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The "Barbie" phenomenon

BYUH students explain how the new "Barbie" movie transcends the doll's history to create a new meaning of unity and fun

A scene from the "Barbie" movie, where Barbie and Ken are driving in a pink convertible and singing along to the radio
Margot Robbie plays Barbie and Ryan Gosling plays Ken in the comedic yet powerful "Barbie" movie.
Photo by Associated Press

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Summing up the new movie “Barbie” in one word, Sarah Honstein, a senior in art education from Texas, said it was fun. “It was a lot of fun.” She added she saw “Barbie,” a movie starring Mattel’s popular and famous doll, on July 21 on its opening night.

Sidney Wathen, a community member from Laie, described the movie in one word as “pink,” but she explained the movie was more than its bubblegum pink billboard. “It was so funny. It kept me engaged the whole time, but then it also had this super uplifting message,” said Wathen.

The uplifting message of the movie Wathen described focuses on the value of both men and women in society. “Barbie” shows models of both matriarchal and patriarchal societies, but the end of the movie shows the importance of changing society so it values all people equally, regardless of gender. According to TIME magazine, “Barbie” is both a tribute to girl power and a critique on current gender relations, encouraging everyone to consider how they view gender stereotypes.

The movie also uplifts in other ways, reminding audiences that imperfection is okay, change is inevitable and the ideas people have can affect the world in positive ways. As America Ferrera’s character Gloria says in the movie, “That’s life. It’s all change.”

Honstein said she thinks everyone can enjoy the “Barbie” movie. “We see [Barbie] go through almost this hero’s journey of finding where she wants to be in life,” she shared. “I think that is really relatable because we’re all going through that.”

More than a doll

The movie billed itself as a film for everyone, TIME magazine says. The article explains the concept of Barbie has been rife with controversy for the better part of a decade, if not longer. “Some parents say Barbie inspires their children to imagine themselves as astronauts and politicians. But other refuse to buy the doll… because she has set an impossible beauty standard for their daughters.” However, Issa Rae, the actress who played President Barbie in the film, said in an interview with TIME magazine that the film’s point is “…to portray a world in which there isn’t a singular ideal.”

Nathan Stone, an alumnus from California who majored in history and humanities, agreed and said the movie focused on more than just a doll. “It built on a lot of social issues as far as the way people view women and the way people view men in our society,” he said.

Students said the movie worked to acknowledge the difficulties of being a woman in society. As a human character from the real world who has made her way into Barbie Land, America Ferrara gives an impactful monologue expressing her frustration with society’s expectations for women. “You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It's too hard! It's too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault,” Ferrara says in the film. “I'm just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don't even know.”

Honstein said she saw the movie for a second time with her former roommate and her roommate’s fiancé. In the car on the way to the movie, Honstein said her friends were negative about the movie and had low expectations. But in the middle of the movie when Ken started singing “I’m Just Ken,” she said her former roommate’s fiancé turned to her and said, “I would like to formally apologize.” Honstein said she was surprised how both of her friends’ changed attitudes after seeing the movie. Although she doesn’t know exactly why they became more positive about “Barbie,” she said, “I think people who thought they were going to hate the movie, they saw themselves in somebody they probably once couldn’t have.”

A woman in a pink gingham dress looks out over a city full of pink, blue and green toy houses and yards in the new "Barbie" movie
Various pink Dream Houses stretch as far as the eye can see in the "Barbie" movie's Barbie Land, a world made to look like straight out of a playroom.
Photo by Associated Press

Creating a "toyetic" land

As a filmmaker himself, Stone said he noticed the attention to the sets, “You could tell [Barbie Land] was all studio sets … It looked almost like a play, where you can tell everything is totally fake, artificial sets, but that’s just the way it was supposed to be. Because it’s supposed to be like toys, right?”

TIME magazine explains the set of “Barbie” was meant to look “toyetic.” None of the Dream Houses had outside walls, just like the toy versions of Barbie’s Dream House, and so the actors had to be secured by wires, TIME magazine says. The articles shares the skies and clouds in the background, as well as much of the rest of the set, were hand-painted like playrooms often are. “We wanted it to feel like you could reach into the screen and touch it,” said Tom Ackerley, Margot Robbie’s producing partner and husband, in his interview with TIME magazine.

The playful feeling of the movie seems to have expanded outside of the sets. According to PennLive, “Everything from Barbie and Ken dolls, clothing, accessories - well, Barbie-branded anything - are soaring in popularity.” One example is Ken’s fuzzy, colorful hoodie that he wears at the end of the movie, with the text “I am Kenough” on the front. This hoodie has become part of Mattel’s merchandise. It can be purchased from Mattel for $60 and will ship on or before Sept. 29. Reimaginings of the sweatshirt with different colors and designs but the same “I am Kenough” mantra can also be found at Walmart for $20 to $40.

Wearing pink and having fun

Wathen said although the movie’s marketing team did a good job at hyping up the movie, it wasn’t the reason she went to see it on her birthday. “I was just excited about almost the theatrics of it all,” Wathen said. “Like seeing everything leading up to it and then even me and my friends decided we were going to dress up in pink and go see it.” Wathen said she also spotted people walking around the mall dressed up for the movie and said everybody seemed excited to be there. “It kind of brought back the excitement, almost, of going to the movies,” she explained.

Honstein shared the movie and the excitement around it changed how she looked at her femininity. “This movie was such a great reminder that being a woman is something to be celebrated, not ashamed of.” Honstein said she dressed in pink both times she saw the movie, and she even bought a pink phone case for the occasion. “Because you’re sitting in a theater full of women who all probably grew up playing Barbies, and you’re all wearing pink, it’s kind of a magical feeling.”

Honstein concluded with a laugh, “I’m probably not going to stop talking about this movie for a really long time. I’m going to be 80 years old talking to my great-grandchildren about when I saw ‘Barbie’ on opening night!”