“Barbie” Analysis with Professors in Political Science

Photo courtesy of Amy Nantkes.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for “Barbie”

Among the millions of moviegoers who attended a screening of director Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” were Point Loma Nazarene University political science professors Lindsey Lupo, Amy Nantkes and Linda Beail. The three viewed the record-breaking film together on July 25.

“The fact that Greta Gerwig is now the first woman director to have a billion dollar movie is so huge; it’s just incredibly important,” said Linda Beail, professor of political science whose research includes the politics of pop culture. 

“Barbie” was released on July 21 and quickly became the highest grossing film in Warner Bros. Pictures’ history, earning $1.38 billion globally

“I am not at all the first to say this, but between “Barbie” and Taylor Swift (referring to Swift’s record-breaking Eras Tour) and Beyoncé (Renaissance World Tour), it’s a summer of such cool, awesomeness. The pop-culture stuff, obviously, but just the women in business perspective, that part is so cool,” Lupo said. 

Nantkes said that she loved watching the movie not only alongside her friends and colleagues Lupo and Beail, but also the packed movie theater with everyone reacting collectively.

“It was bringing together this common experience of what it’s like to just live as a woman, but in a way that didn’t feel hopeless or horrible. It just felt…familiar. I thought that was really clever,” Nantkes said. 

As of Aug. 11, the day the three sat down for a Zoom interview with The Point, a student had already emailed Beail asking if there could be discussions and assignments centered around “Barbie” in her class. Nantkes also had students and alumni message her on Instagram asking if Beail would be releasing a reaction of sorts. 

“I am definitely going to have the movie on the syllabus so that we can talk about it,” Beail said. 

The first moment that Lupo found the film surprisingly direct was during the roller-skating scene when Ken (Ryan Gosling) talks about the way he’s being admired and that there was no undertone of violence and Barbie’s (Margot Robbie) line references a definite undertone of violence. 

“So many women can relate to that. If you blinked you missed it, it was delivered so quickly. But it was like, ‘Oh, that’s a powerful moment.’ There was just a way that they did the gray area so well,” Lupo said. 

The movie was filled with quick, deadpan lines like that, which you had to listen for or otherwise might miss. It was between the balance of these subtleties and the more obvious scenes criticizing the patriarchy that Lupo said made the film shine. 

“[Surrounding the idea of Barbie] was this binary of ‘you either hate Barbie or you love her,’ ‘you either played with her or you didn’t,’ ‘you either are a feminist or you’re not,’ ‘you love feminism or you hate feminism,’” Lupo said. “That’s such a dumbed-down version of, really, the world. I think the movie did a great job of sitting in that space in between and having a lot of really smart dialogue around that. That is one thing that I just loved and appreciated about the writing, acting and delivery.” 

The pinnacle of the film was when America Ferrera, who played Gloria, the Mattel employee  who befriended Barbie in the real world, delivered her famous monologue. In an interview with the LA Times, Ferrera is quoted saying that Gerwig did not give her detailed directions on how to perform the piece, and instead took a more open approach to the delivery of the monologue that begins: 

“It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful and so smart and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.” 

The monologue in its entirety can be read online. See lomabeat.com

“[Following Ferrera’s delivery] I felt like the whole theater just kind of went [insert shocked gasp noise here],” said Beail, “It just felt like it resonated with so many women in that theater.”

The monologue continued: “It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you!” 

Even the very idea of the film embraced this idea of contradiction: a movie that is pink and musical but also deals with heavy topics. The film itself mimicked the layered nuance of womanhood.

“It’s that feeling of being too much and not enough all at the same time. And just kind of living with that feeling, living underneath that and understanding that it’s just a part of the experience of being a woman,” Nantkes said. “It was another one of those moments where I looked to my left and to my right [referencing sitting next to Beail and Lupo] and it was a [mutually understood] ‘yeah, she nailed it, that’s exactly right.’”

In one of her classes, Lupo screens America Ferrera’s TedTalk, which she said felt similar to the monologue. 

“It’s just the cadence of how she delivers it, so even though the wording is different, it very much has the same feel of that frustration,” Lupo said, “I remember just thinking, this feels so much more real because I’ve heard the real her say something very similar. So you could almost feel the way that she felt it so deeply and it wasn’t just words on a script that she was reading, there was something really authentic there.” 

While the monologue was impactful, other moments in the movie significantly drove the narrative while perhaps not explicitly spelling it out as obviously. One that Beail recalls was when someone tells Barbie (Margot Robbie) that she saved Barbieland and she responds by saying that it was a group project. 

“That was really significant to me because I think there’s a lot in American feminism and 21st Century feminism that has been like, ‘now it’s this person and now they’re the model, the ideal, the achiever, the great feminist success’ and then they always have to be imperfect in some way or have feet of clay or whatever,” said Beail. “It’s not an individual project and that’s really important to me. I’m not doing this alone and it’s not for me to be a success, or for any one of us to be the success and model. It’s really important to me that this is collective and communal.” 

The common thread among the experience of sitting in a theater, laughing at punchy quips and choreographed musical numbers, being a woman and struggling to feel enough is that everyone experiences it together. As a woman with a 20-year-old daughter, Beail said she is watching pop culture reflect her daughter’s reality more than her own and realizing that what women are struggling with now has not changed much, if at all. 

“It’s really upsetting; it’s really disturbing.I didn’t think we’d still be here, but sexism is insidious and it just finds ways to morph,” Beail said. “It’s these ways of co-opting what we think equality is and what we think feminism is, or what we think power is and selling it back to us.  We surveil our bodies way more than my mom ever did. We are supposed to spend way more time and money on not aging than my mom ever did. I feel depressed about that, I mean I don’t feel depressed like there’s no hope, but I do think there are ways in which the progress is one step forward, two steps back a lot of times.”

Lupo said one scene in the movie that reflects this idea is when Ken (Ryan Gosling) asks a man for a high paying job with status and, out of disappointment from not being handed a position, says that the company isn’t doing patriarchy right. The man responds by referring to how they just know how to hide their patriarchy better. 

In another scene, the all-men Mattel board claims to care about women because, as Mattel CEO (Will Farrel) said, “I am the son of a mother,” “I am the nephew of a female aunt.” 

“Every woman is like, ‘Oh my gosh, if we have to hear this one more time’: ‘But I have a daughter,’ or whatever, like shut up and stop doing terrible things to women,” said Beail. 

Lupo quickly agreed, referencing the scene when all the Kens play guitar “at” all the Barbies, the token move within the movie to reference stroking a man’s ego. 

“It’s true. We graduate out of the guitar playing at us and we just move into the world of being told that [men] have mothers and daughters. It’s like the same thing,” Lupo said. 

While entertaining audiences with creating scenes that many women have found they relate to, the movie also touches on the reality of wanting to remain oblivious to the patriarchy. When Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) asks Barbie (Margot Robbie) if she wants the Stiletto or the Birkenstock, representing if she wants to embark on the heroic journey or stay in Barbieland, Barbie initially wants the Stiletto; she wants to put on a smile and pretend that everything is okay. 

“I think that’s the reaction of a lot of us a lot of the time,” Beail said. “I really don’t want to know. I really don’t want it to be hard. Let me just be plastic or just stay without this sort of deeper, existential responsibility. I think that’s one of the things that patriarchy often does to women, it [pushes the idea that] you don’t have to have agency, just fit our mold of what we want you to be. I thought that was really important to show not just that Barbie has to go on this journey, but also how easy it is for all kinds of people, but certainly women, to not want to go on that journey because it’s hard.”

It was in moments like the Stiletto versus the Birkenstock and when Barbie (Margot Robbie) apologizes to Ken that Beail noted the movie’s accuracy in depicting feminism. 

“There had to be that sort or rapprochement between Barbie and Ken, where she was like ‘I’m really sorry that I treated you that way. I didn’t like being treated as an object and I shouldn’t treat you as an object,’” Beail said. “I thought there was some real mutuality in that moment that was powerful. To me, I always hate when people are like ‘oh it’s just the war of the sexes now. Women want the upperhand.’ No, that’s not the world I want to live in either.”

Gerwig’s “Barbie” accomplishes a balancing act between being a social phenomena, while also critiquing society. It says a lot about what women go through, while also highlighting a man’s experience and mother-daughter relationships. Ultimately, the film examines what it means to be human. 

Lupo said, “There’s been so much that’s well written about this movie, but some of the most fun that I’ve had reading about it is just the way that [it encourages that] we all just have a moment of celebration and laughter. The imagery of it all, the fashion, the fun, like not all of it has to have this super deep meaning. Feminists can also sit there and celebrate the fun parts of fashion and music and pop culture.”