By Devon Webb
In the month of July, the entire public consciousness – at least, that of anyone with even a passing interest in pop culture & the cinematic arts – becomes awash with a startling array of pink. Republican men scream misandry from the metaphorical rooftops of their mojo dojo casa houses. Margot Robbie obliterates all accusations of never serving on the red carpet. Ryan Gosling takes ‘committing to the bit’ to new levels. Greta Gerwig becomes the highest-grossing female director in Hollywood’s infamously man-orientated history. So how did we get here, and what was this movie made for?
The Barbaissance began with an idea: an idea that, in the wrong hands, could have resulted in not much more than the tacky cash-grab mush so often pissed out by Hollywood producers with dollar signs where their creative vision should be. But, after the collapse of various incarnations of the project – which in retrospect seem like kind and necessary twists of fate – the dream fell into exactly the right hands: those belonging to the Barbie of this universe’s collective destiny, Margot Robbie.
The success of the Barbie movie doesn’t have shit to do with Mattel, or the repugnant Warner Bros (whose detestable behaviour is a story for another day). This feat of cinema can primarily be attributed to the hearts and imaginations of two women: Margot Robbie, and the director she hand-picked for the project, the critically acclaimed tour de force that is Greta Gerwig.
Greta came onto this project with two solo directorial credits to her name: Lady Bird (2017, Oscar-nominated), and Little Women (2019, Oscar-winning). Both of these movies share a certain combination of traits: they’re femme-centric, they’re funny, they’re perfectly cast, and they’re uncannily relatable, delivering certain gut punches in the dialogue (‘but do you like me?’ and the ‘but I’m so lonely!’ monologue come to mind). It’s no surprise, then, that Margot Robbie knew exactly who to bring on for this feminist glitter-bomb. There’s nobody quite like Gerwig to bring a satirical insight and quirk to what might seem a superficial concept on the surface (writing the script in collaboration with her husband Noah Baumbach, who I suppose we’ll deign to mention).
And we certainly can’t forget the third essential component, the true epitome of Kenergy: Ryan Gosling. According to production lore, Greta and Margot both knew he was the only man for the role. But he was a hard sell – that is, until he saw his daughter’s Ken doll lying face down in the mud, next to a squished lemon. He took a photo of this tableau and sent it to Greta saying “I shall be your Ken, his story must be told”. And the rest, as they say, is history – and an extremely quotable press tour.
With all ingredients assembled (including a star-studded ensemble cast featuring the likes of Issa Rae, Ncuti Gatwa, Kate McKinnon, Dua Lipa, Michael Cera, and the especially notable America Ferrera) the visionaries in question started cooking. It was at this point, courtesy of the internet, that teasing morsels started to be drip-fed to the public, and a widespread appetite was aroused.
The first fragment of publicly-available Barbie Movie content was the iconic corvette image, followed by some set photos featuring Margot and Ryan in their fluro roller-blading outfits. It’s difficult to explain to anyone not chronically online the collective inhale that occurred across Twitter as we realised from a mere handful of low-quality, phone-camera photographs: oh, yeah, this movie’s gonna eat. The Marketing Campaign (capitals, because frankly there’s been nothing like it in the history of marketing and it ought to be studied for decades to come) continued in this breadcrumb fashion of tantalising titbits, from the teaser trailer parodying Kubrick’s Space Odyssey to the ‘This Barbie’ character posters that lit the internet on fire and fed into the already robust meme culture stemming from these promotional materials.
The meme-ability of the film was also enormously exacerbated when it was announced that it would be releasing on the same day as Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. The dichotomy in tone of the two highly anticipated movies was a natural catalyst for internet humour, and the cultural conversation and hype this generated was hugely beneficial for both films, with box office analysts saying they’d never seen anything like it. Cinemas and audiences alike embraced the phenomenon in huge numbers, with the contrasting aesthetics reflected in Barbenheimer outfits and advertising all across the world – the kind of organically-generated marketing gimmick that Hollywood could never hope to reproduce through artificial means.
As Summer arrived, with release just around the corner, Barbie’s materialistic roots came through with an unprecedented deluge of merchandising and brand collaborations. Barbie clothing, Barbie make-up, Barbie jewellery, Barbie Hot-Wheels, Barbie Xbox consoles, Barbie fro-yo, Barbie pasta (yes, really), Barbie Candy Crush, Barbie boat cruises, a Barbie Air BnB, a Barbie hotel for the press tour – you name it, it went Barbie-core.
The cast and crew also got behind the aesthetic in a big way, with production causing a nationwide shortage of pink paint and the international press tour providing plenty of opportunity for iconic red-carpet looks. Margot Robbie in particular went above and beyond, as she would, with her new stylist Andrew Mukamal recreating the archival outfits of several historic Barbies, including the glamorous Enchanted Evening Barbie and the classic one-piece clad Original Barbie, to name just a few. It really was like Barbie roaming the earth as a life-sized version of herself.
When the review embargo lifted on July 18th, the film was immediately hailed as a ‘cinematic triumph’ and ‘a deeply cathartic experience’. It obliterated the box office upon opening, maintaining a steady run and breaking several records – including the highest grossing film of 2023, the highest grossing film by a solo female director, and the highest grossing Warner Bros film ever (beating every Harry Potter film, inspiring a satisfying image of JK Rowling fuming in her pit of prejudice at being outgrossed by a film with a trans woman seamlessly celebrated as one of the girls). It currently sits at number 14 in the rankings of worldwide all-time box office grosses, having raked in a current total of $1.5 billion – prior to its upcoming Imax re-release with bonus post-credit footage, which is certain to prompt a widespread return to the theatre.
It's also garnered plenty of Oscar buzz, notably in the acting categories for Margot, Ryan, & America Ferrera, alongside a director nomination for Greta after her frankly insulting Little Women snub. It’s also a strong Best Picture contender, as well as hugely deserving of Production Design (Sarah Greenwood), Costume Design (Jacqueline Durran), and Original Song nods, though whether the latter will be attributed to Billie Eilish or Ryan Gosling remains to be seen.
So what was the reason for Barbie’s creative, cultural and financial success? Hollywood seems to take it as confirmation that a ‘Mattel Cinematic Universe’ is both wanted and necessary (it’s not), when really anyone with half a brain can see that the takeaway should be to make more movies for women, by women – with humour, heart and genuine artistry. Several factors came together to make the Barbie Movie a commercial and critical hit, and while the universal popularity of the IP certainly had something to do with it, its translation into the cinematic medium wouldn’t have been as vibrant and thematically nuanced without the creatives at the helm.
Margot was entirely correct about Great Gerwig being the perfect person to spearhead this vision, as her achievements with Lady Bird and Little Women proved her talent for telling femme-centric stories on screen with an endearing balance of comedy, profundity and unique flair. Barbie is a whole lot of camp, glitzy fun, but it also has deeply poignant themes and narrative arcs at its core – about what it’s like to be a woman, and on a wider scale what it’s like to be a flawed human in a flawed human world, so far from the pastel plastic utopia of Barbieland.
This integral humanity of the film is part of what made it so moving for such a large range of audiences: many have remarked, especially before its release, on the inherent capitalist superficiality of a Hollywood production centring an IP infamous for unrealistic beauty standards and commercial consumerism. But Gerwig had the skillset needed to satirise this concept, subverting expectations whilst simultaneously delivering a commentary on those very themes, and also the deeper meaning behind the intersection of what Barbie represents and her impact on the real world.
Naturally, any work of art, especially those with socio-political themes, is subject to critique. Many (men) have accused it of being man-hating, including Ben Shapiro in his infamous 43-minute tirade that probably did more to promote the film than deter audiences, amid various other fragile conservative voices. Anyone perceiving cinema outside of the distorting lens of their own ego will know that Barbie is anti-patriarchy rather than anti-man, and there’s an integral difference between those two things which it goes to great length to illustrate. Men deserve to forge their own identities outside of society’s prescribed blueprint of ‘masculinity’ or their relationship with a significant other, in the same way that Barbie’s message to women is that they can do and be anything they wish in an independent capacity, free of any kind of reliance on or necessity of approval from others.
However, there’s also been criticism from the opposite end of the spectrum, suggesting that the film’s approach to feminism is ‘juvenile’ and lacking in complexity. While I think the critique is not invalid, my response would be: a) isn’t Barbie literally a ‘juvenile’ property marketed primarily towards young women? and b) were we really expecting the Barbie movie to offer an answer to the deeply entrenched issue of gender inequality within modern society? Were we expecting it to be militant? To deliver a gender studies thesis addressed to academics and intellectuals? Must we really diminish an explicitly feminist work for not being perfect or enough and is that not in itself an anti-feminist concept directly addressed within the movie? I would suggest that Barbie’s ‘juvenile’ approach was intentional – in delivering a message that was inclusive and accessible for women, men and young people, and in being relatable and necessary but also just plain fun. I personally think it struck this balance perfectly, using humour to deliver a commentary on gender and womanhood with an air of levity that chooses to embrace rather than alienate an audience spanning a wide array of identities, age groups, and previous exposure to the nuanced socio-political issues experienced by women today.
I think it’s this sense of joy and celebration, alongside the impact of such universal lamentations of womanhood so succinctly presented in America Ferrera’s monologue, that have made the film such a significant cultural event. This is a movie that equates to more than what happens on screen or in Hollywood – it’s the nostalgic return to the playful escapism of our girlhoods, it’s crying beside your mother in a packed-out theatre, it’s saying Hi Barbie! to strangers wearing pink because you share a sisterhood even though you do not know their name. It’s realising that it’s okay to be an idealist, and it’s okay to be sad, and it’s okay to follow your dreams, and it’s okay to be ordinary, and it’s okay to be content. Because being a woman is nuanced, not some one-size-fits-all commodity, and we were not made for anything but our own journey, which we have the autonomy to choose.
About the Writer:
Devon Webb is a 25-year-old poet and writer based in Aotearoa New Zealand. She writes full-time, exploring themes of femininity, youth and vulnerability. She shares her poetry online, through live performance, and has been widely published both locally and internationally. She is the two-time Wellington Slam Poetry Champion and is currently working on the final edits of her debut novel, The Acid Mile. Her work can be found on Instagram, Twitter & TikTok at @devonwebbnz.