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‘Barbie’ Features Motherhood in a Story About Girlhood

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

Kathleen Felli shares her thoughts on the recently released Barbie and the themes of motherhood present in the film.


Last weekend, my mother and I fished out the pink tops from our closet and ventured out to see one of the most highly anticipated films this year, Barbie. In short: we loved it.

Based on the iconic Mattel doll, the film has achieved massive box office success while possessing a message that is wholly feminist. After experiencing a day that was not as perfect as the previous ones, Barbie (Margot Robbie) is tasked with going to the real world to find the girl that is impacting the state of the fictional Barbieland. However, when she goes to the real world, Barbie experiences misogyny for the first time and begins to question her place within the patriarchal power structure. In the real world, Barbie is not a victim, but rather an instrument for promoting patriarchy through her embodiment of an unattainable beauty standard. As described by a younger character in the film, she is a “fascist.” The entirety of Barbie wrestles with the inherent contradictions of the titular character’s feminism, as well as the inherent contradictions of womanhood as a whole.

I had expected that, in true Greta Gerwig fashion, Barbie would be full of feminist commentary. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see how prominently themes of motherhood were featured throughout the film. There are multiple mothers in Barbie, ranging from the discontinued “Midge” doll of 1963 to the “Creator,” Ruth Handler. While Midge serves as a comedic nod to Mattel’s aversion to motherhood, Ruth (Rhea Perlman) and Gloria (America Ferrera) are important fixtures in the plot, guiding Barbie through her self-fulfillment.

The choice to have Gloria be the “girl” that Barbie was looking for was so refreshing to see because it gave her an identity beyond her role as a mother. When undergoing struggle and lack of fulfillment in her life, Gloria turns towards her girlhood and is able to find an escape through playing with her Barbie doll. How many women return to their dolls once they have reached adulthood? If it happens, it is seldom talked about. Perhaps it is because the forms of entertainment associated with young girls never escape the innocent bounds of girlhood, while men can care about their childhood interests until the day they die. It’s inherently contradictory! In a speech that many praise as the most important part of the film, Gloria exposes those contradictions, saying at some point, “You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people.

On the other side of the world, Ruth is a more traditional mother-figure inspired by the original creator of the Barbie doll, Ruth Handler. As referenced in the film, Ruth created Barbie so that her daughter could play with a toy that deviated from the standard baby dolls of the time. For Ruth, it was important that her daughter imagine a world for herself that transcended motherhood. Barbie embodies everything that a woman can be, but being everything does not mean that she is human.

Towards the end of the film, Ruth emphasizes to Barbie that her ultimate goal as her creator was to give her the agency she deserved. While Barbie may have been created to be a symbol for female empowerment, she has the choice to reject her “brand” and embrace her humanity. In a world where the Mattel CEO (played by Will Farrel, who even refers to himself as “mother” at some point) wants to put Barbie back in her box, Ruth is the one that reminds her that she always has a choice.

Watching Barbie with my mom and all the other mother-daughter pairs in the theater was such a special experience because there was something that everyone could relate to. All aspects of womanhood – from the innocence of girlhood to learning the crushing realities of patriarchy and much more – were represented in a film that runs for just under two hours. In doing so, Greta Gerwig articulates a universal experience of womanhood through a simple yet impactful phrase: we are all Barbie.


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