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Barbie Dolls, Dreams, and Storytelling: Reviewing Greta Gerwig’s 2023 Summer Hit

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

With two older sisters, the entire carpet of our shared bedroom would be covered with plastic furniture, hundreds of outfits, and the tiniest dinner forks you’ve ever seen. Barbie was a childhood staple for me, even if I didn’t play with the dolls a lot. But I did love setting up the houses and neighborhoods and testing out my interior decorating skills. (I guess construction has been in my blood a lot longer than I thought. I mean, have you seen Barbie’s Dream House?)


Greta Gerwig directed a visually stunning and touching film at a time when we need it most. Barbie (2023) hit theaters in July and we need to go over the storytelling, what works, what doesn’t, why it works, and if it’s in my Go or No Go pile. So kick off the heels, grab a pinkity drinkity, and let’s get into another Storytelling Review.


Warning: Spoilers ahead!


Pink letters on a pink wall spelling, "Pink Vibes Only."

Barbie Movie Synopsis

Barbie (2023) shows Barbies and Kens living in Barbieland where stereotypical Barbie travels to Realworld to find what’s taking the perfection out of plastic fantasic life. In Realworld, stereotypical Ken learns that men are respected and returns to Barbieland to inform the other Kens. Meanwhile, stereotypical Barbie is hunted by Mattel to return to the Barbieland but not before she connects with the woman, Gloria, who took the perfection out of playtime.


The group returns to Barbieland for safety from Mattel only to find that Barbieland has been turned into Kendom where the Kens run the show and the Barbies run the drinks. Affronted that the Kens have taken over and the Barbies have forgotten their self-worth, Barbie loses hope in her purpose. Gloria comforts her by saying, that even for a Barbie, it’s impossible to be perfect. Gloria and Barbie snap the Barbies out of their trance to remember their accomplishments, and Barbie chooses to experience imperfect life in Realworld.


I honestly did not have any expectations going into this movie. Or maybe I did. I knew it was about Barbies, but I didn’t expect Ken to play such a large role. In the world of Barbie, Kens are designed to be an accessory. I didn’t know the story would overlap with his (attemptive) character arc, but before I get too off track, let’s dive into the six key elements of storytelling engineering.


Elements

Successful storytelling is composed of six aspects. Four of these elements are known as concept, character, structure, and theme, and two of the elements are based on the elements’ execution, known as scenes and voice. Let’s break down Barbie (2023) by each of these qualities to really see what makes this story compelling.


Concept

As a concept, Barbie (2023) is remarkable. It’s iconic. There hasn’t been a more pink filled marketing moment since Minnie Mouse’s bow. Barbie has such an expansive world, such vastly different opportunities, that it had the makings of a story from the get-go. From involving Mattel, Ken, the Dream Houses, advertisement bits — Barbie dove deep, took bigger risks, to stay away from a vanilla, predictable story.


In Story Engineering (2011) by Larry Brooks, the esteemed author explains, “If your idea is to create a certain character, that doesn’t become a concept until you give that character something to do, something to achieve or survive.” Coming up with a concept is one of the hardest things to do. You need a character and a concrete goal, as author Lisa Cron refers to it as, for that character to achieve. So by giving kids not only a toy to play with but a character, Barbie sets a hundred different stories in motion just by being who she is.

Idea to Concept Quote by Larry Brooks in black lettering on a pink and yellow background.

However, and we’ll get into this more in the structure section, at the beginning of the film, it wasn’t clear what Barbie’s concrete goal was. She wanted her life to stay the same, to stay perfect in Barbieland, but that was only once external forces acted upon her. Typically, characters have a concrete goal that they want, like a promotion, asking out the girl, saving the galaxy, before events of plot set them on their course to achieve it. Characters usually stand in their own way of achieving what they want; they have some excuse. Barbie didn’t because she didn’t have a goal until the plot acted upon her and gave her one. So her concrete goal, and the course of the plot was shallow. That does not mean, however, that the themes were shallow. Hoo, boy. Anything from it. And Ken plays a big part in that.


Character

Now, a concept isn’t fully complete until it ropes in its characters. Characters are the vehicle behind story. And every story needs a hero and a conflict. A protagonist and an antagonist. Protagonists are the heroes that have the concrete goal and the inner conflict to make a premise into a concept. Antagonists, or villains, in fact every character, should also have a concrete goal and an inner conflict, a misbelief, standing in their way of achieving it. No one wanders through life not wanting something. Everyone wants something. Even if it’s a sandwich. There could be lots of opposition preventing someone from getting that sandwich.

In Barbie (2023), Barbie’s goal is to stay the same but as she journeys from Barbieland to Realworld, she realizes that she doesn’t want to be perfect and maybe never has. Ken can be seen as a dual protagonist, but he’s actually the antagonist. Ken’s goal is to be noticed by Barbie, and as he makes that happen, he derails Barbie’s progress toward making things go back to the way they were, toward Barbie getting what she wants, toward her accomplishing her concrete goal.


However, as all good stories do, both the protagonist and antagonist are changed by the plot’s events. Both Barbie and Ken complete a trip around the self-discovery sun and return as different dolls.


Now, as to the quality of achieving this? How well it’s presented? Eh… let’s take a look at the plot structure.


Structure

Act One is all about establishing characters, the world those characters inhibit, and that world’s inherent conflict.


The Inciting Incident

In Act One of Barbie (2023), stereotypical Barbie’s life is great. The inciting incident that brings about the First Plot Point, or the beginning of the hero’s journey, is stereotypical Barbie blurting out that question about death during a dance party.


While including an inciting incident is part of successful storytelling, it also has to be believable. Believability is brought on by establishing that something like this could happen. So far, we’d seen Barbie get dressed, go to the beach, pretty n’ pink and perfect everything, but nothing established that thinking about death was even possible.


Believability is not the same as context. Barbie’s question to her friends about dying makes everyone stop and think. It might not have been established to be believable, but it did do its job in piquing the audience’s interest to keep watching because you wanted to know more. You wanted to know why and how that happened. Humans are simple creatures like that. Which is where the first plot point comes in.


The next day, stereotypical Barbie is in a funk and told to visit weird Barbie.


The First Plot Point

Still in Act One, the first plot point gives the inciting incident context. This is the moment where the hero gets their quest, their thing to achieve, the whole reason for telling the story to begin with.


In Barbie (2023), weird Barbie tells stereotypical Barbie to connect to the person who’s bonded with her and is projecting their feelings onto stereotypical Barbie. But, like all normal people, Barbie doesn’t want to change. Barbie wants to stay in Barbieland and have everything be perfect. Was it a funny bit, choosing between the high heel and the Birk? Sure. Was weird Barbie telling stereotypical Barbie that she had to go to Realworld a good enough reason for me to buy into her hero’s journey? Not really.


Choosing to pursue the hero’s journey versus having the hero’s journey thrust upon the main character are two separate things. Harry Potter has the hero’s journey thrust upon him. He didn’t choose it. Luke Skywalker has the hero’s journey thrust upon him. He didn’t choose it. Choosing to pursue the hero’s journey, to do the task when the character doesn’t want to, ahem Barbie, isn’t believable.


Regardless, Barbie sets off to go to Realworld and ushers in Act Two.

Hawaiian Barbie wearing a lei, shell necklaces, and purple pink dress.

The First Pinch Point

This is the first moment that the main character must face their inner conflict head on. And what’s Barbie’s I hear you saying? Barbie wanted to stay perfect, and her misbelief that held her back from staying perfect is that she assumed Barbies solved all of Realworld’s problems. Those two opposing factors create her internal conflict: Barbie learns that she didn’t solve Realworld’s problems (from the First Plot Point) and therefore can’t be perfect. She grapples with this the entire film. That’s a heavy internal battle for a Barbie doll, and relatable issues for women in the real Realworld.


After a hilarious sequence of Barbie and Ken adjusting to Realworld (this is a quality of execution), Barbie concentrates and feels the person who bonded with her and goes to meet them. Barbie meets Sasha and is blasted with reality.


There’s a couple of things to unpack there. How does Barbie feel when she’s a Barbie? It wasn’t established that that was something Barbies could do, it wasn’t believable, it was beautiful, just not believable. Sasha was a bit heavy handed for my taste, but that’s an execution aspect we’ll get to later.


The moment of Sasha ridiculing Barbie is the moment of contact, the dramatic event that literally pinches what Barbie wants. She thought she wanted to be perfect, she thought she wanted to go back to Barbieland, but as she sits at that bus stop, she sees the goodness of life in Realworld. But she’s not a full hero yet. She’s not ready to commit to that. She has more growing to do. So when Mattel swings by and picks her up, she goes with them.


The Midpoint

Transitioning from Act Two to Act Three, the midpoint lets the main character know that what they originally thought isn’t as it seemed. In Barbie’s case, she realizes that the vision she had was about Gloria, not Sasha. While this does satisfy the requirements of a midpoint, as it takes the information learned in the First Plot Point and turns it on its head, it didn’t challenge Barbie’s way of thinking, her internal conflict.


Going from Act Two to Act Three is when the protagonist is to start fighting back. They go from running to fighting, formulating a battle plan, but Barbie suggests they go to Barbieland to… wait it out? It wasn’t clear what Barbie’s plan was. And we need to know what her plan is because the Second Pinch Point is when that plan goes belly up in tandem with the internal progress that the protagonist is making.

But we don’t see that. There wasn’t any progress Stereotypical Barbie made from the Midpoint to the Second Pinch Point. She just parades Gloria and Sasha through Barbieland, so proud that everything is pink and perfect and how she wanted it to be before her connection to Gloria started changing her. There was nothing here that she was battling with internally. What she wanted and what she believed weren’t in conflict, they weren’t fighting. So, Act Three is lacking in the internal conflict evolution department.


The Second Pinch Point

Stereotypical Barbie’s internal conflict does come back in full force, however, when Barbieland has become Kendom and the Barbies are brainwashed. Ken ridicules Barbie for shelving the Kens, and it shatters her self esteem, self worth, and her wanting the ability to feel. Barbie feels so much in this moment, she doesn’t want to feel anything. Because of this, Barbie lashes out at Gloria, saying she wishes she had never played with her and that they never had their connection.


I love catalyzing moments. It can be referred to a couple different ways, but it’s caused by something happening and freeing the character to do, but mainly say, something they couldn’t before. It’s the lowest you ever see the protagonist emotionally. They are at their most vulnerable, and it is the most important moment of the whole story. It’s what the whole story is about. It is the most raw, emotionally charged sequence, and should make your stomach churn for the characters.


The amount of female rage coursing through my veins at the sight of Ken in Barbie’s dream house is astronomical, so, points to Greta for turning that on its head and making him a character I wasn’t expecting to feel sympathy for.


The Second Plot Point

The final clue. The magical object. The hail Mary. The last piece of the puzzle that brings it all together. At Weird Barbie’s house, stereotypical Barbie doesn’t feel like she’s enough and America Ferrara’s Gloria gives the most satisfying monologue to help her snap out of it. It’s the boost of courage stereotypical Barbie needs to enact the game plan to help the Barbies remember who they are and usher in Act Four where all the threads get tied up in a nice pink bow.


Barbie doll wearing a pink skirt and white top, saying, "Be Your Self."

The Climax

The climax involves the Ken’s warring against each other so that the Barbies can reinstate their power.


I’m not sure why the Barbies had to do this when the Kens hadn’t officially gotten rid of it? It’s been a few days since I’ve seen the film so my spacey memory could be forgetting a few things or I just didn’t pick up on the reasoning behind it.


The Resolution

I really had a hard time with Act Four. Sasha spoke up and asked about stereotypical Barbie’s ending, but it would have been more heroic for our, well, hero to advocate for herself. She’s gone on this journey of self discovery but didn’t act like it. What ending was Sasha hoping for? Ruth showing up felt convenient. And her being a ghost?? Ruth was foreshadowed earlier, back in Act Two, but not the believability of her being dead. Then Barbie going with her felt very out of pocket. I don’t understand any of the logistics. Again, this goes back to believability, so apparently I’m just supposed to take it with a grain of salt, like Greta’s whispering, “Shh, don’t think about it too much,” as Barbie becomes human and feels, through Ruth’s memories, and joins Realworld.


What the Barbie Movie's Theme is Actually About

There were so many themes!! So many that were competing to be addressed: feminism, patriarchy, perfectionism, societal expectations, the female experience, the ability to feel, the joy of feeling, but the heart of that, the truth of all that, is inadequacy.

Stereotypical Ken always felt like he wasn't enough. Stereotypical Barbie started to feel like she wasn’t enough when Sasha told her what Barbie means to younger generations and when Barbie went to Mattel’s headquarters and realized that there weren’t any female leaders; the symbol Barbie thought she was wasn’t doing enough — she wasn’t doing enough, she’s not enough.


Everyone feels that way. Well, okay, most people feel that way. I feel that way. It doesn’t matter your gender. It doesn’t matter what phase of life you’re in. It doesn’t matter what political affiliation you have or the job title you hold or how much money your career earns you. Everyone is struggling. And so rather than focusing on the qualities that separate us, we should be looking at the facets that connect us.


Barbie (2023) is not about frail masculinity. Barbie (2023) is not about a misandry. Societal trends portray misandry but it has to be put into context of the female experience. It took Ken doing what he did, experiencing what he experienced (supporting Barbie, going to Realworld, establishing Kendom), for the two to understand each other. They both grew and are different people than they were at the start of the story. That’s not putting down men. It’s not even bolstering women. It’s just man and woman understanding each other, the struggles they face, and how they can help one another.


Pink lipstick in a gold bullet tube on a blue green background.

Execution

Now that we’ve covered the elements of Barbie (2023), let’s dive into how well those elements were executed in its scenes, exposition, setting, and voice.


Scenes

Things I liked and didn’t like! Things that worked and things that didn’t!


I was gifted a construction Barbie some years ago when I completed my undergrad in Construction Management, so I loved seeing the Barbies performing street work with their pink jackhammers, helmets, and traffic control signs. And I loved Barbie calling back on this when she tries talking to the construction workers in Realworld. Things shouldn’t be in a story if they’re not going to be used later. And the reverse of this is that things shouldn’t be used in a story if they weren’t introduced earlier.


However, most construction workers are actually very respectful of women on a jobsite (they’re mainly too shy or intimidated to say anything) so the writing of them was purely an artistic choice to reinforce the shock stereotypical Barbie was facing.


While the First Pinch Point helped stereotypical Barbie realize her concrete desire of wanting to be human, to feel, that should have been established in Act One prior to the First Plot Point. Setting up a protagonist’s misbelief in Act Two is too late.


In regards to foreshadowing, I picked up on all the cut shots of Gloria and Sasha in stereotypical Barbie’s vision. I knew that by not showing the mom’s face the first time around, it would be the mom, and it was confirmed when she got out of the car in the parking lot. Not sure if it was obvious to others or if my writer brain just picks up on foreshadowing now.


Thematically, I loved the scene of stereotypical Barbie getting in the packaging box and the twist ties around her wrists. How many times have women felt like this? Like they’re being buried alive? Like they’re on display and can’t move, can’t breathe, a shrink-wrapped doll for eyes only? Absolutely a 10/10 scene.


I thought Gloria picking up stereotypical Barbie from Mattel’s headquarters was a little coincidental. I have questions as to how Gloria made the connections about who she is or knew where to find her and is it believable that she would act so fast. And the car chase proceeding it was a bit odd. I love a good action scene, I just wasn’t expecting that in a movie about Barbie.


In Act Three when Sasha and Gloria decide to go back to Realworld then go back to help Barbie felt like a lot of back and forth, tugging my arms in different directions. Sasha suddenly switched sides without seeing the reasoning behind it other than stereotypical Barbie is important to Gloria. It just wasn’t portrayed as an important reason for Sasha to have a change of heart.


Pink acrylic nails holding a disco ball with black records on a pink wall in the back.

Ok, this’ll be controversial, I didn’t enjoy the Kens’ dance number. There was one at the beginning, but there could have been a second one to maybe reinforce like, “Hey! This is kind of a silly, satire musical!” Was it executed well? Sure. In terms of execution in the placement of structure? Ehh, the scales are tipping toward no.


Mattel going to Barbieland in Act Three then finally rolling up in Act Four was very delayed and I didn’t fully understand why they were doing it. They wanted stereotypical Barbie back in Barbieland, but if they were worried about humans being in Barbieland, it wasn’t conveyed. Nor were the Mattel yesmen funny. It came across as gimmicky. Greta pulled some punches with that, unfortunately.


I fully walked into Barbie (2023) expecting it to be about Barbie having an internal conflict so color me surprised when I watch it and Act One immediately makes me sympathize with Ken for being sidelined. I knew what he wanted, I knew what was holding him back from getting it — he was set up as the perfect antagonist. I found myself really enjoying his arc, of having nothing and getting everything. It’s like yeah, you do deserve to have some control! And then he gets a really inauthentic resolution of his character arc in that scene in stereotypical Barbie’s bedroom.


However, Greta could be doing a couple things here thematically by portraying men as the female experience of having nothing and wanting everything and by learning that there’s a place where you’re respected, it would be impossible to not want that. So because stereotypical Ken’s character arc was so well set up in comparison to stereotypical Barbie’s, I had a really hard time supporting Barbie as a protagonist.


Exposition

Exposition are the moments that give context to plot and inner conflict. Because of this, I really loved stereotypical Barbie sitting at the bus stop and just watching people. I felt that. I do that. Barbie had just experienced such harshness but upon reflection, she saw how lovely it was, and it was lovely to me because it was lovely to her. It had meaning to her and because it has meaning to me as a human, it has meaning to Barbie. Greta wrote it that way because appreciating life is a universal experience and that wraps all the way back to theme. (Do you see how writing is hard?)


While we do see this again at the end when Barbie sees, I think, Ruth’s life, it wasn’t as impactful. I’m not sure if that’s because she didn’t have a deep connection to Ruth or the fact that we’d already seen it used in the bus stop scene. But exposition is crucial for stories to allow characters to reflect on their experiences and breathe pauses into the structure that convey emotions to the audience.


Setting

Looooved the Barbieland set. Loved it being set in LA. I mean, did it feel a little convenient with Hollywood production teams and studios being based in LA? Sure. Was that intentional? Possibly!


But the Barbieland set is incredible. Plastic, shiny, colorful, and bright with the juxtaposition of a drab, real LA school encapsulates the contrast between worlds exceptionally well. It reinforces how it’s difficult for women to be, well, women and enjoy things that are pink when so much of our infrastructure is repetitive gray buildings primarily designed by men.


One set I didn’t understand was Ruth’s ghost having an entire room at Mattel’s headquarters. That lost its believability for me. I didn’t think she was a ghost, I thought she was some sort of toy, which would have been more believable so Barbie (2023) loses a couple points for that.


Pink knee high Barbie boots pattern.

Voice

I had a really hard time following the dialogue when it came to plot, but that might be because the plot was hard to follow. From what I remember, it wasn't saying a whole lot.


I didn’t have the connection to the line that Ruth gives at the end about all the women standing behind you to watch you grow. I know a lot of people resonated with this quote but it wasn’t what the plot was about, that wasn't what stereotypical Barbie’s internal conflict was about, so it didn’t connect with me because the entire movie was about inadequacy, not personal or socio-economic development.


One problem I had was Stereotypical Barbie referencing the memories she saw about her doll as a “vision.” It sounded so out of character — again, it’s a choice, it’s not one i would have made — it sounds so supernatural, and that’s not who stereotypical Barbie is. She could have called it a “connection.” Just something else. “Vision” sounds so harsh, the hardness of the v is —


Oh. Perhaps the use of a word starting with v, the harshness of the sound, was intentional. Or saying “vision” was to help tie in the supernatural side of Ruth being a ghost? Ok, this one makes a bit more sense now, I’ll let this one slide.


Final Verdict: Mo’s No or Go Pile

Overall, everything was good and then it wasn’t. It’s like good-adjacent. But the theme of inadequacy is so personal to me, so universal as a woman, the film was breathtaking and gutwreching and tear inducing. Barbie isn’t just for women. Barbie is for men, too. It’s for people and about the condition we experience called humanity. So, Barbies, Kens, and Alans of Realworld, Barbie (2023) is in my go pile.


What did you think about Barbie (2023), and what should I review next?

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