With ‘Barbie,’ Chick Flick Is Back with a Vengeance

Warner Bros. Pictures

When the trailer of Barbie (2023) starring Margot Robbie first hit the internet, showing the actress adorned in head to toe pink, the world went into a frenzy. The level of excitement for this movie probably rivals that of any Marvel movie, with endless chatter, memes, and thinkpiece articles flooding the internet. This is unusual for a female-centered film outside of Disney Princesses films. The verdict is clear: there’s a real demand for a girly girl film, especially because they’re barely made anymore. But this wasn’t always the case. 


When Chick Flicks Were Huge

Chick flicks used to be prominent in the late 1990s-2000s Hollywood. These are female-centered films depicting women who are feminine and are dealing with problems faced by women that are not limited to just romantic relationships. Some examples include Nancy Meyers movies or works like Miss Congeniality, Legally Blonde, and The Devil Wears Prada. The women often work in fashion, beauty or pageantry, and there is an emphasis on feminine aesthetics in the wardrobe and production design. These films were big box office hits. 

And then, they went away. 


The Villainizing of the Feminine

Films that celebrate femininity disappeared and suddenly, the media began portraying ladylike girls as the villain of the story or the butt of a joke as stereotypically bimbo-ish girls. Ultra feminine characters are often depicted as superficial, air-headed and petty. Evidence of this can be seen in Mean Girls (2004) with The Plastics as a clique of popular bratty school girls whose signature motto is “on Wednesdays, we wear pink,” Sharpay Evans in High School Musical (2006), or Shelley Darling in The House Bunny (2008). This coincides with the rise of the “I’m not like other girls” characters in mainstream media. That is, female characters who don’t conform to girliness and therefore are special in that way. In Mean Girls, leading lady Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) is the foil to The Plastic’s well manicured image: she wears plain clothes and is a bit of a nerd. In High School Musical, Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) is the homely studious girl who ends up winning the audition and getting the guy over vapid, ambitious Sharpay. The White Chicks (2004) even goes further by parodying the blonde socialite persona then popularized by Paris Hilton with all the perceived ditziness. Of course, we all know now that Hilton strategically curated that image – a smart businesswoman after all. 


The Girlboss Era

Entering the 2010s, there was a fresh wave of push for strong women characters, as if we didn’t have that before. Somehow this translates as women having to be masculine to be considered strong. Part of the reason is superhero movies becoming the dominant box office earners. Female characters suit up to keep up with demand and therefore we get the likes of Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman in the 2010s. Another contributing factor is the rise of the girlboss – powerful female leaders and CEOs like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, The Huffington Post’s Ariana Huffington, and Michelle Obama – who emerged in the media as power suits-wearing women thriving in man’s world. The #MeToo movement in 2017 also opened wide the reality of inequality and mistreatment faced by women in the workplace. The pushback significantly alters how female leads are portrayed in the media: masculinization becomes their armor against injustice. The result, barring a few notable exceptions, strong female leads overwhelmingly become more and more masculine. They go into battlefields, denounce traditionally female roles like marriage and motherhood, and generally behave like macho action heroes of the 80’s: emotionless, cold badasses. While it’s nice to see women in all shapes and forms, there is a glaring dismissal of feminine women as less strong and therefore, not worth portraying. 

However, as with any trend, the pendulum always swings the other way. Pushback against the masculinization of women started happening in late 2010’s.


Reclaiming the Pink Era

Demystified by the cult of the girlboss era, with so many high profile cases involving fraudulent girlbosses like Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes and socialite Anna Delvey, coupled with the crumbling of the start-up culture, the younger generations began reclaiming the pink in social media. Barbiecore – a style inspired by the iconic Mattel doll – emerged as a popular aesthetic in the early 2020s. The resurgence of Y2K in pop culture, where bright colors like hot pink are a staple, further solidified its return. Wearing pink is now seen as a defiance to the misogynistic view that frames the traditionally feminine-coded color as something frivolous. By extension, the girly girl aesthetic is back, too. 

In response, the mainstream media followed suit. Hot pink began appearing in the runways of high end fashion brands like Versace and Valentino. It quickly made its way to red carpets and streetwear, with big names like Lizzo, Anne Hathaway and Zendaya seen donning the bright shade. And eventually, this trend will culminate in the very embodiment of pink and girly girl: the upcoming Barbie movie.


Barbie Girl

Long before Greta Gerwig came on board to direct Robbie, a Barbie movie adaptation has been in the works as far back as 2009. It has seen a rotation of stars like Amy Schumer and Hathaway once attached to the project. The trailer already gives us a taste of Barbie’s absolute embrace of femininity. It opens with snippets of Barbie’s life in Barbie Land, where the houses are modeled after the Barbie Dream House toy that every 90’s girl dreamt of. Robbie’s Barbie is the perfect perky blonde who spends her days having fun with her pals, who are all called Barbie. That is, until she starts feeling strange in her idyllic world. Thus begins her journey to the real world, our world, accompanied by her boy toy Ken (Ryan Gosling). This is where the rest of the story remains shrouded.

Already, the immaculate production value jumps out: the pink-fest landscape of Barbie’s home, the cute fashion, the vibrant girly aesthetic. A brilliant promotional tie-in with Architectural Digest sees Robbie giving a tour of the life-size Barbie Land set, with stunning details like the Barbie packaging-inspired closet and tidbit of how its construction caused global shortage of pink paints. 

Aside from that, the promotional materials suggest that this Barbie is forward thinking too. The peppy individual posters relay that these ethnically diverse Barbies each have their own careers — president, Supreme Court judge, doctor, etc. In a way, this mirrors the public image of the doll line itself. For a while, the Barbie doll was criticized for promoting narrow beauty standards to young girls. Then, Mattel rebranded the dolls with more body types, added different skin colors, and released Barbie in many career iterations. It’s set to represent young women who love feminine things like dressing up, yet are also smart and accomplished. After all, why must we choose?

With a pre-release buzz that’s unusually high for a chick flick, even comparable to tentpole superhero movies, it signals the time to broaden the mold of what strong women characters can be. It’s time to (again) have female heroes who don’t follow the traditional mold of heroes – the gun-toting, fist-fighting kinds – but one that is so confidently female without being undermined for it. Life in plastic isn’t just fantastic… it’s feminist too!

Barbie will strut into theaters on July 21, 2023.

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