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We’re Ignoring the Real Reason Barbie Might Dominate the Box Office

11 minute read

Barbenheimer is nearly upon us. On July 21, two highly anticipated movies will be released on the very same day: Barbie, Greta Gerwig’s movie about the world’s most iconic doll (which we previewed on the cover of this magazine) will face off against Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s epic about the creation of the atom bomb.

Unless your access to the internet has been totally cut off, you’re probably aware that this is happening. Maybe you’ve seen the Barbenheimer memes, often juxtaposing an explosion of Barbie pink next to, well, a real explosion. Or you’ve already bought a T-shirt featuring Margot Robbie’s Barbie tipping her cowboy hat to Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer. A lively debate has ensued on Twitter as to how to best order a double feature: Is Barbie better as a palate cleanser after a World War II film? Or does Barbie feel more like a daytime romp and Oppenheimer suited for a nighttime watch?

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All the chatter could be a sign of life for Hollywood as the usual subjects that buoy the box office—superheroes (The Flash), fast cars (Fast X), and animation (Elemental)—have fallen short of their projected profits. For months prognosticators have struggled to figure out how much Barbie might earn. There aren’t too many movies like it: Its protagonist has major name recognition but isn’t part of an existing franchise; the movie is a big-budget spectacle from a director who has, until recently, delivered smaller, thoughtful films about women’s inner lives; big-budget movies with a primarily female cast don’t come around that often. But now initial estimates of a $45 million opening weekend have nearly doubled. Meanwhile, Oppenheimer is still tracking in the $40 million range—a robust total for an adult drama in 2023. Nolan has an excellent record at the box office, but given this particular film’s three-hour runtime and R-rating, the idea that Barbie will come out on top has firmly taken hold.

It’s safe to attribute some of Barbie’s anticipated success to an onslaught of marketing from Mattel and Warner Bros. You cannot cross a street in New York, London, or Sydney without spotting a bus or billboard with Robbie’s face. Mattel has partnered with brands ranging from Bloomingdale’s to Ruggable to Pinkberry to roll out Barbiecore clothing, home decor, and even frozen yogurt. But the real secret to Barbie’s potential box office success has less to do with pink products than its subject and intended audience: Very few movies manage to cater to women without condescending to them.

In today’s fractured moviegoing landscape, that remains a rare feat. Even as representation of all types in Hollywood is improving, the kinds of movies in which women star aren’t stereotypically girly—for better or worse. Only 33% of the top 100 grossing films in 2022 featured female protagonists to begin with, and many of those movies slotted into the sorts of genres that typically cater to men: The Woman King is a historical action epic that happens to star women; Everything Everywhere All at Once is a multiversal movie stuffed with fight scenes that happens to center a mother and daughter; Scream 6 is a sequel to a classic horror flick. The intent with those movies is to reach as broad an audience as possible. They’re all solid to excellent movies. They are also, frankly, devoid of the color pink.

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Barbie is unapologetically leaning into a feminine aesthetic. Much of the fun in the film comes from Barbie literally playing dress-up. Gerwig’s team used so much pink paint on the set that they caused a worldwide shortage. And yet even for Barbie skeptics, the approach feels fun, and it’s served up with a wink, like something adults will enjoy as much as little kids. In TIME’s cover story on Barbie, I compared the film to two essential films in the female film canon: Legally Blonde and Clueless. The movie’s basic premise follows a similar trajectory to those cult classics. An underestimated blonde obsessed with clothes ventures into the world and learns something a bit deeper about herself. But it’s also been quite some time since we’ve gotten a big studio movie eager on to take on that type of story. For a generation of nostalgic millennial women who watched those films at sleepovers, Barbie has an inherent appeal.

The people behind some of this summer’s most anticipated movies have decided to embrace the competition. On June 28, Tom Cruise—the star of Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One, which comes out the week before Barbenheimer—gamely posed with movie tickets to Oppenheimer and Barbie, prompting both Gerwig and Robbie to do the same. (Your turn, Murphy and Nolan.)

But Barbie producers are also eager to point out the differences among the movies. During a recent interview for a TIME cover story, David Heyman, a producer on Barbie who has also worked on Harry Potter, Paddington, and Marriage Story, told me that he’s also excited to see Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One and Oppenheimer. “We’re a little bit different than that,” he says. “Those films feature men. Ours will appeal to men, too, but is sort of more youthful in its spirit. I believe our film is distinct and stands out and hopefully will forge its own place.” And perhaps, if Barbie succeeds, we can expect fewer rote superhero films and more movies that are marketed, specifically, to women.

Photograph by Carlota Guerrero for TIME

Where did the movies for women go?

Most big-budget movies these days cater to teenage boys: From superhero films to Transformers to Tom Cruise’s stunt-filled action flicks, they’re movies mostly made by men, populated with men, and sold to men. Peruse the top 50 movies at the domestic box office for the last 10 years and you will find one, maybe two, movies made by and for women, starring women, among their numbers.

This isn’t to say that women don’t line up for these films, too. As someone who has made a career of writing about various superhero and action flicks and has never owned a Barbie, I’m happy to admit I rang in 2023 by forcing my party guests to watch the behind-the-scenes video Cruise dring a motorcycle off a cliff for the upcoming Mission: Impossible movie. But the sheer lack of variety of onscreen offerings—everything seems to end in CGI-heavy battle scenes—may explain why we’re in the midst of a superhero slump at the box office.

Read More: Why It Took 64 Years to Make a Barbie Movie

Where are the alternatives? The death of the big-screen rom-com hastened the death of movies marketed to women. Like all mid-budget films, they fell out of favor with studios eager to earn big bucks on comic book adaptations or awards gold with cheaper ventures. But female-centric films that had more on their minds than romance have largely vanished too. What is the 2020s equivalent of Mean Girls, a movie more concerned with the complexities of female friendships than who got the guy? Or The Devil Wears Prada, a movie about work-life balance struggle that seriously considers consumerism even as it celebrates it? It’s no coincidence these classics feature some of our greatest modern movie stars: Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, among them.

These movies didn’t make a billion dollars at the box office. But they did make money. Devil Wears Prada made over $325 million on a $41 million budget. The closest equivalent to these movies in theaters this year may be Joy Ride, though the raunchy comedy has an R-rating, boxing out the tweens and teens that buoyed Mean Girls to icon status: Joy Ride is currently tracking to make about a third of what Mean Girls did opening weekend.

Movies that unabashedly appeal to women can do well at the box office

History shows us that the few times studios do “take a risk” on a movie marketed primarily to women, the bet can pay off handsomely. The two Mamma Mia! movies have made over $1 billion collectively by virtue of being fun musical diversions. Crazy Rich Asians dominated the box office, becoming the highest grossing romantic comedy of the 2010s, by refusing to apologize for the fact that it was a movie about love, fashion, and travel, all while overdelivering on the abundance of its title. Where romantic comedies have failed since is often in their restraint. A movie like Ticket to Paradise reads and looks like it was filmed with limiting the budget top of mind, even with high-caliber movie stars like Julia Roberts and George Clooney; and excellent rom-coms like Set It Up that are explicitly made for streaming feel like they’re missing that big-screen sheen.

In a slightly different way, Channing Tatum has cornered a part of this market. The Magic Mike trilogy and The Lost City do more than just put forward Tatum as eye candy for the audience. Tatum knowingly revels in the female gaze. These movies also put female movie stars like Sandra Bullock and Salma Hayek front and center. Gosling occupies a not dissimilar role in Barbie—he’s fulfilling the role of the Internet Boyfriend by playing second banana to Barbie. (He’s just Ken). He’s been occupying that corner at least since Crazy Stupid Love and La La Land.

Read More: How Greta Gerwig Is Leading By Example

Greta Gerwig has never made a movie quite at this scale before: Lady Bird cost $10 million, and Little Women $40 million to make, compared to Barbie’s reported $100 million. But she has a proven track record: Those movies made $79 million and $206 million respectively. And according to a recent article in The New Yorker, she has ambitions to become a blockbuster film director with two Narnia adaptations as her next project. But her films have all explored the interiority of women in an intellectual and soul-fulfilling way that she’s now looking to translate to a larger audience on a larger scale.

Barbie could change how studios think about female audiences

Barbie is a lot of things. It’s a comedy, a musical, and an action movie with the occasional chase scene thrown in. It even includes a dramatic sequence in which a bunch of Kens invade a plastic beach like it’s Normandy. It is not a romance. And yet it is definitively for women.

Which isn’t to say it isn’t also for men. The folks at Warner Bros. and Mattel would certainly insist that Barbie is a four-quadrant film. “It’s a movie for everyone,” says Tom Ackerley, another producer on the film who runs the production company LuckyChap with his wife, Margot Robbie. He specifically thinks both boys and men will “relate to Ken’s journey.”

And yet everything associated with the film—the colors, the fashion, the marketing collaboration with makeup brand—lead to a simple fact: many, many women have played with Barbie, according to Mattel, and if they haven’t they probably have an opinion about the doll. Gerwig told me in an interview for the cover story that part of the inspiration from the movie was born from the story of the doll’s creator Ruth Handler and her daughter, Barbara, for whom the doll is named: “A Barbie movie is only ever going to be a mother-daughter movie on so many levels because it was Ruth Handler and Barbara—that was the relationship.”

Read More: How Greta Gerwig Got Barbie—From the Clothes to the Dream House—Just Right

What separates a good movie for women from a bad one is seriousness of intent. The Devil Wears Prada could have been a materialistic slog, but performances from Anne Hathaway and (especially) Meryl Streep elevate the film. Gerwig found a similarly formidable cast for Barbie: The film is jam-packed with talented stars including Issa Rae, Kate McKinnon, and Will Ferrell. But it’s also stuffed with ideas. Look out for the many allusions to the story of Adam and Eve, references to the classic musicals of Hollywood’s golden era, and critiques of capitalism.

Whatever the studio machinations behind the scenes, one fact tends to hold true: Good movies tend to do better at the box office than bad ones. Give lauded filmmakers a chance to color even a little outside the lines—make, say, a movie based on IP but not limited by superhero constraints—and you may just be rewarded by audiences desperate for something different.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com