I took my daughter to see Barbie last weekend. Unless you are living in a plastic box, there is no way you could have escaped the marketing campaign of Barbie, the brand-new movie starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, and directed by Greta Gerwig.
Despite my family’s long history with the Barbie—as an adolescent, I got Barbie when she first came to India in the 1990s, having stood in a queue with my father outside Alsa Mall in Chennai; and my daughter’s craze for Barbie started when she was 5 and continued all the way until she turned 12—my daughter and I don’t even like the dolls anymore.
As a mother, I am aware that these dolls have many complicated associations. Watching my daughter love a doll that looked nothing like her—with blonde hair, blue eyes, perfect breasts, and an hourglass figure, whose arched feet only fit into stilettos—I worried if she would always strive to be someone else and feel inadequate.
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Sure, we had more variations of Barbie as the years went by, but my daughter only had eyes for the original. She played with her Barbies and Skippers, often projecting her own sensibilities onto the doll.
Someone gifted us the Indian Barbie but my daughter was not interested. Worries would play in my mind when I watched my daughter play with them. They did not represent her so was she growing up with no sense of who she was or her identity? And yet, the dolls brought her much joy. I cannot go back into the past and stop myself from buying her that Barbie, nor would I want to.
My now-teenager has since moved on from her doll-phase, and is now a huge fan of anime, manga, and the Mission Impossible franchise. As for me, I have always been a Christopher Nolan fan, so there was no way we were ginning up the interest to go see a pink-themed saga about a problematic doll.
Just when I had ruled out the possibility of seeing the movie, I read a review that highlighted how Barbie, happy in her Barbie world, one day wonders about dying. Barbie having an existential crisis? I was sold! It made me wonder if seeing Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, would lead me and my daughter to go back to our Barbie-loving pasts and rearrange it a little, maybe even get some context.
We went to see it. Right at the beginning, the voice over stunned my daughter: “Barbie has a great day every day. Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.” My daughter had never thought about it this way. Suddenly, this doll she now dislikes and calls silly acquired a life of its own, in the broader context of the world.
But, when Barbie decides to go to the real world to find a solution to her existentialism (with Ken tagging along), she discovers that the power dynamics here are different from those in Barbie Land. Men seem to rule and define a lot of what goes on here, and women not so much. The adventures that unfold from this switch are both hilarious and deeply satisfying to watch.
The movie ended up being about me as a parent, too. I cannot give too much away but the movie does feature a mom and a confused, angry teen daughter, and I suddenly saw myself on screen. To me, it spoke of the ups and downs of simply existing as a woman in the world. It showed what girls and women go through: imposter syndrome, worries about being good mums, about being too good or not being good enough at our jobs, and yes, our existential crises, too.
Despite having been called many things—a colourful romp, a campy and edgy tale, even a feminist fable—the movie, with its toy box of cool tricks, helped me and my daughter understand the many paradoxes of our lives. I think the best way to sum it up would be to echo what I heard a Twitter user say—with Barbie, Greta Gerwig heals our inner child.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.