Barbie, Greta Gerwig
Warner Bros.

Fashion Is the Loose Thread in the ‘Barbie’ Movie’s Pink Armor

The pink fashion in the Barbie movie may seem like feminism, but if you squint deeper into the pinkwashing, you’ll spot some loose threads that you just have to pull.

Greta Gerwig
Warner Bros.
21 July 2023 (US)

The Barbie film is a $145 million feel-good summer blockbuster that nevertheless pays lip service to a critique of patriarchy and capitalism. One might say it’s an elaborate marketing tool that spoofs both marketing and tools. Ultimately, though, the blatant contradictions—when they’re not played for laughs—seem as smoothed over as the plasticine non-genitalia of the toys. The producers must have figured that if Barbie provides enough knowing winks, then its audience would turn a blind eye toward its shortcomings. As a Hollywood movie about dolls, though, it’s a fun romp that sells the candy-colored pseudo-feminist fantasias that its audience wants to see.     

Another perfect day in Barbie Land gets interrupted when “Stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie) is literally caught flat-footed by her recognition of mortality. Robbie visits the witchy guru “Weird Barbie”, an old played-out doll with botch-job bangs, doodled-over face, and twisted legs contorted into splits, for advice. While there, Weird Barbie—in a zippy performance by Kate McKinnon—points out that Barbie is beginning to suffer from that most extreme body horror manifestation: cellulite. 

The only solution for Barbie’s “existential crisis”, she claims, is to visit the “Real World” and find the person whose doll she is so she can heal “the rift in the space-time continuum”. When questioned further, Weird Barbie acknowledges that Barbie doesn’t have any agency in her choice of whether to go to the Real World. The choice isn’t something Barbie should think about too hard, she says. This is, after all, Hollywood make-believe.  

Ken, meanwhile, faces his own crisis. A ripped, bleached-blonde Ryan Gosling embodies “Beach Ken” whose occupation is merely “beach”, not lifeguard nor even a surfer. With little to do besides work on his tan and wait for Barbie to look at him, he finds himself a meaningless appendage, a soft boy or castrated male in a world where he has no role. He’s simply décor.

All the important jobs are taken by Barbies—doctor, writer, diplomat, physicist, supreme court justice. Barbie even prefers “girl’s night” slumber parties at her Dreamhouse to letting Ken sleep over. The ditzy Ken mopes about with wan anomie. Masculinity is an afterthought in female-dominated Barbie Land, a parodic utopia of girl-boss empowerment. Gosling’s Ken steals the show, channeling the moxie of Ben Stiller’s Derek Zoolander and then some, with a countervailing sense of malaise at his own emptiness as a himbo in “Herland”.    

Barbie motors off to the Real World, with Ken tagging along like a sad puppy. In the Real World, Barbie encounters catcalls and the male gaze, while Ken becomes smitten with the glories of toxic masculinity. Here, he realizes, boys rule the world. Meanwhile, Barbie’s disillusioned with her naïve belief that the dolls’ can-do attitude “solved” all of women’s problems. Nothing comes easy or free in the Real World, and soon the two find themselves smiling for mugshots and chased down by the corporate operatives at Mattel. 

When Barbie thinks she spots her human counterpart, Sasha, a surly junior-high goth girl (Ariana Greenblatt), she’s in for a rude awakening. Sasha tells her that she hates Barbies—the stupid doll set feminism back 50 years. Sasha ends her fierce monologue by calling Barbie “a fascist”, at which point Barbie runs away in tears. In a deft twist, it’s not Sasha Barbie was searching for, but her mother, Gloria (America Ferrera), who works as a receptionist at Mattel. Gloria has lately been daydreaming and sketching designs for dolls like Depression Barbie and Panic Attack Barbie. The scene offers a brief recognition that the brand she works for feeds the depression she feels.      

Inevitably, Barbie faces the boy’s club board room of bumbling corporate goons at Mattel, who hope to stuff her back in her box. Will Ferrell, as Mattel CEO, declares, “When you think of sparkle, what do you think after that? Female agency!” Out the window of the C-suite, the next building over boasts the Warner Brothers logo. There’s a meta-level in-joke here that breaks the fourth wall: you’re being sold a fantasy of empowerment through glitz and glam, which ultimately demoralizes and disenfranchises you. 

Both Warner Brothers and Mattel are, in fact, major producers of the very movie we’re watching, and by casting the loveable Ferrell as the “bad guy”, the film distracts us with goofy jokes and gorgeous outfits that hide the problematic issues the scenes bring up. Barbie simply runs off, escaping the boardroom and the Real World alike, taking Ken, Sasha, and Gloria with her back to Barbie Land. The letdown with Barbie is that the film runs away from its problems from this point on, too. Song-and-dance numbers with loads of sparkle and costume changes cover up a lack of motivated character development.    

Ultimately, Barbie decides to become a human and rejoin the Real World. But this seems a foregone conclusion—no more demonstrating real agency than her initial “choice” to visit the Real World. Once she experienced burnt toast, flat feet, cellulite, and existential dread, there was little else she could do: she’d been all too human from the start. Yet the ending is oddly static in the opposite way, too. No matter her human foibles, Barbie’s still Magot Robbie playacting a fabulous cinematic mannequin. 

Gen-Z Sasha, whose cynicism is one of her more winning features when we meet her, increasingly becomes pink, posh, and pixie-like as she spends more time in Barbie Land. Although she praises her mom for being “crazy, dark, and weird”, she’s evaporated of these very qualities in her character arc. She becomes an upbeat, bland, and basic tweeny-bopper. What starts out as a celebration of weirdness turns ordinary and boring.

Gloria, on the other hand, never finds any relief from her depressing circumstances; even her bankable suggestion to make an “Ordinary Barbie” seems unlikely to result in a raise. The best that can be said—and it’s a stretch—is that she comes to see herself as ordinary, perhaps, instead of weighed down by the aspirational tyranny imposed by any Barbie-like lifestyle and beauty standards. Yet she remains complicit in the desire-factory, keeping her day job working for Mattel.     

Ken, after discovering that leading the Kens was too hard, that Barbie never loved him, and the errors of his toxic bro-y ways, divests himself of his pimptastic wardrobe, including his full-length white mink coat. But the outcome for Ken remains uncertain. He’s been snared in his own thirst trap. There’s still nothing for him to do either in the Real World or Barbie Land. He even fails at being a cute accessory when Barbie leaves. We last see him wearing a pitiful tie-dyed sweatshirt.

In the pseudo-feminist fairyland of Barbie, Ken’s problematic masculinity looms large. It’s not just that the Kens are so helplessly jejune and incompetent; it’s that there’s no model of acceptable manhood to be found anywhere among their faux diversity. In the sea of buff Kens, there’s a single Allan, a fey asexual twink played by Michael Cera. Even when, for somewhat inexplicable reasons, he beats up several Kens later in the film, Allan’s patent lack of virility marks him as a gender farce, much like the Skipper (Hannah Khalique-Brown), a Barbie clone with inflatable breasts. Allan finds himself adopted into the honorary Barbie sisterhood, the equivalent of a “fag hag” in Barbie Land’s inverted gender dynamics where women hold all the power.

The iteration of Barbies strikes one as an obvious course correction, a hard sell to rescript a hegemonic beauty standard that Barbie herself reinforced for most of her existence. It follows Mattel’s rebrand of the doll in 2016 to include diverse representations that go beyond wasp-waisted leggy blondes. The iteration of Kens, however, feels like a catalog of self-involved ex-boyfriends: none of these poseurs is Mr. Right. A lot of Barbie’s light-hearted male-bashing masquerades as feminism.

Whether acting as Barbie’s accessory or the ruler of his own “Kendom” living in his “Mojo Dojo Casa House”, Ken is never his own man. Maybe that’s the point, though: masculinity is only a mask. Once Ken tosses out his macho paraphernalia, little to nothing is left. Toxic or tacky, feckless or reckless, men—all men—are essentially superfluous.      

That said, a man—Will Ferrell as CEO—gets third billing in Barbie. Ferrell’s character is the schtick we all know as Ferrell; at heart, he’s yet another Ken, a goofy man-child running amok with shambling braggadocio. The ostensible villain, he quietly triumphs both within the diegetic world of the film and outside of it. Go look around. You’re sure to spot Barbie tie-ins and branding everywhere you look this summer. Girl power, this is not. Barbie reads like textbook Adorno: late capitalism is savvy enough to incorporate its own critiques to inoculate itself from any pushback. 

As Alison Willmore writes at The Vulture, “There’s a streak of defensiveness to Barbie, as though it’s trying to anticipate and acknowledge any critiques lodged against it before they’re made, which renders it emotionally inert despite the efforts at wackiness… But the trouble with trying to sneak subversive ideas into a project so inherently compromised is that, rather than get away with something, you might just create a new way for a brand to sell itself.” Whereas similar here’s-the-marketing-tie-in gags or product-placement lampoons in, say, Wayne’s World or Spaceballs seem funnier if not necessarily genuinely subversive, Barbie’s cracks at the branding feel cringy. Essentially, Barbie is a giant commercial. Jokes about the brand can neither be easily dismissed as one-off punchlines nor as transgressive consciousness-raising. Ferrell’s jokes are on you. The real real-world corporate cronies get the last laugh. 

Those defending Barbie might note that reformulating feminist politics, earnestly deconstructing late capitalism, or even establishing positive role models is not the job of a cheeky satire. Fair enough. And admittedly, it’s fun to see masculinity burlesqued. For example, there’s an iconic moment when Gosling’s Ken dons a pair of sunglasses, Top Gun style, then in sheer absurd excess, flips a second pair on top of his first. Too much swole machismo deflates itself.

Mercifully, since there is no love plot to speak of between Barbie and Ken, the film avoids all the romcom clichés for slightly edgier fare. Indeed, the mythic “hero’s journey” quest seems to be the structural apparatus the story hangs its high heels upon, with the ghost of Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), the creator of Barbie, acting as Barbie’s spiritual mentor: in the role of Yoda, as it were, to Barbie’s Luke. But the heroic archetypes that undergird Barbie fit uneasily with the superficial campy frolic that the film so obviously craves to be.      

Perhaps it’s more to the point to critique Barbie on its own terms, then: not fascism, as Sasha’s mean-girl rant does, but fashion. A handful of fashion miscues only reinforce my sense of being nonplussed by the film. Indeed, a few fashion faux pas act to sum up some of Barbie‘s basic problems—or, problematics, if you want to be charitable about it—quite well. 

First, Gen-Z Sasha is a bit of a badass, even a little butch, dressed in head-to-toe black in baggy ripped jeans and a hoodie when we first meet her holding court at her junior high cafeteria table. A few scenes later in Barbie Land, however, she’s full-on femme, sporting a lacy pink babydoll dress, long lashes, and blush. If girls can be anything they want, as Barbie’s monologue proclaims, then shouldn’t they also be able to wear anything they want? Sasha seems like a surrogate for the audience members who are Barbie haters, too cool for dolls, but it takes almost nothing to convince her to don a babydoll dress soon after arriving in Barbie Land.

Sasha’s schizophrenic transformation indicates the limits of the pseudo-feminism that informs the film. If the costume designers wanted to show Sasha’s more “fun” personality as she grows closer to her mom, they could have opted for fishnets, a skirt with an oversized spikey belt, and a pink punk leather jacket, for example, keeping her butch badassery intact. To force Sasha to conform to a single, reified ideal of the “eternal feminine” is not only a disservice to her character development but also a telling discrepancy, reverting to old-fashioned gender essentialism.             

Second, once the Barbies help each other “snap out” of acting as foot-rubbers and brewski-fetchers in the patriarchal “Kendom”, they secretly convene to vote on a new constitution while the hordes of Kens fight amongst themselves in a dance-battle royale. But the outfits that every Barbie—and Allan—wear after they’ve been un-brainwashed are hot pink puffy onesies. Perhaps they’re meant to suggest hazmat suits to clean up the “toxic” masculinity? Maybe it’s an expression of sororal solidarity and not having to show any skin for the lads. I’m not sure. The outfits they wore while brainwashed—although tight Tees, skimpy cutoffs, and bikini-wear—at least expressed a degree of individuality. When they’ve been “un-brainwashed”, however, they ironically suit up in a ridiculous uniform. Because all are identical, they give the impression of Maoist conformity, as if they had been collectively indoctrinated by reading out of a little red pinko book.

Last and most troubling, Will Ferrell’s dark business suit employs a light pink button-down and a bright fuchsia tie. On one level, the ensemble links the CEO of Mattel to the Barbie franchise and the film’s predominant color scheme. On another level, though, it signifies his corporate “pinkwashing”. Pinkwashing is the marketing strategy of seeming to cheerlead feminism, LGBTQ+, and progressive gender ideals while, in fact, continuing questionable practices, aiming for capitalist profit motives and abetting politically retrogressive causes. The NFL’s support of breast cancer awareness through the specious Susan G. Komen Foundation or police vehicles emblazoned with hot pink paint jobs are common examples. Ferrell’s mansplaining CEO engages in his own humorous—because inept—pinkwashing during the film when questioned by Barbie, trying to excuse the boardroom’s creepy old men deciding how little girls should play with dolls.               

But these dual significations of Ferrell’s color choice in neckwear indicate the insidious contradiction Barbie embodies. Mattel, Inc. is positioned as both the feminist bogeyman within the film and the backers who profit outside of it. They have the audacity to mock pinkwashing while benefiting from it. Eliana Docktorman reported for a TIME Magazine cover story that COO and President of Mattel, Richard Dickson (yup, his real name), flew to the set to debate director Greta Gerwig and producer Margot Robbie over a scene in the shooting script he considered too “off-brand”. However, Dickson was won over after seeing it performed. 

No matter how much Gerwig appears to get away with, the suits are pulling the strings. It’s Dickson, after all, who regales this tale to make his brand seem edgy. In the same article, Robbie Brenner, the new Executive Producer for Mattel Films Division, says that “We’re in on the joke. This isn’t a Barbie puff piece.” To deny puffery is just another way to perform PR puffery. Although Barbie itself notes there are many contradictions of contemporary feminism, such corporate doublespeak is not one of them.        

Then again, current right-wing attacks on “woke” corporations might situate Barbie as provocatively leftist. Still, the film yearns to be more camp than Kulturkampf. It doesn’t take too much of a queer eye to imagine that the seeming lack of sex in Barbie Land is only of the heteronormative variety. The culture wars are merely contretemps to get the plot moving; they fade away by the end. Even the climactic battle of the sexes ends in a balletic dance-off. 

Midway through, Barbie begins shying away from political statements in favor of sentimental invocations of the “we’re-all-human” variety. Problems that had been attributed to patriarchy and capitalism in the beginning are naturalized and thus excused as inevitable problems of the human condition. The contradictions wrought by patriarchy and capitalism are not something to change; they’re something to acknowledge and accept as “human”. In this sense, Barbie is far from radical; it’s complacent.             

That said, the film does have its moments. Evocating the “siren call” quest for an impossibly perfect body, the cameos of Mermaid Barbie by Dua Lipa and Merman Ken by John Cena position the pop stars with today’s ideal figures of a woman and man furthest from anything grounded or attainable even for the denizens of Barbie Land. These and many similar bits show that Barbie is not without a certain sneaky humor throughout. 

When I attended the premiere at a university cinema in a big city, most of the young filmgoers were decked out in pretty outfits adorned with ribbons, stickers, or hair accessories coordinated in the film’s trademark color scheme. They resembled cosplayers and influencers. The disconcerting irony was that while Barbie accepts the fraught nature of becoming human, the human fans who crowded the theater aspired to doll themselves up as flawless Barbies. 

Was I entertained? Sure. But Barbie also made me entertain serious doubts about its ambivalent messages. Because the mixed messages were integral to the film—affecting the plot, characters, and humor—this putative feel-good movie, and not just its political posturing, had me feeling vexed. Maybe a box-office megalith risking some degree of thought – minimal though both the thought and risk are – is nevertheless a boon given our cultural climate.

There are, I’ll grant, a few real barbs in Barbie. But the film’s insistence on having it both ways, like its constant shuttling between Barbie Land and the Real World, means its message, whatever it is, ends up neither here nor there. Color me skeptical, but after a few chuckles, Barbie‘s substance (or lack thereof) left me less than tickled pink. 

Works Cited

Dockterman, Eliana. “How Barbie Came to Life“. TIME Magazine. 27 June 2023.

Willmore, Alison. “We Shouldn’t Have to Grade Barbie on a Curve”. The Vulture. 18 July 2023.