Sorry Kens

Between All The Kens & Pink Everything, Barbie Is Actually An Ode To Moms

Listen, if anyone’s going to smash the patriarchy, it’s moms.

Note: Spoilers for Barbie are ahead!

Settling into my squeaky pleather recliner in the movie theater next to nine of my girlfriends, I thought I knew what to expect from the premiere of Barbie: all pink everything, Ryan Gosling’s shiny pectorals that would make Noah from The Notebook green with envy, and outfits from deep in Mattel’s archival closet. What struck me was just how many glimpses of motherhood there were, and how Barbie found the moms in her midst to be the most powerful women of all.

Any woman will tell you having a community is everything. A girls’ night with good friends is a bastion when all around us our fundamental rights are being stripped and cruelty to women at the hands of the law is making headlines. My friends and I laughed aloud when Barbie told Ken that every night is girls’ night in Barbie Land, and heard echoes of each other’s support when the Barbies told each other how great they look and how much they deserved all the good things in their lives. That feeling of being understood is also there in the commiseration — about how silly Kens can be, at first, and then the myriad male threats of the real world. An entire scene devoted to the visceral misery of having a man play guitar at you for four minutes straight would never fly if we hadn’t all suffered through it at some point.

But as Barbie makes her way into the real world (she has to find the human who plays with her doll version to reverse some too-real happenings, like having thoughts about death and developing cellulite), the people who move her journey forward are no longer her friends, but mothers. When she first arrives in “the country of California,” she pauses to meditate in hopes she’ll have a vision of the child she needs to find. She sees glimpses of a little girl playing with Barbie dolls and doing a secret handshake with someone just out of frame. So, great, she has a lead.

Warner Bros. Pictures

When she opens her eyes, she’s taken aback, mesmerized by all the natural beauty around her (the breeze doesn’t blow the leaves on her plastic trees back home like it does here). She watches the people around her and marvels at the range of emotions they feel: a forlorn man sitting on a park bench, a couple bickering on a picnic blanket, and moms playing with their giddy kids on the playground.

It’s later revealed that the girl in Barbie’s vision, Sasha, is not the one causing Barbie’s cellulite. In fact, Barbie belongs to Sasha’s mom, Gloria (America Ferrera), who has taken to playing with and drawing sketches of her doll as an adult while trying to cope with, you know, being a woman in the world. Gloria’s memories were the ones Barbie saw in her vision, which means that for Gloria, the most powerful memories she has of playing Barbies center on sharing them with her daughter.

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When the Kens take over Barbie Land in the name of patriarchy, it’s Gloria who mobilizes the Barbies with a good old-fashioned mom pep talk, which is also how she breaks through to the brainwashed Barbies who have left the Senate to serve brewski beers at the Kens’ mojo dojo casa houses. Without the belief of a mom behind them, someone telling them they’re capable of making change even when it feels impossible, Barbie might still be laying, defeated and stiff-bodied, on her perfectly manicured front lawn. At the end of the movie, Gloria and Barbie have a real mother-daughter rite of passage moment: Gloria takes Barbie to her first OB-GYN appointment in the human world.

Gloria isn’t the only change-making mom in the film. When Barbie is being chased through Mattel headquarters, she ducks into a back room to hide and finds a woman sitting in a warmly lit kitchen, about to have some tea. Barbie sits down and the woman pours her a cup, watching curiously as Barbie learns the mechanics of actually drinking something, not just miming it. Then they have one of those moments between wisened and newly initiated women that we all must, at some point.

In the tone of Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” the woman acknowledges that reality isn’t at all what Barbie believed it would be, growing up in a pink utopia where women hold positions of power and never feel the threat of violence in a construction worker’s cat call. “The real world isn’t what I thought it was,” Barbie laments. “It never is, and isn’t that marvelous?” says the woman (later revealed to be Barbie inventor Ruth Handler, played by Rhea Perlman). It’s a recognizable moment for many, the first time you realize your mom knows exactly what you’re talking about when you confide in her about your boss’s misogynistic comment, and it occurs to you that things like this happen to her too. And in the same breath, knowing what she knows, she invites you to construct a better world, because she believes you can.

At the end of the movie, Barbie and Ruth stand hand in hand while Barbie decides whether she’ll stay in her Dreamhouse or become human for good. Ruth assures Barbie that she doesn’t need anyone’s permission to choose becoming “real.”

“We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come,” Ruth says. She encourages Barbie to close her eyes and really feel, and Barbie sees a montage of what it’s like to grow up a girl: scenes of mothers holding babies close, tossing their toddler daughters in the air, and girls growing into adults who occupy the whole frame on their own. They’re skydiving, bowling with friends, graduating. They’re images of what it looks like when mothers stand back and watch their daughters run toward a bright future.

Barbie was many things — a hilarious look at a world where women hold all the power, an unsettling view of the real world by comparison, and an ode to the value of having community when you live in a world that oppresses you. But it was also a love letter to motherhood: an indomitable force for change, because moms will always believe their daughters are capable of anything.