A Copywriter’s Critique of The Barbie Movie

Despite the lateness of the hour, when my daughter decided she needed to see the Barbie Movie with her cousin before the latter left town for the summer, I decided this was a movie I wanted to see alongside my impressionable teenage daughter.

I won’t give away anything important about the movie, except to say, the messages in the movie about gender, identity, feminism, aging, consumerism, death and the female ideal are spelled out very explicitly by narrators and exposition throughout the movie. What the movie’s writers want us to think and take home with us from the movie is spoon fed in tiny, easily digestible sound bites, throughout the entire movie. There is nothing left open to interpretation, nothing that makes you uncomfortable or leads you to make your own conclusions. Even the movie’s rather brilliant opening stops short of allowing it’s brilliant reference to sink in before the voice over explains exactly what you are looking at and why (at which point Kubrick rolls over in his grave I’m sure). There is one exception I guess, because the out of sync body shape of the one and only Barbie that doesn’t resemble the Hollywood and Barbie ideal (there is only one, assuming you don’t count the pregnant barbie) is not addressed. In the movie they’re ok saying Weird Barbie or Mermaid Barbie based on physical appearance, but body positive or fat Barbie, depending on your perspective, is never mentioned. I guess unattainable-by-normal-people-thinness was not something the creators thought needed to be discussed directly in a movie about Barbie?

In general the over explaining of every turning point was the main agent of plot in this movie. And this happens to be the type of movie experience I absolutely detest. If they are going to try and make a serious movie with a point, they need to ask more questions and allow the audience to search within the character’s expressions and poignant moments in the movie to find their own answers. Instead, the movie is light and funny (this they did well, and the audience of almost entirely women was roaring with laughter throughout) and yet takes itself way too seriously, without delivering any real substance for me to chew on.

Luckily, my daughter and niece didn’t take the movie seriously at all, though they went into it with expectations of non-normative gender exploration and a deep level of meaning. When it ended, they merely spoke of the parts that made them laugh. But this movie still teaches lessons no matter how you take it. 

The main lesson is, you don’t have to think too hard because we’ll show you how to be in the right way of thinking, we’ll make being feminist easy for you. There is something towards the end about how speaking out loud the cognitive dissonance of what is expected of women is enough to break the bonds of patriarchy, which is an interesting idea I suppose. But then, the climactic moments in the rest of the movie are literally narrated by one of the characters listing over and over again all of the contradictory expectations as she experiences them. She literally never stops talking for one moment for us to see and experience anything, instead we are hearing it all spelled out for us, and watching the characters respond in just the way we’ve been told they should react to such an “act.” There is not a moment to reflect and mine our own experience within the narrative of the movie. Rather the movie asks us to submit to a collective experience as described by Hollywood, and then we are supposed to feel as if we’ve achieved something crucial.

As copywriters, we don’t want to leave too much to the imagination of our readers. Spoon feeding ideas is the way we construct sales arguments and create desire for our products as we bring our audience step by step into our way of seeing things. Copywriting is a conscious, methodical, controlled form of communication. Upon reflection, the way I write copy tends to be similar to how the narrative structure in the Barbie movie unfolded. That’s why I would classify the Barbie movie more as a two hour marketing drama, otherwise known as propaganda, rather than a cultural moment of any real value. 

But as I reflect on the movie, and my own copywriting, I am struck by the possibility that what left me so empty and disappointed in the art form of the movie, also leaves me questioning my chosen career in copywriting. Do we want to always do all the thinking for our prospects, or is there possibly real value in leaving our messages open ended? If we provide questions and allow our prospects to find their own answers, are we losing out on the easy sale, but possibly gaining something more valuable? I have to think about this more on my end, and eventually come back with a part 2 of this post. But in the meantime… what do you think?

Hi! I’m Annie Aaroe, a b2b marketing strategist. To find out more about story-driven, conversion copy and strategy that’s tailored for tech and SaaS brands, visit my website, aaroewriting.com, or shoot me an email at annie@aaroewriting.com.

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