Can a movie about Barbie inspire thought-provoking conversations with your teens? It definitely worked that way for me.
Come on, Barbie, let’s go party! The Barbie movie is stirring up a lot of opinions and emotions on everything from the patriarchy, women’s bodies, relationships and puberty, consumerism and feminism. The movie has even kick-started a global pink-infused fashion trend coined ‘Barbie-core’ (which we may or may not be guilty of obsessing over!).
With a rating of PG-13 in Singapore, we’ve heard that Barbie the movie is ‘not for kids’, and we tend to agree that some of the themes and scenes are not intended for little ones. So what do older tweens and teens make of the film, and is it worth a watch? I took my eleven-year-old daughter and twelve-year-old son to see the movie, and we had a lot of fruitful discussions about what the movie meant to them and the important messages we want to take away. Here’s what we had to say…
1. Barbie the movie begins as silly and fun but quickly deepens
After all, this is a movie about Barbie dolls. We were hoping to see the Barbie Dreamhouse brought to life, but we weren’t expecting the level of detail to so closely reflect the Mattel creations. There were so many nods to classic features of Barbie, such as stepping out of high heels and still being on tip-toes. The way Barbie drifts from her first floor straight to her car or slides down her magical pink slide to walk across the pool mimicked how little kids play. Even the fridge door has a ‘sticker’ decal on the back wall with pretend food and drinks.
We all loved the dance scene, and the fashion throughout the film is nothing short of epic. Add a buzzing soundtrack, silly dialogue (‘no one is beaching anyone off’), and funny characters like ‘Weird Barbie’, and it delivers all we were hoping for in spades. But Barbie is so much more than this.
2. Barbieland flips the patriarchy on its head, and it’s a conversation starter
When we left the theatre, the first thing my son mentioned was that he ‘felt bad for Ken.’ This was a great opening for a discussion on why. There are so many layers to the relationship between Barbie and Ken and how it is portrayed in the film. My son questioned why the tagline of the film is ‘She’s everything, he’s just Ken.’ His question to me was, why isn’t Ken as important as Barbie?
Ruth Handler created Barbie in her daughter’s honour to encourage little girls to ‘be anything they wanted to be’. Ken was created as an accessory to Barbie, and the movie really showcased this, and it took on a deeper meaning. We discussed the fact that Barbie didn’t reciprocate Ken’s feelings. How dependent he seemed on Barbie in coveting her attention and how the harder he tried, the less interested she seemed. We talked about healthy relationships needing to be balanced and that both people should love and respect each other equally. I was not expecting to talk about topics like this with my kids after Barbie, but it was such a welcome surprise!
The themes in the movie opened doors to start really fascinating conversations with my children about feminism and how some of Ken’s struggles reflected some of the challenges women face in the real world. We talked about representation of women in government and business, the pay gap, and gender equality. Both my son and my daughter started to reflect on how this should change, and I am all for positive and engaging discussions in this area.
3. The joy of Weird Barbie
For those of us who played with Barbies in our childhood (or still do with our little ones as adults!), you’ll recognise Weird Barbie. We all had one. The Barbie whose hair we cut when we played hairdressers, coloured in on her face as makeup artists, and dressed in mismatched clothing. Why was she always in the splits? Because that’s the way you’d always find her in your toybox.
My daughter and I talked about how Weird Barbie was the one in Barbieland who was most clued up about the ‘Real World’. I joked with my daughter about how ‘comfort is cool’, and she suggested that maybe a white Birkenstock would have changed Barbie’s choice away from the high heel. This made me smile as, although it was a superficial comment, it led to us discussing how we all have a right to choose how we dress and to express ourselves through fashion. It’s a great thing to have different ideas about what we think looks good, and the only opinion that should matter on what we wear is our own. So deep!
4. Barbie, body image, and impossible standards
I was interested to see how they would tackle this issue. Impossibly long legs, a tiny waist, masses of blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes, and of course, a larger-than-average bust, no body hair, and no genitals. Barbie’s impact on the body image of women and the perpetuation of an image of what is desirable. Enter ‘stereotypical Barbie’ being called out by teenager Sasha as ‘making women feel bad since you were invented.’
The film doesn’t deny that this is true but also presents a counter-argument regarding the original purpose of Barbie was meant to be by the creator, which is as a tool for young girls to imagine a life and career for themselves that hadn’t been as accessible in the 1950s. The cast of the Barbie movie is diverse in many ways, and we hope this is a nod to Mattel moving further in this direction with their dolls as well.
5. This mum needs Barbie too
A storyline in the film that I really resonated with (and shared a few tears over) was that of America Ferrera’s Gloria. She’s a mum with unfulfilled dreams struggling to connect with her teenage daughter, and the closer my kids get to being teenagers, the more I understand this emotional journey.
Psst… Go and check out America’s Ted Talk about Identity as a Superpower if you haven’t already. Worth a watch!
6. Barbie is everything…
Gloria’s character is also important as she delivers the most meaningful monologue in the film. The struggles of womanhood are eloquently summed up in a poignant speech delivered by Gloria, which opens with ‘it is literally impossible to be a woman’. One of the things the film does really well is to wade into the messiness and call out the challenges we face as women every day while not alienating anyone’s choices.
The movie’s ending is perfect for this reason, and it sat with me for a long while afterwards. No spoilers, but let’s just say it’s such a clever way to leave Barbie’s future completely open and unspoken. It’s a message I’m happy for my tweens to hear. Take responsibility for yourself, put your health first, and everything else is up to you!
Special thanks to James and Emily, and to Rhiannon Berenbaum for contributing to this feature