As an active Buddhist, a former video producer, and a lifelong pop culture junkie, it’s impossible for me to not see Buddhist themes and teachings in everything I watch. In some cases, it’s overwhelming, like in Everything Everywhere All at Once, which explored emptiness for two and a half hours, but in most cases, it’s a bit more subtle, like in Barbie.

(Warning: mild spoilers ahead, but none you can’t find anywhere else on the internet.)

Barbie is deliciously pink. A psychedelic, campy satire that at times is bittersweet with its commentary on gender equality and the patriarchy, it is radical to some, very funny to others, and thought-provoking for all. Director Greta Gerwig has managed to paint a broad enough pink landscape to allow for much interpretation—a hallmark of all great film and art. 

What has struck me most about the film is its deeper explorations of female suffering. The journey of Stereotypical Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, is in many ways akin to the historical Buddha’s journey toward enlightenment. The movie starts with Barbie living in an almost picture-perfect Barbieland. Her morning routine is effortless. She has no cellulite. She is living in an abundance of pink. 

It is not until she leaves Barbieland that she discovers how tragically imperfect the world actually is—how much suffering there is, specifically for women. During the most perfect disco-dancing party, Stereotypical Barbie asks, “Do you ever think about dying?” to both her and her other Barbie and Ken friends’ shock. 

We see a similar arc in the story of Siddhartha Gautama. As a wealthy prince, Gautama’s life is picture-perfect. He has unlimited resources, a family, and what most people during that time—or any time—could want. But something beyond his understanding called him to explore the “real world.” When he went beyond the castle walls, he quickly met the full spectrum of humanity that he hadn’t been privy to up until that point: sickness, old age, and death. 

As I watched Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling roller-blade down Santa Monica Pier in highlighter-yellow roller blades, searching for answers, I started to wonder if Gerwig was laying out much more than what appeared on the pink surface. Was this movie actually an existential fever dream dressed in pink and plastic?

In Barbie, once Stereotypical Barbie and Ken enter the “real world” for the first time, they quickly see and encounter suffering as did Gautama. But this suffering comes in different forms now. We see how Stereotypical Barbie suffers quickly and deeply much more than Ken as she gets sexually harassed by construction workers and feels suffering perhaps for the first time. On a quest to find her “owner,” she mistakes a teenager for her playmate, and instead of getting the warm welcome she was expecting, she instead gets reamed out for creating unmanageable expectations for women everywhere. 

The heart of the movie, somewhat hidden amidst all the clever farce, comes when Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie and a co-founder of Mattel, played by Rhea Perlman, explains to Stereotypical Barbie that the world is full of suffering, that this is part of being human. Of course, my little Buddhist heart couldn’t help but remember the first of the four noble truths—that suffering exists, plain and simple. As humans, we cannot escape it; it is part of our existence. But it’s our job to look deeply and transform it into something better than how we found it.

The film then goes on to explore the idea of perfection, in both a capitalist and feminist way, and perhaps unbeknownst to Gerwig, taps into one of the great teachings: buddhanature. Stereotypical Barbie and her other Barbie friends start embodying imposter syndrome, cultivating a narrative that they are simply enough. But Ruth reminds Barbie, while they float in white space (a dramatic reprieve from all the glorious pink), that Barbie has always been perfect, that she was, in fact, made perfect. This seemingly simple statement—that our most authentic, natural selves are perfect in a world made of plastic—isn’t just a brilliant move here, but a profound one.

The teachings continue to reveal themselves as Ken begins his existential crisis after trying to turn Barbieland into a patriarchy and confronting his attachment to his own identity. The attachment to self and our own egos—when we fail to grasp that, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, we all inter-are—is, of course, one of the many ways suffering is born. Ken breaks down, cries, and, much as Barbie does, begins to feel the full spectrum of emotions that come with living a life that is filled with suffering. After trying to bury his tears, he then goes into a dance number about his manhood, and, truly, his identity. 

Ken screams at the top of his lungs and chiseled chest, asking Barbie who he is if he isn’t Ken? He goes through the many different kinds of Kens, trying to find more meaning in who he is. In response, Barbie practices compassion by sharing with him that he is “just Ken.” It isn’t until he lets go of this deep attachment of self that he realizes he is good enough, simply as is—in his buddhanature—and sports a tie-dyed sweatshirt that says, “I’M KENOUGH.” 

For me, the most poignant moment in the film is when Ruth invites Barbie to feel. And feel she does, opening herself up to life, with all of its flaws and imperfections, joys and sorrows. Feeling might be painful, but in the end, she would rather feel than not. Despite the treacherous journey we have as not just humans but as women in a world that has taken away our autonomy, which forces us into a box and shackles us with expectations and twisty-ties, Barbie realizes that this plight we call humanity is still worth it.

As a feminist and a Buddhist, I found this realization to be the most striking part of this summer blockbuster. Stereotypical Barbie chose the most complex, challenging, oppressive, and beautiful experience of all—being human.

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