I went with my family to see The Barbie Movie this summer, and I have to say that I came away from the experience pleasantly surprised at how thoughtful and creative it was. Like many who went in that initial wave of attendees, I assumed that we would be watching a light comedy which would, essentially, end up being a children’s movie. Boy was I in for a surprise! What we ended up watching was a poignant treatise on the promise of feminism and the impact of our perceptions of gender on our society. We laughed a lot. We learned a lot. At the end, many people in the theatre cried a lot, too. As we left the theatre and walked back to our cars, we did so with the mindset that we had just seen a movie about a toy that, daresay, might actually warrant being deemed as important.
While this post is meant to act as a music post, it is difficult to discuss the song “What Was I Made For?” by Billie Eilish without first placing the song in some sort of context. To do so requires a brief account of the film. If you haven’t seen the movie and wish to at a later date then you may wish to stop reading right now because some SPOILER details are soon to come. If you have seen the movie then feel free to enjoy this brief summary, or else skip on ahead to the next paragraph. Here we go.
Growing up, I always took the presence of Barbie dolls for granted. They were just a toy that my sister played with. No different than any other toy that came and went from our home. However, from watching The Barbie Movie I learned that the original Barbie doll was created by a lady named Ruth Handler who worked at Mattel and that the doll was created to act as a feminist alternative to the traditional “baby” dolls that acted as a training tool geared toward motherhood. While there is nothing at all wrong with the idea of motherhood, society at that time (the 1950s) was only just beginning to accept the notion that women could expect to have a future that extended beyond the home. Thus, Barbie dolls were created so that young girls were able to imagine themselves being astronauts, scientists, doctors and even the president of the United States. This is where the movie begins. In Barbieland, all of the various iterations of Barbie over the years live in blissful happiness. Every day is perfect. There is laughter and sunshine all of the time. The Kens exist on the periphery and only play a meaningful role when needed by a Barbie. As the movie opens, Margot Robbie’s character, “Stereotypical Barbie”, dances and hangs out with her other Barbie friends until one day when she gets a weird feeling that manifests itself in thoughts of mortality. She then develops cellulite and flat feet. In a panic she seeks help from “Weird Barbie”, who takes care of all the other Barbie dolls who are misshapen and/or who never fit in. From her, Robbie learns that whoever is playing with her in the “real world” is having issues that need to be addressed. So, Robbie (and Ken…Ryan Gosling…,who hides in her Barbie car) head to the real world to meet this mystery person. Once in the real world, Margot Robbie’s Barbie discovers that the promise of feminism hasn’t quite taken root there. She is ogled and touched without her consent. Meanwhile, Ken is admired for his buff physique and is introduced to a concept known as the Patriarchy. A young teenage girl berates Barbie for having created generations of women who feel badly about their body image because they can’t compete with Barbie’s sexualized figure. Finally, Robbie meets the person who had been playing with her. It was America Ferrera, who plays the mother of the teenage girl who gave Barbie such a scolding. As it turns out, Ferrera’s character had grown tired of trying to find her way in a “man’s world” and had been viewing her daughter’s Barbie doll with a mixture of emotions that were potent enough to have reached Robbie’s Barbie all the way in Barbieland. In the midst of all of this, Mattel executives become aware that Barbie has crossed over into the real world and chase after her so that she can be repackaged and rebranded to their liking. Barbie ends up running for her life through the Mattel headquarters and beyond. In the course of this, she runs into a ghost-like figure played by Rhea Perlman who turns out to be Ruth Handler. As mentioned off of the top, it was a woman named Ruth Handler who created the original Barbie doll. So, when Barbie meets Ruth, it is akin to you or I meeting God. It is at this point that Handler has a motherly talk with a very confused and distraught Barbie. While this talk unfolds, a montage appears on screen of moments between mothers and daughters and between girlfriends and between sisters. Accompanying this ode to Sisterhood and all that is maternal, the song “What Was I Made For?” is played. It is not an exaggeration to say that the sobs emanating from the audience I was a part of were audible and unrestrained. Any critic can say anything they want about The Barbie Movie, but the fact remains that director Greta Gerwig touched the hearts and minds of a great many people with her work on this film.
One of the many things that work well in this movie is the way music is used. The soundtrack to The Barbie Movie is populated with many of today’s hottest stars such as Nicki Minaj, Ice Spice, Dua Lipa, Charli XCX and, of course, Billie Eilish. With her brother Finneas, Billie Eilish wrote “What Was I Made For?” after having been given a sneak peek at the movie by Gerwig before it was released. According to Eilish, she was greatly moved by what she saw onscreen and immediately recognized herself in the character played by Robbie. Eilish understood the impact of being a woman and of body image and how all of that takes away from her work as an artist. Eilish has stated many times that it is one of her most fervent wishes that articles about her focus on her lyrics and her music and not on what clothes she is wearing or the colour of her hair. In the movie, her whispery song delivery is perfectly suited for the reflective nature of the grand talk between Barbie and Ruth Handler. This song resonates with so many who feel unfairly burdened and typecast by gender and appearance and societal expectations and traditions. That we live in judgie times is acknowledged and not shied away from in the movie, which to its credit, does not seek tidy solutions to the plotline of this film. The world is a complicated mess and it is, indeed, difficult to know what one’s purpose is at times. You don’t have to be Barbie to understand that.
Here is something that you can take to the bank. If there happens to be an Academy Awards ceremony this coming year (and, with the screenwriters’ strike ongoing as I type this, that is not a given), I boldly predict that “What Was I Made For?” will win for Best Song in a Motion Picture. It was the absolutely perfect vehicle to pair with the onscreen visuals and dialogue. In any artist’s lifetime, if you can ever create work that touches the hearts and minds of those who encounter it, then you have really realized your own purpose. Billie Eilish and Finneas have done that with “What Was I Made For?”, just as Greta Gerwig has done so with The Barbie Movie. This movie was pretty amazing, and I am better for having seen it.
The link to the video for the official movie trailer for The Barbie Movie can be found here.
The link to the lyrics video for the song “What Was I Made For?” by Billie Eilish from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the movie, The Barbie Movie can be found here.
The link to the official video for the song “What Was I Made For?” by Billie Eilish can be found here. ***NOTE: There is no video released from the actual Barbie Movie that pairs this song with the visuals that are shown when Barbie and Ruth Handler have their chat. The video that accompanies this link shows Billie Eilish and is solely featuring her.
Just for fun, the link to a video from The Barbie Movie called “Just Ken” can be found here. This song is sung by Ryan Gosling who, as Ken, chews scenery left and right in a terrific comedic turn that should earn him Oscar consideration for Best Supporting Actor. In this song, Ken wrestles with his feelings about having no self-identity outside of his association with Barbie. Even though this video comes across as light-hearted, it carries the point that one of the keys to a fulfilling life is being true to yourself, no matter who you are.
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