Intertextual Object Lessons: Barbie (2023) as a Musical

Paper by Julie Dillemuth Hollerer.

The film Barbie (Gerwig, 2023) references no fewer than thirty-three famous films (Vicino), including Saturday Night Fever (Badham, 1977) and Singin’ in the Rain (Donen & Kelly, 1952). This kind of intertextuality is important on a social and cultural level, since references to past films can be “a powerful policy and cultural repository” (Gibson 388), and also because for Gerwig and this film in particular, intertextuality gives Barbie a “cinematic pedigree” so it will be taken seriously as a film and Gerwig taken seriously as a filmmaker (Gibson 388). In this paper, close comparisons of the ensemble musical numbers “I’m Just Ken” (Barbie) with “Broadway Melody” (Singin’ in the Rain), and “Dance the Night” (Barbie) with “Night Fever” and “You Should Be Dancing” (Saturday Night Fever), will show how Gerwig references these earlier films using elements of mise en scene, and I will argue that the ways in which her musical numbers depart from the earlier films provide commentary on gender roles and a critique of patriarchal social norms in American society.

The movie Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig, came out in 2023 and though it wasn’t billed as a musical, it does meet the criteria of one. The main qualification of a musical is that “the music must advance the plot in some fashion or be reflective of a character’s desires, goals, and state of mind or inner being” (Friedman, et al. 212). There are four songs/dances that do this, and the song, “I’m Just Ken” exemplifies the statement that, “the musical is premised on the idea of freedom and breaking out of normal social conventions through song and dance” (Chumo 49). Barbie fits into the “fairytale musical” subgenre, which sets the action in a fantasy land, a grandiose transformation of the real world (Friedman et al. 222), and the pink-on-pink Barbie Land, based on decades-worth of Mattel merchandise, is exactly that.

The film Saturday Night Fever, directed by John Badham in 1977, is also one that would not necessarily be called a musical (Friedman et al. 231). But John Travolta as Tony dances throughout to express himself and to prove himself, eventually breaking free of the constraining social norms of his community. The Bee Gees do the singing to express his feelings and attitudes, and taken together, this qualifies it as musical. The music is such a big part of the film that without it, the plot would fall apart and we wouldn’t understand Tony’s character. It’s in the “folk musical” subgenre with its focus on everyday people in realistic, everyday settings (Friedman et al. 223).

Singin’ in the Rain, by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly from 1952, on the other hand, is the quintessential musical. In Peter Chumo’s article, in fact, he comments that indeed, “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all!” (Kathy Selden’s line in the film) if you see Singin’ in the Rain (Chumo 40). It’s a “show musical” in terms of its plot, and I counted twelve major songs and dances. Love duets advance the traditional heterosexual romance between Don and Kathy, solos like “Singin’ in the Rain” show off Gene Kelly’s athletic tap dancing and the innovative, captivating settings while expressing his character’s inner emotion, and ensemble numbers give the audience a brief history of popular music styles in the 20s as well as a modern dance piece.

The modern piece is the dream ballet of Singin’ in the Rain, called “Broadway Melody,” and is Gene Kelly’s character Don’s visualization of the “modern” number to go into the 1927 Dancing Cavalier musical. It’s a story in itself, about a naive young dancer who realizes his Broadway dream and makes a love connection with a vamp who chooses (or is forced to choose) money and gangsters over love. The dream ballet of Barbie, featuring the song “I’m Just Ken,” is about Ken’s wrestling with his feelings and his identity of who he is, which is the beginning of him trying to figure out who he is separate from Barbie. Many Gene Kelly films were about his character’s exploration of identity; in particular, the “abandonment of his fictional identity and the gradual realization of his own transcendent musical star persona” (Thomas Schatz qtd. in Chumo 47-48). The humor here is that the Ken doll, whose identity is entirely fictional anyway, transforms (albeit briefly) into a “musical star persona” in a sense in his channeling of Gene Kelly and so faithfully recreating this part of the dream ballet.

“Broadway Melody” opens with Gene Kelly as a nameless character in a tux, in a medium shot in a spotlight, then pulls back to a wide shot and the number takes off. It’s a performance number as if he’s on a stage, in an upbeat, Broadway style. We then go into the storyline of the “young hoofer,” as Don calls him, and the ensemble dancers come in, the color tones become bright and saturated, and the theme is “gotta dance!” In imitation and contrast, “I’m Just Ken” opens with a medium shot of shirtless Ryan Gosling as Ken, singing to himself about frustration and feelings he can’t explain, then as he and the Kens head to the beach for the battle, we see the ensemble behind him, walking in a dance-group formation. In “Broadway Melody,” an agent takes off the Young Hoofer’s geeky glasses, hat, and jacket to make him look more chic, more the part of a New York dancer. Chumo makes the point that this story is about Don’s “idealized self” trying to find his identity as a “dance man” and the shifting look of his costume reflects his evolving transformation (45). Ken similarly sheds his jacket to change his look: at the beach, full of saturated colors and the ensemble battling with toy weapons (rather than dancing), Gosling’s Ken takes off his fur coat to reveal a punk-rock leather outfit with a fringed vest, revealing his muscular torso underneath. The music shifts from a slow ballad to rock at this point, too.

In “Broadway Melody” there is a heterosexual romance storyline that starts in the speakeasy, where the young hoofer has a tension-filled encounter with the vamp in sparkling emerald green. Similarly, though not sexually, Gosling’s Ken confronts Simu Liu’s Ken, who wears an emerald-green 80s-style tank top and track shorts. Synergistic sparkles between them take us into the imagination-fantasy part of the dream ballet, which parallels the modern dance duet in “Broadway Melody.”

This duet between Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse (and it feels more appropriate to use their real names here than their characters’, who have no names anyway) takes place in an abstract, pastel sunrise/sunset-type space, with linear details of hazy pink and blue stripes on the ground and stairs stretching back into the distance. This is Kelly’s character’s fantasy, and the dance is about the romantic tension between him and this woman. They finally come together with a kiss, then they part, and we understand their yearning of unrequited love.

In Barbie, the set directly emulates the same kind of pastel, abstract space with striped light, but in a more saturated pink and blue. The Kens are dressed exactly as Gene Kelly is in the referenced scene (and in others of Kelly’s films), in tight black shirt, black pants, and black loafers, only the Kens wear Barbie-pink socks instead of black socks. And instead of a heterosexual love duet, this is about two rival Kens moving from conflict to connection, with modern-dance interpretations of fighting motifs (martial arts, archery, rock-paper-scissors) that eventually come together in a shared embracing or alliance of all Kens. There’s even a nod to the kiss, as Gosling’s Ken grabs the hands of two other Kens, one on each side, and when he spins them in, they kiss him on the cheek (to his delight).

Gene Kelly was all about proving his masculinity, subtly defending dancing as an athletic art in his choreography (Clover 726), with costuming and athletic moves that showed strength and prowess. Tight, short-sleeved shirts drew attention to his arm muscles, and pants and street shoes evoked an image of him as more of a regular guy than a dancer in tights and dance shoes. In a nod to that, at one point Gosling glares at the camera while raising a fist and flashing a bicep while the ensemble Kens do ballet leaps in the background. This is as if to say that yes, he’s manly, but masculinity can include ballet (as well as men kissing each other on the cheek) with no problem. In Singin’ in the Rain, it is only women who do classical ballet moves.

As Ken’s dream ballet continues, we see high-angle and overhead shots of the ensemble with the geometric patterns made famous by Busby Berkeley; only here, instead of identical-looking chorus girls, it’s men, and while they are technically-identical Ken dolls and costumed the same, the lineup includes Kens of color, as is obvious when the camera tracks forward and they peel off from a single-file line, which we recognize from many classic musicals. Such variations from these direct references to Singin’ in the Rain and classic musical iconography as established by Busby Berkeley serve both to put Gerwig’s own stamp on the material and to critique those gender roles and the objectification of women that was so much a part of the Hollywood musicals from the 30s through the 50s. When we expect barely-dressed, beautiful chorus girls but instead get visually pleasing patterns of skilled male dancers in street clothes, the jarring of our expectations makes us realize how we take those gender roles in musicals for granted. Similarly, when we are used to dancing duets being about heterosexual romance, the surprise and novelty of a nonsexual “bromance” underscores how we never see variation in this trope of the classic musical. This critique is all the more poignant given that Barbie is about highlighting the patriarchal norms that define American society, by flipping gender roles. In Barbie Land, female Barbies hold all the power and play the active roles in society, while the Kens exist in the shadow of the Barbies. When Ken visits the Real World he, and the audience along with him, is struck by all the imagery of men in power, which Ken absorbs as an amazing wonderland of male dominance which he takes back to impose on Barbie Land.

I would argue that the whole film plays with gender roles in order to draw attention to the feminist struggle for women’s equality with men, which continues to this day. When we meet Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie, she’s dressed in 1950s style, a time when American patriarchal hegemony was particularly strong in putting women in their “place” after women gained strength and independence during World War II, which threatened masculinity and male power (Benshoff and Griffin 270).

Turning to another classic film referenced by Barbie, the number “Dance the Night,” sung by Dua Lipa in the Barbie movie recalls the Bee Gee’s “Night Fever” and “You Should Be Dancing” dance numbers from Saturday Night Fever in terms of music style as well as several elements of mise en scene. Dua Lipa’s song emulates the disco sound and beat, updated with strings taking the place of the Bee Gee’s brass, which make the same kind of sweeping fanfare that the trumpets do. As for setting, the Barbie Dreamhouse is transformed into a huge disco, with the same low-key lighting, glittering, flashing lights, and disco ball as in the Saturday Night Fever disco club, 2001 Odyssey. Spotlight patterns on the floor look similar to the 2001 Odyssey’s light-up dance floor, but in a more subtle way, and the color palette overall is a fresher blue and pink compared to the red and yellow of the 1977 film. The disco floor is female-dominated, where Barbies dance with high energy, and editing cuts showcase various Barbies strutting their stuff — including a Barbie in a wheelchair, Barbies of color, a pregnant Barbie, and Barbies of all body types. In the “Night Fever” disco it’s all thin, able-bodied white men and women, dancing the Electric Slide in neat lines, with men front and center. Race and gender relations is a major theme in Saturday Night Fever (Friedman et al. 239), so the deliberate showcasing of people of color, disability, and empowered, individual women of all sizes in the Barbie disco is a deliberate update as well as a celebration of how far we’ve come, in Barbie Land, anyway. A major premise of the film is that the Barbies think that they’ve solved all feminist issues, both in Barbie Land and in the Real World.

Not surprisingly, in this dance number Barbie kicks the costuming up a notch, with 70s-inspired, sparkly strapless jumpsuits and a variety of dresses with voluminous ruffles and sparkles. The Kens in this scene are all dressed in the same white jumpsuit. Looking at “Night Fever,” it’s the men who stand out with their light-colored shirts, in individualistic variations, while the women in dark dresses, similar to each other, are not so individuated. This is in line with the male-dominated society of Tony’s Brooklyn, where the men are active and hold the power and the women are there to serve men, domestically and sexually. The Barbies, in contrast and perhaps a touch of irony, wear their wildly individual styles, even though they are all “Barbie.”

The line dancing choreography in “Dance the Night” incorporates several dance moves from the Electric Slide of “Night Fever,” including the diagonal pointing, arm-revolving, and clapping at specific times with the music. After a while, the Barbies move on to dancing individually. In “You Should Be Dancing,” which comes later in Saturday Night Fever, Tony takes his solo and shows off his stylish, unique moves and his attitude. He does athletic, show-off moves and we see the joy on his face as he revels in being in his element and being admired. Robbie’s Barbie saying “this night is just perfect” as she’s dancing parallels what we understand him to be feeling. The dance club is where Tony can escape from the constraints placed on him by his family and society and where he can feel free (Heyer-Caput 37). Travolta’s athletic moves recall Gene Kelly’s shows of strength and masculinity in his choreography. Tony’s world of the Italian-American community in 1970s Brooklyn is steeped in machismo and homophobia, so he would want to demonstrate his heterosexual masculinity with an athletic, masculine style of dancing.

Saturday Night Fever was also about identity, and making a transition (the bridge metaphor) in geography, social class, gender roles and mindset (Heyer-Caput 34). Some of these transitions are also themes in Barbie: geographically between Barbie Land and the Real World, and changes in gender roles/relations and identities— Gosling’s Ken changes to become independent of Barbie, and Robbie’s Barbie transitions from a doll (an object) to a human. During the film the Barbie Land society changes from a matriarchy to a patriarchy, and back again. The disco number is the inciting incident in the plot of the film, where Robbie’s Barbie says, “do you guys ever think about dying?” This is the first evidence of Barbie’s connection, her metaphorical bridge, to the Real World, which the rest of the movie will explore. Filmmakers and audiences familiar with the well-known Saturday Night Fever recognize the parallel themes in the two films, thus reinforcing those messages as well as that Gerwig knows what she’s doing as a filmmaker, which is something she is compelled to do, as a woman in an extremely male-dominated industry: there is an “imperative placed on a women director to explain her place in cinematic history” (Gibson 388). Since Barbie is a commentary and criticism of patriarchal hegemony and the status of feminism, referencing movies that have had cultural impact in the past, most of which were made by male filmmakers, makes Barbie’s themes even more resonant and significant.

Intertextuality has always been an important part of filmmaking. Singin’ in the Rain was full of past movie references, and scholar Robert Stam noted that the film “revels in its own intertextuality at what Kelly himself called a ‘conglomeration of bits of movie lore,’ ” and, in its use of Freed’s old songs, becomes “an anthology of self-quotations” (qtd. in Chumo 40). An article about Singin’ in the Rain that said musicals, as a genre, are concerned with “a sense of individual anxiety, due to the potentially alienating difference and isolation that all self-expression seems to entail” (Telotte 37), reminded me of Tony’s struggle to embrace his identity as a dancer in Saturday Night Fever and break free of his family’s insisting he conform to their norms and values. Therefore, it’s fitting that both these musicals are referenced in Barbie, in which Ken deals with anxiety over his identity, and Barbie realizes she wants to be someone who, as she says, “make[s] meaning, not the thing that’s made.” Like many real-world women who push back against patriarchy, she doesn’t want to be an object anymore.

Works Cited
Barbie. Directed by Greta Gerwig, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2023.
Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Wiley-Blackwell, 2021.
Chumo, Peter N. “Dance, Flexibility, and the Renewal of Genre in ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’” Cinema Journal, vol. 36, no. 1, 1996, pp. 39–54. JSTOR, Accessed 11 Mar. 2024.

Clover, Carol J. “Dancin’ in the Rain.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 21, no. 4, 1995, pp. 722–47. JSTOR, Accessed 17 Mar. 2024.

Friedman, Lester D., et al. An Introduction to Film Genres. W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Gibson, Johanna. “Living in the pastiche: from Barbieland to Computer World, all the world’s a paste.” Queen Mary Journal of Intellectual Property, vol. 13, no. 4, 2024, pp. 379-391. Accessed 12 Mar. 2024

Heyer-Caput, Margherita. “Italian-American Urban Hyphens in Saturday Night Fever.” Italian Americana, vol. 29, no. 1, 2011, pp. 34–49. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Mar. 2024.

Singin’ in the Rain. Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, MGM, 1952.
Saturday Night Fever. Directed by John Badham, Paramount Pictures, 1977.
Telotte, J. P. “Ideology and the Kelly-Donen Musicals.” Film Criticism, vol. 8, no. 3, 1984, pp. 36–46. JSTOR, Accessed 11 Mar. 2024.

Vicino, Mia Lee. “The Official Barbie Watchlist: Greta Gerwig on the classic film influences behind her fantasy-comedy-kind-of-musical.” Letterboxd. 13 Jul, 2023. Accessed 12 Mar. 2024.

About this entry