I spoke with some Nigerian women about their experiences with Barbie dolls growing up, and one of them had questions like, “Is Barbie’s love for pink a curse from a witch? Who are her parents.” Basically, what is the Barbie origin story?
I also wanted answers to this, so when a chance to watch Greta Gerwig’s live-action film on premiere day — before it officially showed in Nigerian cinemas — dropped in my laps, I took it.
30 minutes into the delicious burst of colours that popped on the screen, I knew Greta didn’t mean for us to get carried away. My questions were replaced with new ones that made me ponder on gender equality and the world right now as it is for women and men.
Unlike Barbie Land where women can just BE, this is actually what the real world is like.
ALERT: Some spoilers ahead
Men are the star players
Barbie and Ken’s first real encounter with the real world shows a sharp contrast from Barbie World that leaves them puzzled. She’s particularly distraught that men had most of the physical jobs, and there were hardly any women in sight.
Does this sound all too familiar? Like a place you know that actually exists? Exactly.
Where are the female CEOs?
Even though Barbie’s creator is female, the production company that makes the dolls is headed by a male CEO and male-dominated board. Shocked, Barbie asks for the CFO, COO and other top executives, hoping to find at least one female in these positions. She soon realises that women aren’t given a fair chance in the real world, and it’s far different from the Barbie Land utopia where there’s even a President Barbie.
Welcome to the real world, Barbie.
The world wants to put women in a box
Writer-director, Greta, makes an interesting play on women being kept in a box and expected to do just as they’re told. Barbie had a mission she took a trip to the real world for: Find the doll version of herself and fix what’s broken. But there, Mattel’s CEO tells her to step back into an actual toy box that would send her back to Barbie World. In the box, she realises what’s at play, pleads for a bathroom break and escapes.
Does this remind you of a woman you know?
Women are held to unrealistic beauty standards
Sasha, the human who owns the doll version of Barbie in the real world, renders a moving monologue to get her out of a depressive state. She wonders why women should be thin but not call it thin. it should be called healthy. She points out how women are expected to stay pretty for men but not pretty enough to tempt other men and cause problems for the women in their lives. Sasha stresses how women are expected to stay selfless and give every ounce of themselves. She says the world expects women to bend backwards and beyond so that they can be liked. In fact, the expectation heaped on women is so bad that it’s also the case for a doll representing women.
No lies told Sasha. It’s hard being a woman in a world that just wants to take and take and take.
In summary, patriarchy rules
Barbie World Ken had one mission before his trip to the human world: Get noticed by Barbie. But sweet boy Ken discovered patriarchy in the real world and had the motivation to bring it to Barbie World. When he returns, he etches a hostile takeover, renames Barbie World Ken’s World and convinces other Kens to rise up with him. In Ken’s World, Barbies who were engineers, doctors and scientists take on submissive roles like waitresses, housewives and girlfriends.
Cue the unending arguments and think pieces we’re still having in the almighty 21st century on the topic of women submitting to men.
Men will go to war for control
With help from other Barbies, Stereotypical Barbie (AKA Margot Robbie) hatches a grand plan to take control of the Kens and restore Barbie World. They do this by turning the Kens against each other. Eventually, the Kens go to all-out war, bringing to mind some of humanity’s craziest wars, where men are at the bottom, top and centre of it all.