I know we’ve been told since the beginning of time not to harp on the past and to focus on the essence of what is happening right now. But, every now and then I like to revisit a time in my life when Disney’s “Shake It Up” glared through the TV screen and my living room scent consisted of a weird mix between animal crackers and a Play-Doh concoction. It was also a time when I was absolutely obsessed with my dolls.
My dolls were my personal easel, my very own movie script, and of course my runway. When it was my time to spend time in their world, it was sacred and whimsical and a full time creative space run by a nine year old. Nothing else mattered to me for those couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon. The only thing that stressed me out was whatever drama my American Girl dolls would get themselves into. Sometimes we would be in space, running our very own royal kingdom or role playing some weird version of “Glee,” but it didn’t matter what we did because it was freeing, or whatever freeing looks like for someone not even old enough to tie their own shoe.
Now that I’m 18 and getting ready to step into adulthood, I find myself coming back to that little girl almost everyday and thinking about everything I wish I could’ve told her. Like ensuring that she always keeps that beautiful essence she has. Obviously, people change as they grow older and even grow a bit jaded over time too. But there’s always this beautiful essence that we have from an early age and we keep it even when it seems like it’s been lost to time.
Something that has yet to be lost to time is the impact of Barbie and the 2023 film of the same name. Now that awards season is upon us and we’re looking back on 2023’s releases, I know it’s not unpopular to say that “Barbie ” truly rocked my world. Its impact on fashion, music, and pop culture as a whole was a true phenomena that hasn’t been seen in film since the height of Marvel. I’d been anticipating this film since it was announced almost six years ago. Many people doubted if the movie would live up to the name of such an iconic staple in pop culture. The film floated around Hollywood for a while to writers such as Diablo Cody, best known for the cult classic “Jenifer’s Body,” and even Amy Schumer for a while, as she was rumored to even be playing the iconic doll. But finally the cinema stars truly aligned for this film. It was written and directed by Greta Gerwig, who directed some of my favorite films of all time such as “Lady Bird ” and “Little Women.” It had a perfect Barbie in Margot Robbie, who gave an incredibly fun performance as the titular doll, as well an incredibly strong supporting cast full of some of my favorite actors working right now. It was visually stunning, literally capturing the essence of a Barbie Dream House and the colorfulness of that world. The film had such campy energy to it, which is something that has been missing from our modern cinema landscape. It was a film that wasn’t afraid to be silly yet self-aware and bright and colorful and featured a fun soundtrack to accompany it. Real cinema was truly back and I couldn’t be more excited!
By the time the voices of Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice started blasting through the speakers as the end credits began to roll, I found myself in a puddle of tears in my theater seat. I never thought a film about a plastic doll would leave me sobbing and remembering the joys of my childhood, thinking about my future, and even looking back on my relationship with my parents.
The scene that truly put me in such an emotional state was when Barbie meets her inventor, Ruth. In it Ruth instructs Barbie to give her her hand and she takes her on this journey through girlhood and images flash on the screen of mothers and their daughters. It was an incredibly touching scene that left me in a pile of tears as I sat with my own mother in the theater. I sat there next to my own mother, getting deja vu of all the conversations we had just like this one, all throughout 2023. Reminiscing on the beauty of my childhood and all the beautiful memories we’ve had together as well as her own. The joys of being a young girl and finding the same whimsy of those memories while also being in a world that tends to shame the joy of girlhood.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really had the chance to grow in how I view girlhood and womanhood through both my own coming of age story and admiring the lives of both my mother and grandmother. Both of their journeys through womanhood have stuck with me throughout my entire life, especially as I grow into an adult because their lives were not the easiest. They weren’t this mainstream idea, corporatized idea of feminism, but they were their true authentic selves who went through their own trials and tribulations while ultimately still embracing the joys that come with womanhood. They both showed me that true female empowerment isn’t in appearances but it’s in how you live your life authentically. I might’ve not always embraced this idea fully throughout my childhood and even now, but their message is one that I’ve been able to witness and grow to embrace as I’ve matured. Womanhood is tough, but so incredibly beautiful and I think this film illustrated how being a woman isn’t a monolith. Feminism does not look one way as I thought it did when I was 13. Pink isn’t a weakness. Glitter isn’t something to be ashamed of. I don’t have to abandon the parts of myself I loved as a child in order to be what society has made us believe is empowered because at the end of the day, empowerment looks so different to every single woman.
As younger girls our world was so hopeful and bright and we just knew we had so much to live for and be excited about. The world of our dolls and childhood activities was one of peace and tranquility, though we probably had no clue what any of those words meant. When we get older, we grow more acclimated to the chaos of our society and the world around us, which in turn makes us more jaded than we were before, a quality I truly saw myself in through the character of Sasha and her interactions with both Barbie and her own mother, Gloria. Her cynicism, judgmentalness, and overall angst was like looking into a mirror of myself from the ages of 12-15. Or as I now call it, my “Not like other girls phase.”
I wanted so desperately to escape being considered a little kid and felt a sense of embarrassment over the young girl I was (pretty dramatic I know!). I switched out my dolls for Marvel and Star Wars., I fell in love with Hot Topic and the color gray., and I switched out Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift for Melanie Martinez and Billie Eliish, though I still was still obsessed with them in private. Now, there is nothing wrong with changing interests and style, it happens all the time, it’s literally a part of growing up. But, I think I was trying to use these interests to escape what the world had told me was too immature and “basic”, a word that haunted me.
I think society likes to tear down young girls for having what they perceive as “stereotypical girly” interests. Boy bands, the color pink, dolls, you name it and it seems like almost everyday we are being bombarded with people invalidating the joy and passion of young girls and their interests. At 13, at this incredibly essential time of development, I wanted nothing more than to escape what the world had shamed me for so young. The “not like other girls” plague had sucked me in and ended up not really knowing who I was for a very long time. I thought that in order to grow up, I had to leave everything about the past behind and relinquish the things I thought made me feel too much like that little girl who loved her giant hair bows and dollhouse because to me it felt “too basic” and this resentment to my childhood joys led me down a long path of self hate and lots of insecurities. Thirteen year old me couldn’t see through her own stubbornness to realize that I could have a balance of both of these things. I didn’t have to sacrifice my love of pop music to listen to rock or give up my love of dolls and Taylor Swift for Star Wars and The 1975 as the world had made me feel like. The draw and impact of misogyny and internalized misogyny amongst women has led to so much isolation amongst female-identifying people and it sucks that so many young girls have had this harmful mindset impact how they choose what brings them joy. There is more than one way to be a woman and experience girlhood, it doesn’t have to be rigid or black and white. It’s beautiful and complicated and that’s what makes it so whimsical.
That’s why it was so refreshing to walk into the movie theater decked from head to toe in hot pink and seeing so many young girls feel happy doing so too. Underneath all of the pink and glitter, “Barbie” was a beautiful celebration of girlhood and a commentary on how our world treats women as they grow older and the innocence of just getting to be a young girl. Seeing Issa Rae being the president while also still being glamorous was just so incredibly refreshing to watch in the landscape of the monolithic idea of feminism sold to us, where it seems like you have to sacrifice one for the other. Where you can’t wear pink pant suits and still be taken seriously at a job or in school.
I think people dismiss the power of “chick flicks” or films that fall into the “camp” category and discredit just how important they are to so many women as well as the quality of the films themselves in comparison to more prestigious films. At the 2024 Golden Globes, the host, comedian Jo Koy, compared the plot of Barbie to Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” saying that “Oppenheimer” was “based on a 721-page Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Manhattan Project” while “Barbie” was based “on a plastic doll with big boobies.” I was well aware that it was supposed to be meant to be humorous because it’s an award show but to me it just continued to reinforce the idea that films for women are vapid and dumb because of their presentation and completely discredited just what that movie was truly about, even despite the fact that it also took home two awards that night for Best Original Song and the first ever award for Best Cinematic and Box Office achievement.
Barbie racked up multiple nominations at the Oscars, except they snubbed Greta Gerwig for best director and Margot Robbie for best actress. How do you nominate everyone in Barbie, but Barbie herself? As much as I loved Ryan Gosling’s scene stealing performance as Ken, but it’s incredibly disheartening to see the women who made the film what it was particularly excluded from such an honor, minus America Ferrera who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. This snub practically demonstrates the message of the movie, making its themes remain true even outside of the context of the film. While it seems like the Academy loved Barbie, they missed the point of the film completely.
At the center of this journey is Barbie’s discovery that the world of humans is one that’s full of patriarchy (a word that is uttered almost every couple of minutes throughout the film) and not as innocent and wonderful as it is in Barbieland. The real world turns out to be not as perfect as they expected it to be in the eyes of the Barbies. It’s cold, jaded, and is the polar opposite of the utopia of their world. Yes, at the center of the film is a plastic doll named Barbie, but the film is so much more than that. I think at the very center of the story of “Barbie” is an exploration of the journey from girlhood to womanhood and all that comes with it, seen through both the eyes of teen girls and older women. It was a true moment of joy for anyone who understands the feminine experience, no matter their background. In a time of such pain, with all of the trials or tribulations we have to deal with every single day, is it truly so hard to imagine that most people just wanted to experience the joy and whimsy of childhood for once.
I think that’s what so many people are forgetting this award season. A film doesn’t have to be this dark, dissection of a gritty topic or historical figure to be deemed an important or powerful film. It doesn’t have to be dark like “Oppenheimer” to mean something to someone. The most important films in my opinion are the ones that can be a form of escapism, to allow the viewer to find joy in the universe of the story or just have a fun time watching it. It was so refreshing to see a film so unabashedly camp and fun that also wasn’t afraid to take itself so seriously, but with so much heart underneath the aesthetics. Truly a testament to Greta Gerwig as a director and writer. She just captures girlhood so beautifully. But most importantly, it was just so refreshing to see the genre that audiences and film communities have demonized and made fun of, the “chick flick,” ending up being the biggest movie of the year.
Along with Barbie, films like Emma Seligman’s “Bottoms,” Adele Lim’s “Joy Ride,” and even the absolute domination of Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and SZA in music, 2023 was truly the year for the girls by the girls and “Barbie” was the cherry on top of this amazing year for women in pop culture. We truly got to experience every facet of female empowerment, but with a fresh new spin on it. Each story was different, but it was authentic to the changing landscape of what it means to be a woman and it was such a joy to see.
To me, “Barbie” wasn’t just a movie about a plastic doll in a technicolor world, it gave me the chance to be that little girl again. I wish I could go back and tell my 12 year old self to hold on to what others ridiculed her for. Things from her childhood she thought made her basic or not worthy enough to be taken seriously. The little girl who loved her dolls wasn’t someone she should be ashamed of, but it was someone she shouldn’t be afraid to embrace.
While “Barbie” might not be the most thought provoking, serious and gritty film of the award season, it’ll forever remain in the cultural zeitgeist because it meant something to so many people and brought me joy when I needed it most. That’s something that an Oscar or Golden Globe or a bad awards show joke can never take away from it.