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Is ‘Barbie’ Just ‘Back to the Future Part II’ in Pink?



Despite their aesthetic distinctions, both films serve as dystopian depictions of life under the patriarchy

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, while at first glance a nuanced tale of womanhood, actually has a simple storytelling device at its core: It’s a quest. You might even call it a sci-fi adventure. In an interview with Letterboxd on the 32 films that inspired Barbie, Gerwig places The Wizard of Oz at the top of that list, explaining how Barbie’s journey to the real world – pink brick road and all – resembles Dorothy’s journey to Oz. Also on Gerwig’s watchlist are Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Truman Show.

But to me, there’s a glaring gap: what about Back to the Future (BTTF) Part II?

Consider Barbie’s plot: Barbie, with sidekick Ken, travels from the idyllic Barbieland to the jarring real world, where everything is foreign and incomprehensible. Ken, left to his own devices, discovers the patriarchy during one of the movie’s most hilariously biting scenes – a mesmerising montage of horses, the Founding Fathers and other ‘manly’ icons. Ken brings his newfound ‘meninism’ back to Barbieland, converting it to ‘Kendom’ while Barbie’s away. When she returns, she’s met with a disturbing new reality – a dystopian society in which every night is boys’ night (yuck) and men hold the highest positions (yuckier).

Strip back their aesthetic distinctions, and you’ll find that BTTF Part II follows an uncannily similar storyline. Marty McFly travels with his eccentric friend Doc Brown to the year 2015 – 30 years in the future. After seeing a sports almanack in a shop window, Marty stashes it as a souvenir, with the hopes of engaging in some light gambling. Doc warns Marty of the potential consequences and trashes the book, but not before being overheard by the film’s antagonist, Biff, who steals their time machine, takes the almanack and gifts it to his teenage self. When Marty returns to 1985, he faces a nightmarish scenario: his family home is occupied by strangers, his father is dead and his mother has been coerced into marrying Biff.

Barbie and BTTF Part II show the disastrous repercussions of interfering with the space-time continuum. Both Barbie and Marty accidentally invoke a grim version of their reality – one in which the men rule, the women are treated as objects and life is one big, horrible ‘mojo dojo casa house’.

Travelling between realities isn’t inherently problematic, but it runs the risk of a domino effect, a series of events set in motion by one careless move. By presenting vulnerable men with dangerous ideas, power falls into undeserving hands. While Ken might not be as willfully wicked as Biff, the two share one important commonality: they both compete with another man for a specific woman’s attention. In Ken’s case, he’s competing with the other Kens – once the Barbies realise this, they use it to their advantage, tearing the Kendom apart by turning the men against each other. In Biff’s case, he’s been going after Lorraine (Marty’s mother) since 1955. When he loses her affection to George McFly, Biff loses his cool and, in the alternate timeline, kills him.

Unsurprisingly, the female characters’ appearances change drastically once the men are put into power. In the ‘Kendom’, Barbies once wearing pretty pink dresses, women-at-work-wear and pantsuits are now dressed as maids – outfits as unserious as Halloween costumes. In Biff’s 1985, Lorraine wears a sequined v-neck top with her cleavage practically spilling out, and two nameless women are (impliedly) naked. In both films, the male gaze is clearly represented in clothing (or lack thereof).

In addition to their similarities in storyline, the two films share a single, overarching message: the patriarchy is, in a sense, a dystopia that’s thrust upon us every day. Both films ultimately show that – under a patriarchal society – men are often driven by jealousy, engaging in a metaphorical (and in both films’ cases, literal) cockfight. And it’s true that not all men act this way (Marty, Doc and Allan – a discontinued male doll – are normal), but revenge is sweet for the ones who feel they’ve been slighted, especially by a woman.

It’s up to the films’ respective protagonists, Barbie and Marty, to right the wrong they’ve unintentionally introduced. The patriarchy won’t crumble on its own; it must be bulldozed, unquestionably destroyed. In Barbie, this is achieved by the Barbies reclaiming their positions of power whilst the Kens are infighting. In BTTF Part II, Marty steals the almanack back from Biff and burns it, restoring 1985 to its former ‘glory’ (the patriarchy still operates in 1985, but that’s besides the point).

While Barbie may or may not be Back to the Future Part II disguised in pink, both films have their place in the sci-fi-meets-social-commentary canon. One event or idea can spark a chain reaction, running wild like a train off its tracks. Biff becomes crazed with the prospect of money and male power; the result is a crime-ridden, corrupt Hill Valley (aptly nicknamed ‘Hell Valley’ by vandals). Ken too becomes obsessed with the patriarchy after observing male privilege play out in real time. Barbie is a bubblegum version of the same old story: bad things happen when you f*ck with fate.

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