Is ‘Barbie’ the Most Feminist Blockbuster Ever?

'Barbie' is for women, about women and by women, and that's something the entertainment industry hasn't seen yet.

Margot Robbie in Barbie. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie may just be the most unabashedly feminist blockbuster of all time. It’s hardly the first, and its pink-hued paradise may not seem the most revolutionary, but this movie is for women, by women, about women—and that’s something new and necessary in this industry. Gerwig’s previous movies Lady Bird and Little Women deftly touched on women’s issues and experiences, but Barbie sees the writer and director creating her own feminine mystique for the modern woman. 

A blockbuster aimed at women

Barbie joins the small but growing group of blockbusters that put women and their stories on the biggest screens imaginable. From the original outputs of the Alien and Terminator franchises to recent hits like The Woman King and Marvel’s Black Widow and Captain Marvel, women have been able to make major box office impacts. However, a look back at these successful female-fronted films reveals a fairly small range of genres. Superheroes, robots, treacherous worlds with enemies and action galore—these are the main events. These trappings have long been the arena for iconic male characters, making it neat and novel when women hop into the role of the protagonist. Turning the hero into the heroine often makes for exciting and empowering movies, but the benchmark (and audience) for these films is defined by men. 

Margot Robbie as Barbie looking over Barbieland. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Barbie breaks that mold as a movie that is shamelessly feminine. The film is drenched in pink, the conflict is emotional in nature, and its more action-packed sequences turn into meticulously choreographed and color-coordinated numbers. Like Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie, the movie is stereotypically girly, but being “girly” doesn’t diminish Barbie’s worth. In fact, the film has reported the most presales of any theatrical release this year. 

Its early success is paradigm-shifting in how it elevates femininity. We live in a world (and, by extension, an entertainment industry) that sees maleness as the default, as the baseline, as something inherently appealing for all; anything female in nature is alienating and limiting. Male-dominated movies are for everyone, but chick-flicks are for girls only. Barbie challenges that by standing as a hyper-feminine film set to dominate the summer box office.

Margot Robbie as Barbie, Alexandre Shipp as Barbie, Michael Cera as Allan, Ariana Greenblatt  as Sasha and America Ferrera as Gloria (from left) in Barbie. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Barbies plot is feminist to its core

This section contains spoilers about Barbie

Though irrepressible thoughts of death are what clue Margot Robbie’s Barbie into the fact that something’s wrong, her fear about what’s happening to her doesn’t really take hold until she discovers a patch of cellulite on her leg. It’s a beat repeatedly played for laughs in the movie, but it’s the first of many moments when the seemingly-perfect Barbie discovers the self-consciousness that comes with being a woman in a patriarchal society.

As she and Ken (Ryan Gosling) venture into the Real World, she’s confused over men ogling her with a notable “undertone of violence.” She doesn’t quite grasp the double entendres thrown her way by a group of construction workers, but she can tell that they’re making lewd suggestions. Barbie’s ignorance about the patriarchy and the kind of behavior it normalizes is equal parts funny and relatable, while Ken’s immediate affinity for the sexist hierarchy shows how corrupting that promise of manpower is.

When Barbie and her new human compatriots Gloria (America Ferrera) and Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) return to Barbieland to find it completely Kenergized, they must band together to snap the other Barbies out of the patriarchal spell they’ve been put under. After Ferrera’s character delivers an empowering, chills-worthy speech on the cognitive dissonance required under patriarchy, the Barbies rediscover their agency and autonomy and reify their power through the democratic political process—and that’s some textbook feminism.

(Left center) Ana Cruz Kayne as Barbie, (center) Issa Rae as Barbie. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Feminism and discussions of gender inequality are integral to Barbie’s plot, much like other blockbusters like Mad Max: Fury Road and Wonder Woman. The former directly attacks the objectification of women and addresses reproductive rights, as Charlize Theron’s iconic Furiosa rescues a group of women forced to be wives and mothers of the post-apocalyptic world’s tyrannical ruler. In the latter, director Patty Jenkins reshaped the superhero blockbuster to be female-forward, as Gal Gadot’s Amazonian warrior puts an end to a man-made war, emphasizing truth, kindness and justice.

Gerwig credits Wonder Woman for making a movie like Barbie possible: “There’s no way we would’ve been able to make this movie if [Jenkins] hadn’t made Wonder Woman and it was successful. That’s just true.” Adding to that relation is the fact that neither Barbie nor Wonder Woman has a concept of the patriarchy or gender roles in her respective movie, and each confronts the backwards reality she finds herself in with skepticism. But while action movies like Mad Max and Wonder Woman feature women going toe-to-toe with the men who are their enemies, Barbie has its characters fight against the idea that these men should wield such unequal power in the first place.

Barbies all: Ana Cruz Kayne, Sharon Rooney, Alexandra Shipp, Margot Robbie, Hari Nef, and Emma Mackey (from left) all as Barbie in Barbie. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

A self-aware representation of women

Barbie makes a further feminist statement in the diversity and depth of the women it casts, both in the Real World and Barbieland. It’s with a wink to the audience that Robbie’s Barbie is called Stereotypical Barbie, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, beautified embodiment of everyone’s first thought when they hear “Barbie.” The rest of her world is populated by dolls of all shapes, races and abilities, from Issa Rae’s President Barbie to Sharon Rooney’s Lawyer Barbie.

Several of the movie’s actresses have made salient points on the importance of showing as many different Barbies as possible. Rae noted that she was initially worried that the film may be “too white feminist-y,” but got on board because of how self-aware the script was. Hari Nef, the trans model and actress who plays Dr. Barbie, posted a portion of a letter she sent to Gerwig and Robbie about her casting, writing that “identity politics and cinema aren’t my favorite combination, but the name BARBIE looms large over every American woman.” She further commented on the complexity of the doll’s legacy, noting that Barbie represents “such a strict standard created by the patriarchy that deserves to be scrutinized but also a promise of liberation and safety and belonging.”

Hari Nef, Alexandra Shipp, Sharon Rooney, Ana Cruz Kayne, and Emma Mackey (from left) all as Barbie in Barbie. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

The movie engages in this debate with real wit and heart. Tween Sasha is more than justified in criticizing the long-term impacts of Barbie’s look and consumerist tilt (though her impassioned cry of “FASCIST!” isn’t quite so well-informed), but at the same time, Barbie finds beauty in every woman. In one of the film’s sweetest moments, Robbie’s character turns to an old woman and says that she’s beautiful; the woman happily responds, “I know it.” Barbie knows that its namesake is fraught with a history that has maintained sexist ideas as much as it’s challenged them, and the film confronts that tension headfirst.

Ultimately, feminism is in this film’s fantastically plastic DNA, from its script to its cast to its release strategy. Women and their experiences are at the forefront of everything that Barbie seeks to address and represent, and it’s an exciting new entry into the annals of film history because of that.

Is ‘Barbie’ the Most Feminist Blockbuster Ever?