’: Greta Gerwig’s Barbie Reckons With Her Fraught Legacy

In Barbie, Greta Gerwig pushes a message of feminist disruption into the mainstream. It’s a huge start.

Margot Robbie, Alexandra Shipp, Michael Cera, Ariana Greenblatt and America Ferrera in a scene from Barbie. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Note: Spoilers to follow.

She’s everywhere. Billboards, bus stop posters, fro yo tie-insCrocs, an Airbnb in Malibu, a shower of pink sparkles on Google starting last week. The release of Barbie has come with a PR budget (and blitz) of proportions even more outsized than the original doll’s body (which would have prevented a human equivalent from standing upright). 

Yet pre-film, it’s fair to say that Barbie—doll and icon—was already everywhere, through her omnipresence in American doll culture and entrenchment in the consciousness (and likely deeper hold in the subconscious) of just about every girl and woman in America over the past 60 years.

There is no shortage of excitement, criticismlove, fury and a range of in-between emotions about the doll who—while famously childless—has spawned numerous sub-industries both celebrating and deconstructing her.

This past weekend’s Barbie-stravanganza brought out moviegoers in droves, often wearing bright pink and flashing jubilant smiles in the photo booths strategically placed in theatre lobbies across America. It beat out Oppenheimer box office sales handily and: “also scored the best domestic debut of all time for a title directed by a woman, surpassing 2019’s ‘Captain Marvel’ ($153 million),” according to the LA Times.

Most moviegoers left the theater, alongside their gal pals, beaming with joy at their icon’s unexpected heroine’s journey. Some—and not just conservatives, I’ll guess—were probably disappointed that director Greta Gerwig has crossed the pink plastic icon, brilliantly and subversively, over from “Barbieland” (through a hole in the ‘space-time continuum’) with flattened feet, thoughts of death, existential angst and (gasp) cellulite … to the ‘real world.’ As the film puts it, it’s “trading the plastics of Barbieland for the plastics of Los Angeles.”

This mirroring becomes highly meta and allows Gerwig to confront a range of responses to the doll, including the generational divide between mother (America Ferrera, who loves Barbie and works as an assistant at Mattel, and, perhaps in a nod of tribute, is named Gloria) and her teenage daughter (Ariana Greenblatt), who has no trouble detailing the negative influences pinned on Barbie—culminating in calling her a fascist with the direct and damning line that she has “set the feminist movement back years.” This ‘worlds collide’ setup showcases the precise conundrum Barbie has been mired in for decades: Is she a feminist icon (unmarried, career-driven) or a perpetually unrealistic symbol replicating stereotypes that undermine girls?

The ending seems a return to what actual women need: to be in charge of their own bodies. 

At her job at Mattel, Ferrera has been surreptitiously making sketches of “Irrepressible Thoughts of Death Barbie,” “Crippling Shame Barbie” and “Depression Barbie” at her desk, in stark contrast to the corporate agenda. It’s her (secret) work that sets the conversation going about what else lurks behind the illusion of perfection.  

Sent on a mission by “Weird Barbie” (brilliantly played by Kate McKinnon) Barbie must find the girl whose frustration is triggering the angst she feels in parallel, which is disturbing the exuberant Girl Power matriarchy of Barbieland—where the president, Supreme Court and Nobel Prize winners are, of course, all female, and Ken is an accessory she’d just as well disregard.

The Barbies are of all different races, sizes, abilities, and in an understated but radical move, include trans actor Hari Nef. Once in LA, “Stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie) flees to the ‘mothership’ of Mattel’s headquarters and the corporation willingly allows itself to be lampooned. In one of many pointed asides Gerwig embeds into the film, Will Ferrell (as CEO) stumbles his way through an absurd monologue about how supportive he is of women—with the entirely male board flanking him. Then, when asked how representation now works, an exec comes out with the line that they just know how to “hide” inequity better.

The tensions within the film emerge from having Robbie grapple directly with the cultural conversations that Barbie has sparked for years. Gerwig allows these dichotomies to play out in a meta-reversal as Barbie, outside of the female-sphere of Barbieland, recognizes her legacy is the inverse of what she thought.

In a hilarious moment, she and Ken are so confused by Venice Beach, they spot a construction site and go over to be uplifted by “some good female energy,” as they would in Barbieland by a crew of all-female construction workers. Instead, Barbie is ogled and objectified. Another inversion sets in as Ken recognizes the powers inherent in patriarchy, just as Barbie understands its harms. 

After Ken embraces patriarchy and imports it back to Barbieland, converting the Kens to its gains and somehow mesmerizing the Barbies into stereotypical gender servitude, Robbie (now accompanied by Ferrera and Greenblatt) use subterfuge—as women so often must—to wake up their spellbound kin. They play off male tropes, such as a need for validation with the net goal of turning the Kens against each other. “Let me play my guitar at you for hours and stare awkwardly into your eyes” one Ken says, during which the lyrics, “I want to push you around” emerge as an anthem. 

In what is perhaps the film’s most unexpected twist, Ken is made aware of how patriarchy entraps him—and the other Kens share this realization, all played out in a song and dance number. There is a mutual humanization by the film’s end that moves the Barbies and the Kens away from polarizing stereotypes. 

To call this reframing ‘radical’ within a mainstream box office film is not too far a stretch.

Barbie, outside of the female-sphere of Barbieland, recognizes her legacy is the inverse of what she thought.

Issa Rae in Barbie. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

There are many other galvanizing moments within the film. Ferrera’s extended speech about the entrenched contradictions girls and women must endlessly reconcile is one. She outlines impossibilities:

“Always be grateful, but never forget that the system is rigged, so find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful.”

“We have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.” 

“You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas.”

Ferrera has been clear how Robbie, as the film’s star, turned over its most important monologue to her, and her inclusion felt like a progressive move. “That kind of thing doesn’t often happen for Latinas in this industry,” Ferrera said “There are so few roles created for us, and it’s not in $100-million movies that are about cultural icons.”

Gerwig is also unafraid to break the fourth wall—as narrator Helen Mirren does, by commenting that in a film that examines appearance and its effects, Robbie wasn’t necessarily a wise choice to combat stereotypical ideals of female beauty. Michael Cera, as outlier Allan (discontinued but first introduced to be Ken’s friend) openly occupies an ambivalent ‘non-Ken’ male space, as he becomes Barbie’s ally. Similarly, the one male executive at Mattel who whistleblows that Barbie is breaking form says at one point, “I’m a man with no power. Does that make me a woman?” Appearing in just a few short scenes, Ferrera’s husband and Greenblatt’s father is also dismissed as an accessory to the central story line between mother and daughter, in another way in this film scores off the chart in the Bechdel Test.

This willingness to press hard into the definitions of gender stereotyping, to examine power, and—as Ken later cries and Barbie apologies to him for her dismissal of his feelings—opens up new models that release from the uber-model of femininity and masculinity, is at the heart of Gerwig’s project.  

Could it have gone farther, further indicting Mattel’s corporate greed at girls’ (literal and psychological) expense? Yes. But when Ken’s colonization of the Barbie houses into “Mojo Dojo Casa Houses,” a Mattel ‘numbers guy’ quickly comments that they are now “selling off the shelves.” It’s a clear self-indictment that acknowledges corporations will ride cultural waves to turn a profit and capitalism is part of this story—and shouldn’t be the influence that dictates gender stereotypes.  

When Barbie is asked to “get back into the box” at Mattel headquarters—in other words, to quell the rebellion—she uses a familiar trope to escape an uncomfortable situation: telling the board she has to use the bathroom. After fleeing down the halls, she ducks into a room that seems to replicate a 1950s kitchen with an older woman (Rhea Perlman) offering her tea and saying she always thinks best around a kitchen table. I knew immediately this would be Ruth Handler, Barbie’s inventor and the first president of Mattel. (Ferrell later confirms that her ghost haunts one of the floors).  

During Ferrell’s bumbling speech in which he tries to convince Barbie of his sympathy towards women, he also throws in that “some of his best friends are Jews”—another nod to Handler’s roots and a coded reference to her outsider status in the 1950s and underlying critique that Barbie (based on a German doll, the Bild Lilli) was a bid towards assimilation.  

When Handler comes back to take Barbie’s hand at the close of the movie, it is a moving tribute—particularly since they walk off to an unspecified place which symbolizes a move away from binary categories. This scene is foregrounded when Stereotypical Barbie tells an elderly woman she spots at a bus stop she is beautiful, an exchange meant to disrupt and reframe definitions of beauty. 

In the film’s final scene, Robbie—symbolically wearing pink Birkenstocks on her now flat feet—is psyching herself up to get out of a car, accompanied by Ferrera, Greenblatt and husband/father Ryan Piers Williams, (Ferrera’s real life spouse) whose presence I took to be a show of male support. It is finally revealed is that she’s going to an appointment with “her gynecologist.” It seemed a curious ending until I realized what it symbolized—that Barbie in the real world has an actual vagina (spoofed earlier in the film that she and Ken are absent of genitalia) and moves from a place of representing sexuality to needing reproductive care.  

The ending seems a return to what actual women need: to be in charge of their own bodies.  While I’m sure the film was finished before more recent reproductive rights developments—the implication of Barbie showing up to this very real type of appointment is not lost.  

Gerwig pushes her message of disruption as far as she can for a mainstream movie—one that millions are going to see out of connection to the touchstone that is Barbie. She is reckoning with her legacy and literally rewriting the script through active questioning and engagement with a legacy—plus great costumes and some fun song and dance scenes. It’s a huge start.

Up next:

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Elline Lipkin is a poet, academic and nonfiction writer. Her first book of poems, The Errant Thread, was chosen by Eavan Boland for the Kore Press First Book Award. Her second book, Girls’ Studies, explores contemporary girlhood in the United States. Currently a research scholar with the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA, Elline also teaches poetry for Los Angeles Writing Classes. As a nonfiction writer, she has written about everything from being a feminist bride to female mentorship and influence within the literary world, as well as Barbie’s new body and “fauxpowerment.”