Readers Write In #614: The Barbie movie – plastic, and fantastic with some toxic (masculinity)

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Readers Write In #614: The Barbie movie – plastic, and fantastic with some toxic (masculinity)

By Aparna Namboodiripad

Barbie starts with an emotionally charged scene where little girls smash their baby dolls to pieces to replace them with adult Barbie dolls. Earlier, dolls were infants and girls were expected to mother them, but Barbie revolutionised girls to see themselves in their dolls – or an impossibly hour glass figured version of themselves. The movie mostly speaks to adults who grew up with Barbies, and as someone who has never owned a Barbie in her life, I did not have any nostalgic affinity with the models or the dresses shown, as some may have had. 

However, parts of it resonated with me. In the utopian Barbie world, women are at the top of everything – there are Barbies who are president, Nobel prize winners, doctors and in the supreme court, and the male Kens are just extra fittings. When our protagonist, the  ‘stereotype Barbie’ with her Ken, reach the outside ‘real world’ for the first time, she gets a rude shock. The male gaze objectifying her, the disrespectful comments on the street, the patronising : I can still remember the rude shock I got when I first started encountering these at the cusp of puberty, how one normalises it after a few years, and how finally one becomes old enough to be thankfully (mostly) invisible again. And I feel certain that most women would have a similar life experience. It also brought to mind stories how of girls who were in all female schools had a similar shock when they started going to co-eds. 

The Barbie story is how its utopian world gets altered when Ken and Barbie are exposed to the patriarchy of the real world. Ken is made to feel inadequate in the Barbie world, and when he gets a taste of the outside world, it transforms him to toxic masculinity (maybe a defence against his feelings of inadequacy) and he succeeds in transforming the other Kens, too. 

 The movie also rationalises Mattel’s motives in creating the dolls, and in the process, it pokes fun at itself (there is even a dig at the casting choice of Margot Robbie) and addresses some criticism against itself. 

It did however get a little preachy at times, and I do think that the world is getting to be much more equal with each passing generation, and I love the Kens and Allans in my life too much to see the world as a Ken vs Barbie situation, as I believe we all are in the long haul together. But that did not detract from a movie experience that resonated with me most of the time.

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