Summary of this month’s movie:
Stereotypical Barbie ("Barbie") is living her best life in Barbie Land, a matriarchal society populated by different versions of Barbies, Kens, and a group of discontinued models, who are treated like outcasts due to their unconventional traits. While the Kens spend their days playing at the beach, the Barbies hold prestigious jobs such as doctor, lawyer, and politician. Beach Ken ("Ken") is only happy when he is with Barbie and seeks a closer relationship, but Barbie rebuffs him in favor of other activities and female friendships.
One evening at a dance party, Barbie is suddenly stricken with worries about mortality. Overnight, she develops bad breath, cellulite, and flat feet, disrupting her usual routines the next day. Weird Barbie, an outcast due to her disfigurement, tells her she must find the child playing with her in the real world to cure her afflictions. Ken stows away in her convertible to join her, to which Barbie reluctantly agrees.
Arriving at Venice Beach, Barbie punches a man for groping her, leading to her and Ken's brief arrest. Alarmed by their presence, Mattel's CEO orders their recapture. Barbie tracks down her owner, a tween girl named Sasha, who criticizes her for encouraging unrealistic beauty standards. Distraught, Barbie discovers that Gloria, a Mattel employee and Sasha's mother, accidentally caused the chaos by playing with Sasha's old Barbie toys in a similar state. Mattel attempts to put Barbie in a toy box for remanufacturing, but she escapes with Gloria and Sasha's help and the three travel to Barbie Land with Mattel executives in pursuit.
But in the meantime, Ken learned about the patriarchy and took over Barbie Land with the other Kens, leaving the Barbies in submissive roles like agreeable girlfriends, housewives, and maids. With the assistance of Sasha, Weird Barbie, and the discontinued dolls, they deprogram the Barbies and regain power. The Barbies resolve to rectify the faults of their previous society, emphasizing better treatment of the Kens and all outcasts.
Barbie and Ken apologize to each other, acknowledging their mistakes. Ken bemoans that he has no purpose without Barbie, so Barbie encourages him to find his own identity. Barbie decides to become human and return to the real world.
Jeni: I wasn’t sure I’d like this movie, but I really, really did. It was definitely more than I was expecting. I will say that there are a few elements that could have been developed better and it got a little preachy at times. Like, as much as I love America Ferrera and thought her character was great, I definitely found her big speech about what it’s like to be a woman to be a little … pandering? But it also has a nuanced dialogue about the concepts surrounding gender. Like, the difference in how Ken and Barbie perceived all the unsolicited attention. And the idea that Barbie started as a feminist icon because she wasn’t a baby doll and allowed little girls imaginative play beyond the idea of being a wife and mom because Barbie wasn’t either. I grew up in the era of the Barbie with impossible body proportions and early stirrings that maybe that wasn’t healthy for kids. And it resonated with me, in part because I’ve had a lot of conversations about language evolving and how things that used to be seen as progressive are not anymore because we’ve grown past that need. So, I loved that they were able to make a movie that pays homage to, makes fun of, and points out the flaws of something that society has had a love/hate relationship with for a long time. Beyond that, it was just a lot of fun, and it was a whole movie about women where no one had a romance! Which is kind of amazing. So, overall, I definitely think it lived up to the hype. What did you think?
Carly: That’s such a good point about words evolving and progressiveness developing. I love how you put that. Well let’s be clear, I loved this movie. The moment I heard Greta Gerwig had signed on to do a Barbie movie? I was sold. We watched her version of Little Women, and I’m noticing a pattern. We tend to watch certain creators over and over, like Greta Gerwig, Guillermo Del Toro, Jordan Peele, etc. And I think it is because they all have something really interesting to say, something compelling. We have our favorite auteurs for sure. Anyway, this movie was wonderful. Sure it was heavy-handed at times. And it is promoting a corporation and will sell tons of merchandise. But do I want a “I am Kenough” hoodie? Yes. Honestly, what got me with this movie was the crazy attention to detail. I recognized outfits my barbie’s had, ones that my mom had saved from her childhood, small plastic details, etc. It was truly impeccably done. For a movie about a product, I don’t think you could ask for much more. Yes it was pure nostalgia, but it was also diverse, poignant, and funny. Anyway, what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Jeni: One thing that really stood out is how the writers used antagonistic forces. An antagonist or antagonistic force is anything that creates an obstacle for the protagonist. The writers did some really interesting things with that in this movie by really making the main antagonistic force the patriarchy. It has a negative impact on everyone in the story–the human women, the people in Barbie Land, even Mattel. I loved when all the Barbie stuff started becoming Ken toys because, while it was satire, anyone who has ever shopped for toys can absolutely tell you how gendered companies make them. Do I have mixed feelings about having to see corporations as victims of the patriarchy? Absolutely. But I also think there’s some amount of truth to it. So then there are also other, smaller antagonistic forces at play. Like the social structure of the “weird” Barbies. And also Ken/the Kens are very much an antagonist, as well as Mattel. Even the separation of Barbie Land and the real world. So, yeah, lots of internal and external antagonistic forces (just like internal and external conflict) and lots of different kinds for us to talk about.
Carly: Yeah, when I saw this movie I immediately knew I wanted to do it for the podcast and I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about. Somehow, we haven’t talked about antagonistic forces specifically, and this movie did them really well. Let’s get into the difference between an antagonist and an antagonistic force. Basically, an antagonist is a person while an antagonistic force is anything that creates conflict for your character, something that has a competing goal. Antagonistic forces are extremely varied, and honestly, you’ll probably have many. The main one in this movie is the patriarchy. It is the antithesis of Barbie and goes against everything that she wants in life. But at the same time, it kind of defines her. She has a complex relationship with the patriarchy and fights back against it. Now the main antagonists of this movie are well, Ken and Mattel. Both of them give the antagonistic force a face. They represent the different aspects of the patriarchy and the need the patriarchy has to control Barbie aka the feminine. Basically, an antagonistic force is what opposes your main character, be it an aspect of the world, a society, an enemy, a rival, or your protagonist getting in their own way. But an antagonist is often the face or the person that represents the antagonistic force. Not every antagonistic force needs a face, but it can be useful to give your character a person to direct their ire towards. Basically, antagonistic force: the ephemeral idea that opposes your character, antagonist: the representation of that idea as a person. At least, that’s how I like to think of it. We all have antagonistic forces in our lives, things in our way, but it is rare that we have a true villain in our lives. We often create antagonists out of people in our lives because it is easier to direct that frustration at a person than it is to direct it at the universe. And the same can be said for your main characters.
Jeni: Right, so the story value of antagonistic forces is that they create conflict. Without antagonistic forces, the story would just be “the MC has a goal, and achieving it is super easy, then end.” Stories like that aren’t very interesting to readers. We did an episode about conflict not too long ago, so I just want to do a quick recap here because it’s an essential element to understanding antagonists. Conflict comes from two or more opposing forces competing over some kind of limited resource. We have the MC as one of those forces, and then the forces that oppose them are technically all antagonistic forces. In this movie, the resources they’re competing for are power and control over people, in particular, the people of Barbie Land. That’s a finite resource, and how that power shift changes over the course of the story has to do with how Barbie overcomes obstacles. At the beginning, the obstacle is just that something weird is happening and she needs to find out why and how to fix it. But that goal morphs as she realized the conflict is much deeper than that. This causes new obstacles and new conflict–getting to the real world, realizing Mattel can’t fix the problem, the Ken takeover, and even her own internal struggle with perfectionism. So we can point to each of these and determine what antagonistic force creates them. For example, with getting to the real world, the antagonistic force is the separation between it and Barbieland. This one is pretty simple and actually kinda fun, and the writers make it more difficult by Barbie agreeing to bring Ken along–another antagonist. So antagonistic forces and conflict go hand in hand. If you have an antagonist that isn’t creating conflict, it might be time to re-evaluate.
Carly: Alright, so let’s get into how to develop the antagonist. The most important thing to remember with all your characters, but especially the antagonist is that we’re all the hero of our own story. Everyone has a little bit of main character syndrome. No one exists solely to oppose another person, and your antagonist shouldn’t either. They should be complex people in their own right. The most important thing to do when making your antagonist is to create their GMC (goal, motivation, conflict). We get into GMC in another episode that you should of course go listen to if you haven’t already. But basically, it is: what does your character want, why do they want it, and what is in their way? Usually with an antagonist the answer to what is in their way is your main character. But what they want and why they want it is how readers connect to the characters. It is really important that your reader connects to your antagonist, otherwise they will feel like they solely exist to antagonize your main character. And while, honestly, they do solely exist to antagonize your main character, that’s not a very interesting person. We want real antagonists. You should in theory be able to write the book from their point-of-view. I often instruct authors to write a scene from the antagonist's POV (point-of-view) as an exercise. What is motivating them? How do they view your main character? What do they notice and pay attention to? What seemingly harmless thing is very important to them? Now unless you’re writing a book with the antagonist's perspective, this won’t make it into the book. But it is a useful exercise because it helps you to flesh out your antagonist and really see who they are and how they function as a person. In the movie, we get this a lot with Ken. One of Barbie’s biggest realizations is that Ken is a person too. In the beginning of the movie she sees him almost as an accessory, which is how most people view Ken dolls. And her view of him and his exposure to the patriarchy in the real world is what pushes Ken to become villainous. His character arc is as compelling as Barbie’s. The reason we all want “I am Kenough” hoodies is because his journey and arc is completely relatable. He feels maligned, used, forgotten, unimportant. But he learns that he can be enough just as he is. He learns to not define himself in relation to Barbie or other people. His antagonistic role means that the things he tries to do come in direct conflict with what Barbie wants, but in the end they realize that their goals don’t actually conflict with one another. Once Ken realizes that what he really wants is to be enough for someone, not that he wants to rule the world. And this all goes to show: your antagonist needs a GMC and a character arc just like your main character. They should reach for things, grow, learn, even discover the Lie that they have believed in. (which is another episode you should listen to)
Jeni: When you’re developing an antagonistic force, it’s really important to consider what characteristics a strong antagonistic force needs for your specific main character. Because not every character is going to find the same things challenging. Your antagonist forces don’t all have to be pure evil or foils or mirrors for the main character, but they do need to challenge them. And characters, like real people, are challenged when they are made to do hard things they’d normally avoid or ignore. So a strong antagonistic force is going to be one that pushes your character out of their comfort zone and into a position where they have to make decisions and take actions on things they normally wouldn’t. In the movie, Barbie’s outlook changes because she starts having these thoughts about death. But it’s only because of this shift in perspective our MC Barbie now has a new goal. All the other Barbies and Kens are really perfectly happy in their goals of living their best lives because they haven’t yet had this shift in perspective. So, even just in the beginning of the movie, we see that this one particular character has a GMC (goal, motivation, conflict) that means her obstacles are different from the other characters. When you’re determining this for your own character, consider what is hard for them already, before the story even starts. What is their emotional wound? What is their “lie”? What is most precious to them? What would they give anything to do or be or have? What are that character’s strengths, and what are their flaws? Your antagonist force(s) are the key to challenging these issues for your protagonist.
Carly: An important thing to remember is that the antagonist and antagonistic force must present a clear and genuine threat for your main character. So as Jeni just explained, your antagonist/antagonistic force is going to be created to genuinely cause conflict for your character. They are created as a way to push your character and to be in their way. And to do that, they need to be a genuine threat. They can’t be something easily ignored. This is where stakes come in. How does your antagonist threaten the stakes? We often come back to stakes throughout this podcast. Because they are the potential for loss. And your antagonist needs to threaten the main character with that loss. It doesn’t need to be as overt as a rival threatening to steal their love interest, but it can be someone that stands to gain at your character’s loss. Now that I think about it, I kind of like that as a definition for an antagonist, someone that will gain from your character’s loss. Because stakes and that fear of losing something is often what a lot of conflict comes down to, and your antagonistic force is the representation of that conflict. Anyway, I’m just basking in my own brilliance, it’s fine. So in this movie, Ken very clearly will gain from Barbie’s loss. The whole of Barbie Land will be in his control and he will have taken it away from Barbie. Mattel itself just wants to sell products, so they also want to control Barbie Land because they will be able to control the products and direct the power that Barbie Land has over the real world. Everyone wants to take away Barbie’s power, including the patriarchy (because that’s what the patriarchy does, it steals power). The antagonists and antagonistic forces all gain from Barbie’s loss. They are a genuine threat to what she wants and by stripping her of her power, she loses out on her goals. So always make sure your antagonistic forces have the power to create loss for your main characters. Without that true threat, they are weak antagonists that can easily be ignored. Because what is at stake for your character needs to be threatened to even be at stake at all. That sounded confusing, you get it. I trust that my nonsense makes sense on some level.
Jeni: As I was thinking about this, I kept coming back to all the theories about “X makes the perfect antagonist.” In writing circles and fandoms, I see a lot of discussions like, the perfect antagonist has to have sympathetic motivations or they have to be all but unstoppable. Two extremes I see often are they need good intentions but go about it in a harmful way, like Magneto in X-Men. Or the perfect antagonist is just evil and has no real rationale behind their villainous ways, a la the Joker in Batman, so they can’t be reasoned with. Are all my examples comic books? Mebbe. This is something I talk about pretty often with my comic-loving husband haha But so, for writers, I think this is the kind of thing where it’s easy to fall into a stuck place. If you have seen discussion that makes you believe all antagonists should be exact opposites of your protagonist, for example, this might feel very limiting and could create problems for you as you develop your characters more on the page. But really, the quote/unquote “best antagonists” don’t have set rules for what any antagonist must be or do or look like. Some are straight-up villains. Others might be unlikeable but not really bad, just making things difficult for your protagonist. Like a teacher your MC doesn’t like. Some aren’t even people. They can be weather, technology, or social constructs like patriarchy. And then there’s all the stuff inside a character. So just stay focused on creating antagonistic forces that challenge your particular main character, are well-developed and engaging, and create conflict, like we’ve said here. Beyond that, have fun with making them be mean to your MCs.