Oscar Watch 2023: Barbie


For whatever reason last year, Barbie was the only one of the Oscar nominees I saw in theaters. While 2023 had a couple of films I considered big events (namely John Wick – Chapter 4 and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One), nothing really compared to Barbie. The internet sensation that was “Barbenheimer” helped propel this pinkalicious picture to the top of the box office charts week after week. When all was said and done, Barbie was the highest-grossing film of 2023 and the 14th highest-grossing film of all time. Holy shit.

Now, box office return doesn’t mean a lick of anything regarding quality. The second highest-grossing film for 2023, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, was fairly mediocre. Sometimes a film manages to hit at the exact point where the cultural zeitgeist is ready for it, even if the movie isn’t all that hot. I’m not claiming that Barbie isn’t a well-made and tremendously entertaining film, but upon rewatching it for the first time since its theatrical run, I think I’ve cooled on the movie a bit.

Now, that’s not to say I suddenly disagree with the review Flixist has. As Jesse Lab wrote, “Barbie is bright, meaningful, and a joy to watch with so many things to like about it. It’s a comedy that loves the subject it’s based on and never comes across as a parody. It’s lovingly crafted and will strike right at the core of anyone who ever played with a Barbie doll growing up. There’s love in Barbie and passion.” That’s 100% true and is paramount to why the film even works. Still, I think the story loses a lot of its oomph once you know where everything is going.


© Warner Bros.

Obviously, spoilers are ahead, but I’m not sure if there is a person on the planet who hasn’t seen Barbie by this point. So, the big “twist” that Ken is secretly the villain plays tremendously well when you aren’t expecting it. The marketing leading up to Barbie’s release never hinted at some deception from Barbie’s boyfriend. Smartly, Warner Bros. and the marketing department leaned into the Matrix-like quality of Barbie’s story instead of putting so much emphasis on what Ken would be doing in the film. When you know the turn is about to happen, it loses that surprise factor.

I’m also of the mind that the politics of the film are a little on the nose. I say this when there are millions of discussion threads online saying that Barbie is pandering or part of some “woke” ideology, but there isn’t much depth to Barbie. I understand this is because the film is a mainstream crowd-pleaser, first, but it does make rewatching feel a little tired. You want some extra scenes with Barbie and Ken facing the reality of their situation, but the film is more interested in quickly moving through plot points to get to the story instead of fleshing out its characters.

That said, it’s still amazing that Barbie wound up being not only successful but bold in its execution. It would have been really easy for Greta Gerwig to simply make an extended commercial for Mattel and its famous doll, but that’s not what we got. Similar to The Lego Movie, Barbie takes a wild swing by making its titular protagonist go on a story of self-discovery and actual growth. This isn’t just, “Hey, I need new shoes,” but a plot where Barbie (Margot Robbie) has to confront some uncomfortable truths about the world while also trying to discover what she’s actually good at. Then there’s Ken (Ryan Gosling), who’s mucking things up in Barbieland by introducing the concept of patriarchy.

© Warner Bros.

Ken might be the villain, but he’s also not some irredeemable idiot. One of my favorite scenes is when Barbie brings Gloria (America Ferrera) and Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) to Barbieland only to find that Ken has usurped Congress to instate his own regime. When she speaks out to her fellow Barbies about how she failed them, Ken interjects, “No, you failed me!” Throughout the film, Ken just wants Barbie’s attention and she continuously takes his presence for granted. That built resentment in him, which in turn led him to install patriarchy in Barbieland as a means to get Barbie’s attention.

That plotline eventually resolves by the end with Barbie and Ken going their separate ways, but not on bad terms. Ken is initially confused as he believes they’ll be dating, but Barbie explains to him how he needs to figure out who he is by himself. As she states, “Maybe it’s Barbie, and it’s Ken.” As a toy, Ken will never have the same popularity as Barbie, but that doesn’t mean he’s a joke or some throwaway addition. Ken has a purpose and he needs to find it.

There’s also been a lot written about Allan (Michael Cera) for upending the traditional idea of masculinity. While all of the Ken’s are pretty stereotypical with regards to depictions of masculinity in media, Allan is kind of the reverse. He’s shy, scrawny, and not constantly seeking a woman to put under his arm. When Kendom becomes a thing, he wishes to aid Gloria and Sasha as they return to the real world to escape it. He doesn’t much enjoy fawning over women all day and fighting about superfluous things like hairstyle, coats, horses, or whatever garbage the Kens like. It’s a fantastic turn from Cera, who practically seems born to play roles such as this.

© Warner Bros.

Even more than specific character moments, I like that Barbie is critical of both feminism and patriarchy. While patriarchy does get more of the ire here -and rightfully so-, it’s not like the Barbie approach to leadership is without its faults. Reversing our real-world leadership style, Barbieland is completely run by women and has made men out to be accessories. While never demeaning them like how women are in reality, the Kens don’t serve much purpose. They are not equals and that lopsided power structure eventually leads to them lashing out. The ultimate message is that we need equality in our government and our lives as no gender is better than another.

Still, this is all just basic messaging that feels a little flat when the credits roll. Barbie is a fantasy and it presents an almost comically black-and-white idea of gender politics. I know that the film is in on the joke as Helen Mirren narrates the opening by saying something to the tune of, “And the Barbies solved problems for women once and for all,” but that still doesn’t acknowledge how difficult making change is. Real systemic problems in the government can’t be solved with a two-hour road trip film. For Barbie dolls, they can just trick the Kens into a big dance number while they vote and then conclude a film by wrapping everything up neatly.

Annoying as that might be, none of it truly matters by the end. One of the most important messages you can take from Barbie is that simply existing in this world is more than enough. We don’t all have to be some grand showman, an important artist, or even widely known to be worth living. Much like how Ken is Kenough, you and I are enough. If we happen to help others along the way, then that’s really all we could ask for.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.