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Not So Pink, After All: ‘Barbie’ Gets a Reality Check in a Man’s World

Not So Pink, After All: ‘Barbie’ Gets a Reality Check in a Man’s World

  • However, the movie will remain in my heart for some time and I will definitely watch it again with my daughter.

I saw the much hyped movie this Friday in Huntsville, Alabama. Most of the shows were sold out. The theater was mobbed by girls dressed in pink! Pink skirts, tops, hats and scarves fluttered around me and posed for pictures in the oversized Barbietoy box. There were a few guys but they wore Pink T-shirts too. I could tell that most of the viewers were ladies because the women’s bathroom showed signs of overuse. Girls were talking about the movie. How they loved it! But it also made them feel sad. The film is complicated and has many layers to unpack. But I could have lost the car chase and the several back-and-forth trips from dreamland to the real world but I guess tandem biking through tulip fields and windmills creates a pleasing visual! 

My Heidi Barbie, handmade by my mother for me.

Co-written and directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Greta Gerwig who is known for her sensitive portrayal of a turbulent mother-daughter bond in “Lady Bird,” is literally in “pink heaven” with the much-awaited “Barbie.” Co-directed with another close friend and Academy Award nominee Noah Baumbach, the movie is an American fantasy-comedy film based on Barbie fashion dolls by Mattel. It tracks the character arcs of “stereotypical” Barbie and Ken’s foray into the real world after Barbie has an existential crisis. 

If you remember, Gerwig, a talented actor, writer and director received international fame as the character Francis Ha (liday) from the movie directed by none other than Noah Baumbach

As the 2023 “Barbie” story goes, everything is perfect in Barbieland. There are bespoke parties, with glamorous outfits, vibrant decor, a pink circular slide, a sleek kitchenette and a luxurious pink convertible, and friends who are all called Barbie! 

But there is trouble in paradise. One day the titular Barbie wakes up on her heart-shaped pink bed and smells her “own bad breath.” Something is wrong. Because Barbie only pretend to eat so she cannot have dental decay. Not only that. Her pointy feet perfect to slip into pink stilettos are flat (this was simply hilarious). This tragedy evokes a wave of retching and nausea among all the Barbies and Kens. 

Stereotypical Barbie is terrified; she also notices “cellulite” on her plastic thighs. She goes to seek counsel from the weird Barbie played delightfully by Saturday Night Live alum Kate Mckinnon, with an irregularly sheared punk hairdo, felt pen marks on her face and limbs arranged easily in splits. It is weird that “Barbie” will relate to many girls who played too hard with their dolls. I know my nieces’ Barbies were constantly having a full hair and body makeover.

The lovely Margot Robbie looks the part of Barbie with her blond locks, and clever “nips, tucks and fillers” to her face to make it look more doll-like. But in Barbie’s pink plastic Barbieland there is another character who gets looked over by little girls and is often left in his box. He is Ken. Yes, Ken. In this movie as there are many diverse Barbies of all races, ages, ethnicity, body shape and vocation — narrator (Helen Mirren), doctor (model Hari Nef), mermaid (pop star Dua Lipa) judges, noble laureates and yes, even Madame President. There are also cute Kens. While Barbie flashes him a smile or two, she only wants to hang out with her other Barbies. 

I think Ryan Gosling as Ken, the Canadian heartthrob with his platinum blond hair, boyish smile, sculpted pecs and abdominal contours impossible to replicate even in plastic, steals the show. He is funny in his job description “beach” and comedic in a fight with plastic brooms and plungers. He also dances with the other Kens — Simu Liu (from Kim’s convenience) in a choreographed dance sequence dressed in black on pink ice in a cul-de-sac in Barbie Dream World. 

As I drove home from the movie theater, I discussed with my daughter the tightrope we walk as women in the patriarchal society. “We must lead but not be bossy. We should look thin but healthy and not too thin. We should have money but never ask for more money and so on.” 

Gosling also portrays how superficial Ken is. He portrays his now needy, now manly vibe with so much ease and charisma. Even though he crashes head-on into plastic waves, and cannot change the constitution, I know he will win awards for his performance and sell mountains of merchandise — the horse pendant, the faux mink coat, his roller blades, his denim vests and mini-fridges where he keeps his beer in his “Mojo dojo casa house.”

There is a cameo of Ruth Handler played by Rhea Perlman who created Barbie in 1958-1959, inspired by the German Lilli doll (1956). This changed the landscape of dolls on the face of the planet. Until then little girls were playing with homemade “cabbage patch” style or soft baby dolls. The only thing they could do with them was to feed them, burp them, sing them a lullaby, or put them to sleep. We played with handmade dolls or Mona dolls in India that were 1/10 the price of a Barbie! My sister pitched a massive fit because she wanted a Mona baby doll with blue eyes that opened and closed and she said “mama” in a sing-song voice. My dad bought it for her even though it broke our week’s budget. What I remember about that doll is that she had hair sewn only on the fringe of her head and most of the head was bald. 

The doll had a pink and white bonnet that my sister loved, for some (sisterly) reason I have the bonnet in my possession. I did not play with dolls much but loved marbles, stamps, toffee wrappers, feathers, colored stones, and books! 

I do have my own homemade Barbie doll though, nothing like the hourglass shaped Barbie in a swimsuit with cat eyeglasses and accessories that cost an extra arm and a leg. My favorite doll was handmade by my mother, I call her Heidi. She is blond and I painted her face. I selected the pink, blue and yellow chiffon fabric cuttings for her skirt and my mother laced and embroidered her apron.I took her out to examine Heidi this morning and she is intact with her lovely jewelry and silk socks. 

The movie portrays a glib over the top comedy with glorious detail to costumes and sets. It serves wonderfully as a blatant marketing strategy to sell campy merch for Mattel since they were involved in the production but Greta Gerwig makes the Barbie cast as diverse as possible. There is even Mitch, the pregnant Barbie, and the unglamorous Allan who can wear Ken’s clothes. Greta’s strong feminist voice surfaces as a strident monologue delivered by a mother, a graphic artist (America Ferrera) whose daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) helps her embrace her suppressed “seemingly dark and vulnerable” side. It just takes that speech for the brainwashed Barbies to snap out of their zombie existence.

As I drove home from the movie theater, I discussed with my daughter the tightrope we walk as women in the patriarchal society. “We must lead but not be bossy. We should look thin but healthy and not too thin. We should have money but never ask for more money and so on.” 

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I think it would be very challenging to say the least for men like Will Ferrell who plays Mattel’s CEO ensconced in his ivory tower/boardroom to dress in pink and live in the world where women live. They only know how to dress in expensive suits, retain their power via whispers and brand any woman who does not pander to their ego as a Jezebel! 

There were some political allusions in the movie in terms of “building a wall’ to keep women out. But the “Barbie” movie will remain in my heart for some time and I will definitely watch it again with my daughter. 

I remember my daughter playing with Barbies as a little girl. She loved to dress up and is still in love with high heels. The first Barbie I bought for her in the Pink City of Jaipur cost me 1,000 rupees. Her grandmother saved her Barbies. 

I dressed up that doll in an Indian red saree with gold trim (like a collectible Indian Barbie fashioned after Deepika Mutyala, founder and CEO of Live Tinted, the community and brand that has put brown skin make-up on the map), a memento from the pilgrimage to the Vaishno Devi mountains, and gave it to my sweet mother before she passed. She would arrange and rearrange her saree trying to sift through her fading memories and think of all the beautiful flounced, laced, and cancanned dresses she stitched for us. 

I am proud that my daughter became a multidimensional person and not stereotypical. She is a successful, compassionate doctor. She won Miss India Alabama, and Miss Congeniality, and is a logical thinker, an organized writer, and a visual artist. She whips up a decadent birthday cake, can mime, act, write scientific papers, play the piano and sing like a nightingale. 

Unlike Ruth Handler who holds Barbie’s hands and asks her to “feel” I ask my daughter to “feel, think and do.” I also don’t stand still so that my daughter can look back and see how far she has come but I keep walking and keep challenging her by moving forward every day. As did my mother.

With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

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