Greta Gerwig’s Barbie came out last week. I had to see it.

Debuting alongside Oppenheimer, it’s been billed as the year’s best double feature. Since I primarily write about horror movies, I decided to step outside of my comfort zone and see if Barbie lived up to the hype. I was not disappointed. 

Decked out in my black Pumpkinhead t-shirt, the box office attendant gawked at the grisly monster on it. Horror fans are used to that. I entered the theater, the only man in black surrounded by a sea of pink. Even though I stuck out like a severed thumb, I wasn’t there to worry about being self-conscious. I was there to witness what I assumed would be a campy, visually stunning comedy with commentary about consumerism and the patriarchy. Barbie is all of those things, yes, but so much more.

What is Barbie about?

Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives in Barbieland. It’s a heavily stylized universe, a pink plastic paradise where Barbie (Issa Rae) is president, Barbie is a renowned physicist (Emma Mackey), and a group of Barbies serves on the Supreme Court. Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie loves her life taking waterless showers, drinking tea-less tea, and throwing dance parties at her Dreamhouse. Ryan Gosling’s Ken exists for Barbie to notice him. When Barbie suddenly develops an awareness of death, she starts to unravel. She joins forces with Ken to go to The Real World to find the human (America Ferrera) who has imparted this unwanted knowledge to her.

Barbie is everything.

Gerwig and Baumbauch’s script is a balancing act of biting social commentary, playful dialogue, and hilarious conflict between Barbie’s known reality in Barbieland and the truth of The Real World. In Barbieland, women run the show. Barbie can be any number of career identities, but the film never falls prey to the idea that commodification is empowerment (despite being a corporate product). 

When Barbie and Ken arrive in The Real World, they discover a society that caters to the whims of men, and Ken starts believing Barbieland can be perfected by patriarchy. As a result, he institutes Kendom–a place where the Kens turn Barbie Dreamhouses into Mojo Dojo Casa Houses and ride around on horses while forcing their Barbie crushes to indulge in shallow analyses of The Godfather.

Ken is just Ken.

Barbie has to escape Mattel’s corporate clutches and save Barbieland from Kendom before learning a transformative lesson: Shun the pre-packaged, plastic version of yourself corporate America is selling you. Yes, it’s about subverting the patriarchy and mocking consumerism and corporate interests. But it goes even deeper than that, and while the movie ribs men plenty, it is always prescriptive, never dismissive. 

This comes through in Ken’s narrative arc from sidelined beach expert to the ruler of Kendom. He believes patriarchy can improve his life but later regrets and rejects the idea. He has focused his entire identity on either impressing Barbie or engineering a system meant to lionize men. As a result, he comes out feeling as lost as ever and eventually has his own breakdown. It isn’t until Barbie says, “I am Barbie. You are Ken,” that he realizes he can exist as his own person. Over the course of the film, Ken evolves from “I’m just Ken” to “I am Ken” to the now-viral “I am Kenough,” a powerful timeline of self-actualization.

Barbie enters The Real World.

As Barbie navigates this world, seeking out the human that has awakened her, she finds out that women don’t have to be this image of perfection. They experience depression. They get cellulite. They get older. They have insides that process food and water and a whole spectrum of emotions Barbieland filtered out. Life in The Real World is messy and confusing, and Barbie’s existential crisis eventually overwhelms her to the point where she literally lies face-down on the floor, dejected. We have all felt that way.

Barbie learns a lot from observing the world around her, but her a-ha moment arrives when she meets an elderly woman (Ann Roth) sitting on a bench. At one point, Barbie says to her, “You’re beautiful,” and the woman responds, “I know.” With those simple words, this horror-loving gorehound turned into a blubbering mess in the theaters. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more touching and genuine portrayal of self-affirmation. It’s a loving interaction void of pretense, condescension, sarcasm, or assumptions. It’s two people actually seeing each other and acknowledging the beauty within themselves. Robbie’s work–laughing through tears–is masterful and cuts straight to the core, effortlessly communicating Barbie’s sincerity, vulnerability, and growing sense of self.

Barbie is triumphant in its humanity.

The movie is campy but never stupid. Critical, but always caring. It is nuanced and subversive, even though Mattel CEO Will Ferrell is lovable-dumb rather than cartoonishly evil as he should have been for a sharper zing. 

At its core, the movie says, find yourself and be yourself, messy batteries included. All of us should be more like Barbie, willing to step outside of what we know and what feels safe to embrace being human unapologetically. We can proudly exist as individuals in a world that’s often horrific and forces us into boxes. 

Horror movies make us confront our deepest fears and demonstrate how our lives can be radically changed in the process, for better or worse. Barbie does the same. You have to accept fear as part of life. With that acceptance comes an ability to feel more grounded in your sense of self, less fearful of living life. I left the theater feeling even more comfortable in my Pumpkinhead shirt than I did before. Thanks, Barbie.